The last time Cesar Ayala saw his brother Alejandro was Aug. 14, when they played some pool and shared a late McDonald's lunch near the Camp Virginia military base in Kuwait.
They had only one day together because Cesar Ayala, 22, a sergeant in the Marine Corps, was on his way back home to Riverside after completing his second tour in Iraq.
Alejandro Ayala, 26, a staff sergeant in the Air Force, remained in Kuwait but had said that he planned to take 30 days of leave in April so he and his brother, their families and the rest of the Ayala clan could get together.
While Alejandro was stationed in Kuwait, his wife, Megan, and two children -- Alexandra, 4; and Matthew, 2 -- lived in Wyoming. The 30-day leave would be a chance to bring the children to California.
"My niece really wanted to see the princesses at Disneyland, and my nephew wanted to go to the San Diego Zoo," Cesar Ayala said. "My brother just wanted to spend time together as a family."
Family time was rare for Alejandro Ayala, who over the eight years since he enlisted in the Air Force had been stationed in North Carolina, Wyoming, England and Kurdistan before his tour in Kuwait.
His mother, Ilda, 49, said she had seen him only three times since he graduated from high school in 1999 and went away to boot camp.
But there would not be a fourth reunion. Alejandro Ayala was killed Nov. 18 in a vehicle accident in Kuwait. He was assigned to the 90th Logistics Readiness Squadron at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo.
His family was not informed of his death until a few days later, said his twin sister, Liset. "But that whole week, before I knew, my co-workers told me I wasn't myself," she said. "I was crying myself to sleep."
Liset Ayala said she always shared a "twin thing" with her brother. She remembers her arm feeling sore the day that he got his shots before his deployment to Kuwait.
She said it's hard accepting that she will never again feel the physical pangs that connected her to her twin.
"I still think he's going to call me for our birthday," she said. She will turn 27 on Feb. 22.
Alejandro always remembered birthdays, his family recalled, and tried to make his presence felt even when he was several time zones away.
His mother said she treasures the cards her son sent her on her birthday, Mother's Day and Christmas when he was out of state or overseas. "He never forgot a special day," she said. "He was so loving and kind."
The youngest in the family, Angelica, 19, prizes a stuffed bunny her brother mailed her on her 11th birthday. "He named it Mija," she said. The name was the one he used for her, a Spanish conflation of the words "my daughter."
"He loved her the most; he babied her," Cesar Ayala said, adding that his brother watched out for all of his siblings. "He's the one who talked me into ROTC. It straightened me out. I was trying to ditch school, get by by doing the bare minimum."
Alejandro Ayala was a cadet in the Junior ROTC all four years he studied at Arlington High School in Riverside. By his senior year, he was the cadet corps commander and knew he was destined for a military career.
His ROTC instructor during his final year, Col. Kenneth Brady, remembers Alejandro as one of the most beloved among all the cadets. As corps commander, Brady said, "he was a forceful enough personality that he didn't have to yell or scream or anything. He led by example."
Alejandro's father, Faustino, 51, remembers the day his son told him that he wanted to join the Junior ROTC.
"He really wanted to do it," he said. "My wife and I, we thought that anything that kept our children busy was probably good for them. I taught them to work hard, so they could take care of themselves."
Although the family valued work -- Faustino Ayala owns his own landscaping business, and his wife runs a housecleaning business -- they always made time for fun as their children were growing up.
Faustino fondly recalls frequent family trips to Rosarito, Mexico, where the twins, Cesar and the eldest brother, Francisco, now 29, would spend long days riding motorbikes on the sand dunes and sleep in tents at night. "Those were happy days," the father said.
Alejandro wrote Cesar an e-mail shortly after their day in Kuwait, just before Cesar's wife gave birth to her first daughter, Andrea: "to bad I wont be able to be there when that little piece of sunshine comes out . . . but it is ok I'll send her a bunch of Air Force stuff from her uncle. . . . see now its my turn . . . take care bro."
Alejandro always got grief from his fellow airmen because his children wore Marine Corps gear, gifts from his brother the Marine. The stuffed toy was good-natured "revenge," Cesar said. Indeed, Andrea's first teddy bear, sent by mail from the uncle she never met, is emblazoned with multiple Air Force seals.