When Crystal Faulstich's brother brought a friend home one day, she took one look at his blond hair, blue eyes, smile and -- "Uh," she said, as though she lost her breath for a moment. That was it.

She married Raymond J. Faulstich Jr. last August. And when she saw cars crowding the driveway in Leonardtown, Md., on Friday, she thought that maybe her family was surprising her, that he had come home from Iraq already.

But Faulstich an Army private first class, had been killed Thursday in Najaf, the Department of Defense announced yesterday, when his convoy was attacked by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. He was 24.

Three times in the past few days, families in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia received the heart-stopping news that loved ones serving in Iraq and Afghanistan had died. From the Eastern Shore to the Blue Ridge Mountains, family support groups dashed to comfort the grieving relatives of those killed on the battlefield.

On Saturday, two soldiers from a Winchester-based unit of the Virginia Army National Guard died in Afghanistan after their vehicle struck a roadside bomb on a dirt road in the countryside.

Staff Sgt. Craig W. Cherry, 39, of Winchester and Sgt. Bobby E. Beasley, 36, of Inwood, W.Va., were killed in the explosion while on patrol in support of voter registration for upcoming elections.

Their unit -- the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 29th Infantry Division -- had arrived in Afghanistan less than a month ago. They were its first casualties.

In Winchester, where Cherry lived with his wife, Donna, and three children, black crepe hung over doorways of the National Guard Armory, and two funeral wreaths stood outside the main entrance.

"Anytime we lose a soldier, it's a serious situation," said Marvin Marsee, a Vietnam veteran and commander of Winchester's American Legion Post 21, one of the largest in the state. "It's one more to mourn on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. And we're going to lose a lot more."

"I never thought this would happen," Cherry's father, Roy Cherry of Windham, Maine, told the Associated Press. "And it hurts. It hurts bad."

Cherry's family in Winchester preferred not to speak to a reporter, according to an official with a military family assistance group.

Fifteen miles north in Inwood, Juanita Beasley, 32, sat in her living room with her mother and several wives of other guardsmen, sharing memories of her husband.

He was an avid outdoorsman, she said. He loved to hike, fly fish, camp. He was an amateur photographer known to leap from his easy chair to photograph any wildlife that wandered through their yard.

As for his Afghanistan tour, "He kept telling me he wanted to be there," his wife said, "and to be proud of him. Like everyone else, no man wants to leave his family, but you do it. I'll never find anybody who loved me like he did."

Faulstich grew up in Leonardtown, in Southern Maryland, moved with his family to Arizona for a few years, then came back to Leonardtown. His family described a charmer, a boy who would make everyone smile and never thought too far into the future.

"He never really worried about things," said his mother, Linda Faulstich. "He had a beautiful smile. He just seemed to be happy all the time."

He was such a good-looking young man, his mother said, that one time she came around a corner and found two carloads of girls, each trying to pick him up.

Faulstich always lighted up a room, his father, Raymond Faulstich Sr., said. "The kid was always smiling. He just always seemed happy, carefree."

But his teenage years hadn't gone smoothly, his father said. He'd experimented with drugs and dropped out of high school at the end of his senior year. But then he'd gone on to earn his high school equivalency degree, his father said, getting all A's and B's.

And he joined the Army, planning to earn money for college.

"It was a remarkable turnaround that he did," his father said.

His mother credits Crystal with his transformation.

"He wanted her so bad," his mother said. "Her parents said he would have to straighten up if he wanted to date her, and he did. He told her mother, 'You're going to be proud of me.' "

Crystal Faulstich knew he'd straighten out. "I was there through it all. It was hard. But I was never worried. I always had faith."

They married last Aug. 29, at the courthouse in St. Mary's County, keeping it secret from their families until afterward.

In March, he was sent to Iraq with the 89th Transportation Company, 6th Transportation Battalion, 7th Transportation Group.

"We were going to have a real big wedding when he got back," Crystal Faulstich said.

The Winchester soldiers, members of the anti-armor section of the unit's Headquarters Company, had arrived in Afghanistan to replace a Marine regiment. Their mission over the next year is to provide security that would set the stage for elections and reconstruction.

Few details were available about the Saturday attack in the remote mountainous southeastern province of Ghazni. An Afghan interpreter also was killed in the attack. Another soldier was wounded but was treated and returned to duty.

Yesterday morning, National Guardsmen held a memorial service in Afghanistan, with an invocation before a plywood altar and the American, Afghan and Virginia flags flying at half-staff.

Staff writers Carol Morello and Susan Kinzie contributed to this report.