Swept by a wave of national patriotism after Sept. 11, 2001, Patrick McCaffrey signed up for California's Army National Guard -- never dreaming that he would end up in Iraq.
But in June 2004, just three months after the deployment of his unit, the 34-year-old father who had run two car repair shops was murdered at close range in Balad, Iraq, shot eight times in the chest.
"His life was the American middle-class dream," said his mother, Nadia McCaffrey, 63, a veterans' rights activist who lives in the house her son left in Tracy, Calif. "He didn't realize war could happen."
The family was besieged by the press nonstop for 10 days, and because they had so many unanswered questions about their son's death, they allowed the media to join them when Patrick's body arrived in Sacramento.
"The day my son left for Iraq he was hoping to make a difference," his father, Bob McCaffrey, told ABCNews.com. "He left behind his children, his wife and his own life. We are not going to hide him when he comes home."
The McCaffrey's decision defied a longstanding military ban on photographing the caskets of America's war dead -- a policy that had been enacted in 1991 during the first Gulf War. Many mistakenly believe that it was President George W. Bush who enacted the ban.
"It's like they're hiding the service members killed in action," said McCaffrey, 64, of Bella Vista, Calif. "It disgusted me from the beginning."
That controversial policy may soon be overturned by President Barack Obama, who has asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to review the impact on military families.
Many of the families, though concerned about guarding their privacy in a time of unimaginable loss, agree that it's time to lift a ban that some say sanitized the grief of war.
"When people listen to Patrick's story, what he did, who he is, we finally put a face on a war," said Nadia McCaffrey, who founded Veteran's Village for those who are homeless and are dealing with post-traumatic stress.
The family later learned that Patrick, the first in California National Guard's 579 Engineer Battalion to be killed since World War II, was killed by three Iraqis whom he was training in the civil defense corps. His mother has joined Mary Tillman, mother of football hero Pat Tillman, and others to investigate their sons' deaths.
Tillman was also killed by so-called "friendly fire" in Afghanistan, just two months before Patrick in Iraq, and in both cases the military was slow to reveal the truth. One of the men accused of killing McCaffrey is ready to be put on trial in Iraq.
"Patrick was killed for this country in a war we didn't believe in," said his father, who had served in the military in a noncombatant role from 1965 to 1968.
During the Vietnam era, open press coverage helped convince most Americans that the war was a mistake. Subsequent administrations worried that images of war casualties would cost them public support.
Neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush ever changed the policy. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, more than 4,200 flag-draped war dead have arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Vice President Joe Biden has said the coffins are being "snuck back into the country" and called the policy shameful. Other Democrats have accused Bush of censorship.