SACRAMENTO -- The religion on his dog tags reads "JEDI."
Michael Crutchfield doesn't say hello. He blinks and nods instead. He's good at his job, setting up computers for his battery, but most soldiers at Fort Bragg don't really know him.
When Mike does get to talking, it's about evolution, time travel, religion and how dolphins have a more complex language than humans.
"If God came down today, how would you know it was him?" he writes on his MySpace blog.
It's Feb. 18, 2006, and in two months, Mike is leaving Fort Bragg in North Carolina. These are his last days in the United States, his last days before Iraq -- where he will become his own enemy.
Unlike most who use pre-deployment leaves to see family, Mike's not going home to Stockton. He's decided he's going to Los Angeles to see a girl he's met only twice.
Mai Vang gives him hope -- something rare for him.
He blogs: "Once again I'm going away, I don't know why it is bugging me today.
" ... 30 more days and I take out a pen, mark another X on the calendar again.
"The day I leave, I won't be sad.
"No one will be there, not even my dad.
"Grandma, grandpa, uncle and aunt, the past brings memories that linger and haunt.
"I wish there was something more than this.
"And I wish I could feel it. My chest hurts when I think about it."
Mike's in Balad, Iraq, where he notes it's 115 in the shade and 125 in the sun. When the wind blows, it feels like a heater turned on high.
He has been promoted to specialist and is doing the job of two people, setting up computers, assigning e-mail accounts and getting the communications equipment running.
People call him "Crutch." He likes the nickname, and the thought that he's propping others up. As he says over and over: All he wants to do is help people. The people of Iraq. His family. Other soldiers.
The rockets and mortars that attack the base are as regular as chow time and the mail that's almost never addressed to Mike.
"Mail is something to look forward to. Normally. I don't get anything, but there was one time I did and it felt soooo good," he writes on his blog.
"Every day people come in and ask the supply sergeant if mail has come for them and almost every time the answer is, 'No.' ... Me, I was just happy because I got my credit card in the mail today. Now only if there was something that I wanted to buy.
"Nope, not really."
Mike works and plays pool, pingpong and Texas Hold 'em. He plays chess with support staff from all over the world.
"Even though we don't always understand each other, we still have fun," he blogs.
He isn't quite sure where his home is anymore. He is one in a growing number of soldiers who join a volunteer military during wartime because of limited choices, hoping to escape hard histories.
But for now, he has purpose -- he is certain there will be some grand outcome for his work in Iraq.
"It's nice to feel like we're doing something for the better here. I'm sure the world will not know until many years from now on the Discovery Channel," he blogs. "And I will be there when they show what was done and I can say, 'That was me and our guys.' "
It's still hot in Iraq. Mike's days revolve around the chess tournaments he helps organize and the flops in Texas Hold 'em.
One of the enemies here on base is monotony. Boredom.
Mike tries calling the two numbers he has for his family but they're disconnected. Where is his mom sleeping these days? Is she in rehab again or finally clean, something she's struggled to be ever since that accident left her swallowing painkiller after painkiller? Is his brother in jail again, stealing cars for a place to sleep?
He doesn't know whom to call, who might know. He sends his mom an e-mail through one of his friends. Still, nothing.
Mail continues to come to Balad, but it's never addressed to him. He and Vang, the girl he likes, are no longer talking.
Mike makes at least two appointments at the Combat Stress Control clinic to speak to a therapist.
He blogs on Sept. 2 about mortars hitting the base:
"BOOM BOOM BOOM, around us they fell, like asteroids from the sky or some kind of spell.
"Shrapnel went everywhere hitting our walls, but the men in green stood firmly and no one falls.
"Back to our feet as we're at it again, another day in the sand without end."
Mike tries to keep busy, but he can't turn his thoughts off -- there's too much time to think in Iraq.
Now he is questioning everything: why he joined the Army, the four years he has left, the purpose of his life.
"Why am I here? I don't know anymore," he blogs Sept. 20. "I thought I was here to help our country and to help my nephew but my nephew I haven't seen for some time now and (have) no way of contacting him.
"Did I just lie to myself on why to devote so much of my life to this idea of mine? I don't know. Yes, I don't really know much of anything anymore."
A cry from the desert
Mike still doesn't know how to reach his family -- and hasn't talked to them in almost a year.
He turns to Vang by e-mail, asking if they can be friends. He signs up for Soldiers' Angels, a group that sends letters to deployed soldiers.
It's nice to get so much mail, sometimes as many as 25 letters a week. Most are from older women thanking Mike for their freedom. Some talk about their own lives -- one woman is 35 and wonders why the men she picks always treat her badly, another is in her 60s and her military husband died about 20 years before.
"You don't have to worry about me thinking too much anymore," he writes Vang in an e-mail on Nov. 8.
"I know what I want.
And I have a WHOOOOOOLLLLLLLEEE bunch of support now," he says about Soldiers' Angels.
He e-mails her again a month later, on Dec. 18. Mike talks about how he's now in charge of the Sunday chess tournaments. And his leave dates are set. He gets a respite from Iraq Jan. 27.
"I can't wait! It's going to feel so good to breathe in fresh air and touch grass again," he writes.
But he can't sleep and stays up late thinking about his nephew Jason, who is turning
8 in two months. Jason is old enough now to remember what hurt feels like.
The next day, Dec. 19, Mike is late to work -- again. He says he overslept but is reprimanded and banned from playing poker. Then he's ordered to see a chaplain after he mumbles something about his nephew being hurt.
For three hours, Mike and the chaplain talk. Mike wants to gain custody of Jason when he leaves Iraq. He doesn't want his nephew growing up like he did -- popping in and out of school, worried whether he has a home.
Mike tells the chaplain he wants to go to college. He doesn't know what he'll study, but he wants to go. He tells the chaplain about the intricacies of Texas Hold 'em and of his anger at his platoon sergeant, who he is certain is singling him out to be disciplined.
The chaplain sees no signs of what is to come in just four days, no signs that Mike might kill himself.
A shot fired
It's Dec. 23 and Mike is late again. He was supposed to be at building 4120 at 0730 hours to dispatch a truck and work on two computers.
Instead, he oversleeps.
This time, the penalty will be severe -- he is going to be disciplined under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, his supervisor tells him.
Mike is emotionless. He does his tasks -- then goes to his office in the motor pool building.
There he sits at his desk and types an e-mail to his family.
There will be no leave next month; he will never see them again. Instead, he sends these words to friends; they will be hand-delivered to his mother at his memorial service in Tracy:
"Dear all, I am sorry to have to do this but this life is no longer worth living. If any of you can find the rest of my family for me and give them a message, it would be much appreciated. They should be somewhere in or near the city of French Camp, Calif."
Mike writes to his nephew, his mother, his sister and his brother. He loves them, he says.
He tells his nephew he wishes he were stronger. "I wanted to become stable and maybe one day take care of you in a place far from the drugs and abuse and all the wrong I had to experience. I guess I have failed you, but it turns out I can't do it alone."
He forgives his mother: "I know that things were rough for you. And I know you tried. I forgive you now."
He remembers when his sister sang a song at her eighth-grade graduation -- she did well in school then. "Opportunities are everywhere. Stop making excuses and start getting things done. You have a son with you and I really do not want him to have to go through all the same (stuff) we had to."
He tells his brother he's the last man in the family: "I'm tired of being the 'older' brother. If I'm not mistaken, you were born two years before me! That means you should be two years ahead of me. For obvious reasons, I won't be able to support anyone now."
He ends the e-mail with these words: "I'm done hurting. All my life I've been hurting, except when I was with Mai love. End this pain."
He hits the "send" button. He scribbles a note. He flips the safety on his military-issued pistol.
Mike's an excellent shot, not far from being classified an expert. He knows how to use his 9 mm Beretta, and with just one bullet he pierces the upper lobe of his left lung and the arch of his aorta.
There's no alcohol in his system. There are no drugs. The only thing left behind is a handwritten note Mike scrawled and left on his desk:
"Don't bring me back! P.S. Army suicide prevention is worthless with these (noncommissioned officers). You took away my last escape from this pain."
Mike lies in an oak casket, his green Army uniform pressed carefully, his white- gloved hands placed one over the other.
Everyone wants to know why Mike is dead. Scattered about the benches of Fry Memorial Chapel in Tracy, the 60 or so who have come to the service pass around boxes of tissue and whisper about suicide.
Mike's friends and relatives walk to the podium and, one by one, they wonder out loud about what happened, if they could have done more, kept in touch better, written letters, called.
One friend can't believe Mike will never again Rollerblade the streets of Stockton or win another game of chess. Another friend remembers how Mike would be the first one up in the morning, dragging everyone out of bed to play video games.
A Vietnam veteran named Fred, dressed in leather motorcycle gear, served in a different time and a different part of the world. He never met Mike, but he thinks he might understand his pain.
"You don't know what goes through a man's mind unless you've been there," he says during the service. "This man was a hero -- he gave all he could for his country, and that's all I have to say."
Mike's mother can't understand how her youngest child, with whom she believed she had a spiritual connection, is gone.
She knew there was something wrong the day he died, she could feel it. She went to a Manteca church that day to pick up a free turkey. While she was there, she asked the pastor to pray for world peace and for Mike.
But she didn't believe her healthy boy who went to Iraq would return a broken man in a casket.
"It was Michael's love of people, that's why he put himself in the places he went," his mom, Anna Alford, tells the funeral gathering.
"We all have limited choices, we all make mistakes. But his life was bright," she says. "We all live in glass houses and not one of us is perfect. But Michael decided to stand and he stood tall."
It's a gray winter day and the service lasts an hour. Three volleys are fired outside, just beyond the front door, and the smell of gunpowder wafts into the memorial chapel. Taps echo. A bagpiper sounds forlorn notes as flags are ceremoniously folded.
There's no slide show, no procession, no baby pictures.
Each row files to the casket. In ones and twos, sometimes threes and fours, those who knew Mike and those who didn't say their goodbyes.
Danielle Duarte, who took Mike in from the foster-care system, kisses two of her fingers and presses them against his lips. Someone drops a key chain inside the casket that says, "Boulevard of broken dreams."
His mother, her hair unbrushed and her cheeks tight from dried tears, leans in and whispers into her son's ear.
"See? I told you," she says. "Look at all the friends you have."