Army Capt. Michael Tarlavsky was 5-foot-7 and all muscle, a gentle, driven, bulldog of a man. He wanted to become an Eagle Scout before he was 18, and he did. He wanted to be a star swimmer in high school, and he was. By the time he was 30, he had mastered rappelling, scuba diving and triathlons -- and become a husband, father and a member of the elite Special Forces.
He was, a longtime friend said, "like Superman."
Friends and family said that record of triumph made Tarlavsky's death in Iraq on Aug. 12 especially shocking. Tarlavsky, of Passaic, N.J., was killed when his unit came under small-arms fire and grenade attack in Najaf. He was 30.
"He's always been a survivor; he'd always succeed," said childhood friend Lenny Santiago, 28, of Daytona Beach, Fla. "I would never expect this to happen to him."
Yesterday, family and friends gathered in the still, thick heat at Arlington National Cemetery as the career soldier was laid to rest. Among them were Tarlavsky's wife of two years, Tricia, and their golden-haired son, Joseph Michael, 11 months old.
Tarlavsky would have no regrets, said his sister, Elina Tarlavsky, 29. Though he was born in Latvia, he embraced the United States when the family immigrated here in 1974 and he had long wanted to be a soldier, she said. During the Persian Gulf War, she said, Tarlavsky was unhappy that he was too young to enlist.
"He always said he couldn't be president because he wasn't born here, but he could be a five-star general," she said.
An adrenaline junkie and avid outdoorsman, Tarlavsky loved the military for its adventure and challenge, said Matt Pellettere, 31, of Paterson, N.J., who met Tarlavsky and Santiago in the Boy Scouts.
"Michael was always gung-ho," he said.
Tarlavsky attended Rutgers University on an ROTC scholarship and joined the National Guard to help pay for school, Elina Tarlavsky said. He graduated in 1996 with a degree in exercise science. Since receiving his commission, he had completed tours in Korea, Hawaii, Afghanistan and Iraq. Tarlavsky, a member of the 1st Battalion of the 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Campbell, Ky., was deployed to Iraq for a second time in July, she said.
Tarlavsky had received several medals, including the Bronze Star. He was awarded a Purple Heart posthumously.
He met his future wife in February 2001 while visiting Hawaii, where she was serving in the Army. Though separated by oceans and continents, the two courted while Tarlavsky completed training in North Carolina and a tour in Afghanistan. A year after they met, Tarlavsky called friends and family from Hawaii to invite them to a beach wedding -- four days later.
Tarlavsky was elated when Joseph Michael was born in late 2003, and he could not wait to scale mountains with his son, friends and family said. When he was deployed last month, Elina Tarlavsky said, he was eager, as usual, to fulfill his mission. But "this time was different . . . because Joey was here," she said.
The night before he was killed, Tarlavsky and his sister instant-messaged each other. He told her that he was "as safe as could be expected."
Yesterday, Tricia Tarlavsky sat under a cloudless sky with Tarlavsky's parents, Yury and Rimma Tarlavsky, as Rabbi Stanley Skolnik of Beth Shalom Reform Temple in Clifton, N.J., exhorted the soldier to "go your way, and may God be with you."
Tricia Tarlavsky wiped away tears as the forlorn melody of taps echoed across the cemetery. Later, when she was presented with the folded U.S. flag, she clutched it close and caressed it softly.