As a communications officer in the Marines, Maj. Kevin M. Shea frequently e-mailed his family with photos from Iraq showing the big, burly military man next to smiling local children.
"He was hoping [the military] could do a lot of good, rebuild the schools," said his mother, Eileen Shea of Northwest Washington.
But the decorated Marine instead found himself involved in frequent skirmishes with Iraqi insurgents. On Tuesday, he was killed by hostile fire, the third member of the armed forces from the District to die in Iraq and at least the 41st soldier from the District, Virginia or Maryland killed in the conflict.
On Sunday, Marine First Lt. Alexander E. Wetherbee, 27, of Fairfax died from injuries received in combat in Anbar province.
Shea "couldn't have been a more wonderful person," said Kara Anna, who was a neighbor of Shea's in recent years when he lived in the Anne Arundel County town of Arnold.
That was an opinion echoed by friends, relatives and colleagues yesterday. They described Shea, 38, as a caring, generous man who left a deep imprint on people during a military career that began at the Air Force Academy and continued through a teaching stint at the Naval Academy and two conflicts in the Middle East.
The Defense Department released a brief statement yesterday reporting the death of Shea, a communication information systems officer assigned to the 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. It provided no details about the circumstances, other than to say that he was killed by enemy fire in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, where part of the Sunni-dominated population has resisted the U.S. military presence.
Shea was born to D.C. natives but grew up elsewhere as his father's civil-service jobs took the family to Dallas and Seattle. After finishing high school in Seattle, Shea set his sights on the Air Force Academy -- but didn't get in.
Instead, he spent a year at the academy's preparatory school, boosting his grades, and eventually was accepted. The move was indicative of his tenacious personality, said his brother Tom of Germantown.
"He always excelled, but he excelled because he worked hard," he said. Kevin Shea went on to earn a master's degree in engineering.
While at the Air Force Academy, Shea discovered that his eyesight wasn't good enough for him to qualify as a jet pilot, so he cross-commissioned in the Marines, his brother said. Thus began a peripatetic military life that took him to Saudi Arabia for the Persian Gulf War, then on assignments in Florida and in California, where he met his wife, Ami. The couple, whose home is near Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California, have a 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son.
Shea was sent to Iraq in February. He set out hoping that the U.S. military could help the population, and that he could help young Marines.
"His goal was to bring them all back safe and sound," his mother said.
In one e-mail, Shea acknowledged that he didn't agree with some of the political decisions being made in Iraq. But, he told his parents in the message, "orders are orders."
"His attitude was, 'I go where I'm directed,' " said his father, William.
In recent months, the Marine faced blistering hot temperatures and constant peril from hostile fire. But his e-mails were filled with concern for his family. In one, he tells his parents that a brief satellite-phone conversation with his son, Michael, "made my day."
Shea was an avid athlete who enjoyed running, sailing and especially rugby. He coached the rugby team during a three-year stint at the Naval Academy, where he taught electrical engineering. Shea was so popular among students that he was voted an honorary member of the Class of 2003.
Mike Flanagan coached with Shea. He said that when he broke the news of Shea's death to the rugby players Wednesday night, the athletes dissolved in tears.
"His influence was tremendous," Flanagan said.
Shea was always available to help players, on and off the field, Flanagan said. With struggling students, "he would sit after practice for an hour, an hour and a half, to make sure they had the concepts down cold," he said.
Shea was a dedicated Marine and hardworking teacher but also a man with a great sense of fun, Flanagan said. He recalled how an officer came to one rugby game with bright-colored native skirts he had picked up on an assignment in the South Pacific. The officer and Shea took to the field wearing the skirts and flip-flops, sending everyone into gales of laughter.
"For all his achievements, he was just a regular guy," Flanagan said. "And a damn fine Marine."
A funeral has not been scheduled. Shea's relatives are inviting those who knew him to contribute anecdotes for a memorial book being assembled for his children.