Don May was 17 when he got his first glimpse of the cost of war. Fourteen years before his death last week in Iraq, May stood at Arlington National Cemetery and watched the changing of the guard with his fellow members of the Law Enforcement Explorers.
And he wept.
"I remember that distinctly. He was so caught up in the patriotism of it all," said Chesterfield Police Sgt. Kevin Smith, the adviser for the Law Enforcement Explorers, a youth organization. "You don't see that in younger folks. That's what the older folks do at the changing of the guard."
Donald C. May Jr. dreamed of being a Marine, like his mother and father. A year after the visit to Arlington, he joined the Corps and headed off to the first Persian Gulf War. On Tuesday, the tank he commanded drove off a bridge over the Euphrates River. He was listed as missing until the Marine Corps confirmed his death early today.
The Department of Defense also announced the death of another Marine from Virginia.
Sgt. Michael V. Lalush, 23, of Troutville was killed Sunday in the crash of a UH-1N Huey helicopter in southern Iraq, according to a statement issued by the Pentagon. Lalush was assigned to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169, Marine Aircraft Group 39, and was based at the Marine Corps Air Station in Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Military officials said the helicopter crashed at a forward supply and refueling point, killing three Marines and injuring one. The cause of the 8:30 p.m. crash was unclear, although a U.S. Central Command spokeswoman, Capt. Dani Burrows, said enemy fire was not involved, the Associated Press said.
Lalush's parents, who live in Troutville, near Roanoke, said tonight that they did not want to talk.
Before Sunday's crash, 19 coalition service members had been killed in helicopter accidents. A Sea Knight crashed in Kuwait on March 21, killing eight British marines and four U.S. Marines, and a day later, two British Royal Navy helicopters collided over the Persian Gulf, killing all seven on board, including a U.S. Navy officer. Two Americans whose helicopter went down in central Iraq on March 24 were captured and shown on Iraqi television
South of Richmond today, members of May's family gathered at his mother's small townhouse and remembered a boy who seemed almost to have been born to serve in the military.
"He had that military look, even when he was 16 or 17 years old," said Smith, a longtime family friend. "When you put teenagers in uniforms, some of them look sloppy. He looked like he was poured into his uniform. He was born to wear one."
His mother, Brenda R. May, who now works at a trucking company, said her only son grew up addicted to action movies, both the graphic portrayals such as "Platoon" and the romanticized John Wayne films. His favorite, she said, was "Full Metal Jacket," a hard-edged Stanley Kubrick film about Marines in the Vietnam War.
"He loved action movies," she recalled. "It was no problem taking him to the movies because we loved the same ones."
May joined the Marines as soon as he graduated from high school. His mother recalls how proud he was when he got his first "high and tight" haircut, the short-sided, flattop cut of the U.S. Marines.
May spent four years in the military police and then two years in the reserves. He wanted to be a police officer, his mother said, but was rejected by the Virginia State Police and the Chesterfield Police Department because he did not have a college degree. That was fine with his mother, she said, because she thought being a cop would be too dangerous.
May reenlisted and eventually became a tank commander. His father, who had received two Purple Hearts as a tank commander in Vietnam, was killed in 1991 in a boating accident while fishing in Washington state.
May bounced around for several years, going from North Carolina, where he met his wife, Deborah, to California. He left in January for the Middle East. It was then that his mother last talked to him on the phone.
As Brenda May recalled, "He said, 'Mom, this is what I've trained for all my life. This is what I'm meant to do. I'm ready.' "
He talked a bit later with his wife, May said, telling her that he had decided not to reenlist, that he wanted to be home more with his two children, Mariah, almost 7, and Jack, almost 2. Deborah is pregnant with their third child, a son, to be named William.
May said her daughter-in-law was treated twice in the last few days for premature labor. The baby is due in mid-May.
Brenda May's last communication with her son arrived a week ago, a letter dated March 3.
"He was all right," his mother said. "But he said not to look for his face on TV. He said they don't film . . . them on the front line."
Don May's body will be sent to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware within a week, she said. The family plans a memorial service in Richmond. The Marine Corps has said it will fly his wife and children to the East Coast, May said.
May has lost her son to the war in Iraq. But the former Marine -- whose license plate reads USMCVET -- said she still supports the war in Iraq.
"For a brief while, knowing my son was possibly dead, my thoughts were, 'What the hell are we doing over there?' " she said.
"But when you calm down and you realize what we are doing over there, I still agree with the president that we need to be over there freeing people."