About five years ago, Mike Ottolini quit the California National Guard. After more than 20 years as a weekend warrior, the Sebastopol hay truck driver said he was ready to hang up his uniform.
But within a year, Ottolini had rejoined Petaluma-based A Company of the 579th Engineer Battalion.
"He missed it so much he just had to go back in," Sharon Ottolini, his wife of 28 years, said Friday at the National Guard Armory in Santa Rosa.
Sgt. 1st Class Michael C. Ottolini, 45, was the California National Guard's ninth Iraq fatality and the 579th Battalion's third loss of the war, in the midst of a bloody week in which 36 American troops died. He was killed by a roadside bomb Wednesday in Iraq.
"He died doing what he believed in," said Sharon Ottolini, manager of a Salvation Army office in Rohnert Park.
Ottolini was in a Humvee departing A Company's base at Camp Anaconda, 50 miles north of Baghdad, on a patrol early Wednesday when a "strategically placed" bomb went off, National Guard officials said.
Another A Company soldier from Sonoma County, also in the Humvee, was severely injured and had a foot amputated, said Capt. Zac Delwiche, operations officer of the 579th Battalion in Santa Rosa.
The Army does not identify wounded soldiers, said Lt. Jonathan Shiroma, a California National Guard spokesman.
Ottolini's body was at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Friday, but it was not known when it would be brought to Sonoma County, Delwiche said.
Family members said a funeral and reception would be open to the public on a date yet to be determined.
Dry-eyed and soft-spoken, six members of Ottolini's family met reporters at the armory.
"I know Mike," Sharon Ottolini, 46, said. "He would not want us to break down. He would want us to go on. That has given us strength."
She and her husband met while attending El Molino High School in Forestville. The teenage couple married in August 1976. Four months later, Ottolini joined the National Guard to begin decades of service.
"He'd be mad at us for missing work today," quipped Darrell Ottolini, the soldier's son.
The family still hasn't had time to mourn, he said. "It's like he's still over there," Darrell said. "Like it didn't happen."
Stephanie Coleman of Santa Rosa said her father was a "loving man" with a quick laugh and a large heart. "He would give you the shirt off his back," she said.
At battalion Christmas parties, Ottolini would play Santa Claus and hand out presents to small children. He was eager to have grandchildren.
"He hounded us to have kids," Darrell said.
Joe Ottolini of Windsor, one of eight siblings, said his brother Mike was "the most level-headed person in the family. We all looked up to him."
About 1959 Mike Ottolini's parents moved their family from Santa Rosa to Guerneville. Mike Ottolini worked in a garage there as a teenager, then began a career driving hay trucks.
Sharon was dancing with her date at an El Molino dance when a blue-eyed, sandy-haired kid tapped on her shoulder and cut in. "There was just something about him," she said. "He was a comedian even back then."
Sharon said she knew the risks when her husband volunteered for the 579th Battalion's first wartime deployment, leaving in March with about 90 soldiers from A Company.