MADRAS, Ore. – Pfc. Thomas Tucker thrived on adrenaline, whether he was working construction in Oregon or manning checkpoints in Iraq. His fellow soldier, Pfc. Kristian Menchaca was a quiet Texan, proud to serve in the military, who wanted to work for the U.S. Border Patrol.
As word slowly spread Tuesday that their bodies had been found in Iraq, both tortured in what an Iraqi official called a "barbaric way," their families were swept through a mix of grief, outrage, and for some, a measure of acceptance.
"Our son, as far as we're concerned, he has died for the freedom of everybody in the United States," Tucker's father, Wes Tucker, said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show Wednesday.
He talked with pride about his son's enthusiasm and devotion to his work, but while he was grieving, he said he also understood that his son was a soldier in a war.
"Our son was there doing a job. The people over there that did this, they are sons and they're doing their job," he said. "I'm not trying to be cold, I love my son dearly, but they're doing their job."
Menchaca's uncle Ken MacKenzie reacted with anger as he learned of the deaths, saying the military should have done more to keep the men safe and get them back alive. Another uncle, Mario Vasquez, was upset that the family had to learn so many gruesome details of his nephew's death through the media.
At a home in Brownsville, Texas, Menchaca's close-knit Mexican-American family gathered around his mother and remembered the 23-year-old soldier as a sweet, quiet young man.
"He talked about how happy he was that he was serving his country," said Sylvia Grice, 37, Menchaca's cousin.
"Everyone he met liked him. He had that kind of personality," Grice said. "He liked to help people. He was just the kind of person you enjoyed being with."
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said the remains believed to be those of Menchaca, 23, of Houston, and Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore., were spotted late Monday and recovered Tuesday not far from where the men disappeared Friday. He said the recovery was delicate because the area had been rigged with hidden explosives.
The bodies will be flown from Kuwait to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for positive identification through autopsies and DNA testing.
Both Army privates and Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., who died in the attack, were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky.
In Oregon, at the gas station where Tucker worked as a teenager, car wash manager Ed Bockoven tied red-white-and-blue balloons to the store's sign to remember the soldiers.
"He has a lot of friends in town," Bockoven said.
In one of his last phone calls home, Tucker's mother, Meg Tucker, said, she told him to get enough sleep because she worried about him. "He said, 'Mom, I've only been here for five months. These men have been here for a year.' He said, 'I don't mind. I don't mind. I will do my share."'
Tucker graduated from high school in 1999 and worked a variety of construction jobs before he decided to join the Army last summer. His friends said he liked to angle for catfish in the Prineville Reservoir and hunt deer in the Ochoco Mountains.
He enjoyed the adrenaline rush, his father said.
"It didn't matter if it was the triangle of death, or whatever they call it. If that's where the action was, Tom wanted to be where the action was," his father said. "I'm sure that he might have been a little scared, but he took it on as a job, a job that needed to be done."
Menchaca, who was married, joined the military last year and deployed to Iraq within months. He was attending a work-force training center when the Army recruited him, his brother Julio Vasquez said.
"He wanted to go infantry," Vasquez said. "We were telling him the dangers that infantrymen had, but that's what he wanted to do."