Jonathan Victor Hamm had told family members he enlisted in the Army to steer away from the streets of West Baltimore, where he was raised.
Last week, the private first class died in Baghdad at the age of 20 - killed by what the Defense Department described as "indirect enemy fire."
A young man who had struggled in school, kept to himself and initially failed an Army test in seeking to enlist, Private Hamm tried again and succeeded a few months before his 18th birthday, relatives in Baltimore said yesterday.
He was sent to Kuwait 10 days after his mother's funeral in February and deployed to Iraq a month ago, the relatives - an aunt and uncle - said.
"That's what she [his mother] would have wanted him to do," his aunt, Eleanor Smith Swan, said of her sister, Frances Smith McCullough, who died of breast cancer at 52.
His uncle, Reginald Swan, a Vietnam War veteran, said he encouraged his nephew to join the Army. "He just wanted to make his life a little better because there was nothing out here for him but trouble," Mr. Swan said.
"I'm glad Franny passed before he passed," he added.
Private Hamm graduated from Carver Vocational-Technical High School in 2004 after a period when he came close to dropping out. The loss of his father, Jonathan Vincent Hamm, who died in 2000 of liver failure, left the youth without a sense of direction, the relatives said.
Another aunt, Leah Hamm, a now-retired Baltimore police officer, stepped in to give him some advice and did not mince her words to her nephew.
"After my brother passed in 2000, there was a spiral of not going to class and hanging with the wrong people," Ms. Hamm recalled yesterday. "His mother asked if I would talk to him, so I told him what would happen to him: destruction, death or incarceration. And we talked about other options he had."
"He took it upon himself to change his life," she said. "He seemed happy."
Just as the young man seemed to be maturing, family and friends said, the news came that he had been killed.
Most knew him as "Hammie" or "Hamm" - few in his circle called him Jonathan.
"That was my friend, you know," Carver classmate Devon Hodge said yesterday. "He was a loner, but if he was your friend, you could trust him. He would stay in contact with you."
"It's hard to find a job, being a boy, so he went in the Army," said Mr. Hodge, also 20 and from West Baltimore.
In one of their last conversations, Mr. Hodge recalled, Private Hamm told him that the Army paid well. He also told his friend that if he ever needed to borrow some money, he would be glad to lend him some.
Mr. Hodge said he never took him up on the offer.
Eleanor Swan, his maternal aunt, said Private Hamm always treated her home as his, and vice versa.
A signature trait, she said, was his going out alone to explore Baltimore on the light rail or subway.
"He'd spend a whole day just being out," said Mrs. Swan, a postal worker. "He would go out to BWI Airport and look at the planes ... or go to the harbor."
He would often say, "I just rode the trains all day," when asked what he saw or did. He might tell a fuller story at the dinner table, she said.
Reginald Swan, who owns a barbershop, said he also mentored Private Hamm at a critical point in his life. Early in his Army career, while undergoing training at Fort Benning, Ga., Private Hamm decided he had had enough of the Army.
His uncle intervened.
"I was like his big brother when he went AWOL during his training," Reginald Swan said. "He came into the [Baltimore] bus station ... and I said, 'You have to go back in and stick it out.'"
The Swans said they are not supporters of the war in Iraq but could not be more proud of Private Hamm's maturing into a young man.
"He's fighting for his country," Mr. Swan said. "That's his obligation."
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.
Private Hamm also is survived by two older brothers, Tyrone "Skip" Smith and Robert McCullough, both of Salisbury.