Deployed for six months at a time to Afghanistan as a flight engineer with the 33rd Rescue Squadron, Tech. Sgt. Mark A. Smith lived for the reunions afterward with his wife, Jessica, and two daughters at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.
They loved living overseas, absorbing the Japanese culture and food. The family took up scuba diving. His daughters learned enough Japanese to speak phrases in calls to family back in their hometown of Bakersfield.
Smith had last returned to Okinawa from deployment in March; he was scheduled to return for this third tour at the end of this month.
But on Aug. 5 the flight engineer's HH 60G Pave Hawk helicopter crashed while on a training mission in Okinawa. Smith, 30, died in the crash; the three other airmen aboard survived.
Now, the memorial services have begun. The first was Monday, at Kadena, home to the U.S. Air Force's largest combat wing -- the 18th Wing -- to which the 33rd RSQ is attached.
Smith's widow, along with her daughters, Victoria, 12, and Gabrielle, 6, were joined at the service by Smith's father, Joseph, a brother, Greg, and Jessica's aunt, Carolyn Aranda.
Smith's remains, however, were already back in the U.S., having arrived Friday at Travis Air Force Base in Solano County for a layover, before continuing to Dover AFB in Delaware. Two of Smith's brothers accompanied the flight east on Sunday.
He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, according to his uncle, Jesse Aranda, of Bakersfield, but no date has been set. A memorial service also will be held in Bakersfield, including a Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, but it's not known when.
Jessica Smith, 30, is the daughter of Aranda's younger sister. The family is so close that Jessica lived with the Arandas during high school, becoming a surrogate older sister for his daughters, Stephanie and Danielle.
While Aranda said his niece met her future husband after high school, when both worked at John's Incredible Pizza Co., Stephanie remembers it differently.
"I remember her and Mark in the backyard and I saw them kissing" when they were about 15 years old, she said. "I told the family. Jessica got mad at me about that."
Smith graduated in 2000 from Centennial High School; Jessica that same year from Bakersfield High School.
Smith joined the Air Force that same year, and the couple married soon after while in Iowa. They moved to Beale AFB in northern California where Smith worked ground support for several years on the base's B-1 bomber, before he had the chance to move to Moody AFB in Valdosta, Ga., and train with a helicopter rescue squadron.
"When he transferred to there, he told me that's really what he wanted to do," Aranda said. "He wanted to do rescue work. I gave him a hard time. I said, 'Why don't you apply here at Edwards Air Force Base?'"
"Tio Jesse," Smith replied. "They don't have the job for me there."
The Smiths moved to Okinawa in 2011.
Although quiet by nature, Smith was recognized by his commanding officer as being a leader in the aircraft. Lt. Col. Pedro Ortiz, 33rd RSQ commander, called Smith "wise beyond his young age of 30."
It was on one of his Afghanistan missions in 2012 that Smith was involved in a rescue that was captured in an iconic photo. While under fire from rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, Smith remained in the open hatch of the HH-60, operating the hoist that lowered two airmen to recover a wounded commando.
Smith received the Air Force Commendation Medal.
Aranda said his niece's future plans are unsure. "She's devastated," he said, and so are the Smiths' daughters. Gabrielle's sixth birthday came just four days after her daddy's death.