Growing up with seven siblings, it's no surprise Army Spc. Christopher Nelson was drawn to children.
"He would ignore grown-ups and play with his little brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews," said Leo Marquez, his father-in-law. "Just a good-hearted guy."
Nelson, 22, was killed Sunday in Iraq during his second combat deployment, his family said. His family said they believe he was one of three soldiers killed when a suicide bomber detonated explosives as the soldiers handed out toys and other gifts to children at a playground in the Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.
Nelson was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Battalion of the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team) based at Fort Lewis.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Olympian
Nelson enlisted in the Army in January 2004, shortly after graduating from Rochester High School.
"He just wanted to serve his country and he believed in what was going on," Marquez said.
In high school, he played linebacker on the varsity football team. He'd love to go out with buddies and ride all-terrain vehicles in the muddiest areas they could find around the rural community in south Thurston County.
He married his wife, Angela, two years ago.
Six Fort Lewis soldiers have died in the Diyala province in six days, suggesting the re-emergence of violence against U.S. forces in the area several months after a huge military offensive to clear insurgents known as Operation Arrowhead Ripper.
Another Fort Lewis-based combat unit, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, led the offensive, its last operation before returning home last month. The 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team supported the operation.
The 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team is in the process of expanding its area of operation to include all of the Diyala province.
A combat brigade assigned to Fort Hood, Texas, controlled most of the province, but military leaders have elected not to replace it as they begin drawing down U.S. forces. President Bush announced in September that improving security conditions would permit the withdrawal of five brigades between December and July.
"I believe it is a success story," said Col. Jon Lehr, the brigade's commander, in October, according to The Associated Press. "I feel, based on my battle space and what we've accomplished, that the tactical purpose behind the surge is working and now we're able to expand further out concentric circles away from Baghdad."
At least three children were killed and seven were wounded in Sunday's blast, according to The Associated Press.
Soldiers frequently hand out candy and small gifts as a gesture of goodwill to build trust in the Iraqi populace.
Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or at email@example.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.