WEST VALLEY CITY -- When Cpl. Matthew R. Smith couldn't get a leave from the Marines to attend his older brother's wedding, his family produced a life-size cardboard cutout of him they moved around the dance floor.
    On Thursday, the same cutout from the wedding with Smith in his uniform stood in his mother and stepfather's living room as his family coped with the news that he was among the 31 service members killed in a helicopter crash the day before in western Iraq.
    "He was very proud to be a Marine," his mother, Colleen Parkin, said tearfully.
    His father, Gary Smith, who also lives in West Valley City, said his son had a lifelong desire to serve in the military. He picked the Marines because they were "the first ones in there."
    "He died a hero," Gary Smith said. "We're very proud of him."
    The divorced parents both spoke Monday to their son, who was training Iraqis to provide security for the Sunday election. They learned about his death Wednesday afternoon, the same day of the crash, but Parkin already had a foreboding.
    As soon as she heard a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter had gone down, she dashed to a computer and typed an e-mail to her 24-year-old son: "Please tell me you're OK."
    Her reply came when one of her daughters-in-law called her at work and said she needed to come home. Parkin knew then that an officer would be there to inform her of her son's death.
    Matthew Smith was born prematurely on Aug. 8, 1980, and was almost lost then. But the doctors told his family that the little boy was a fighter. He joined a brother, 2-year-old Spencer; two years later, Cory was born.
    They were the Three Musketeers.
    Matthew Smith attended Kearns High School, earned a diploma and joined the Marine Corps in 2001. He served in Japan, the Philippines and Korea before going to Iraq in October 2004.
    The next month, he was in a battle in Fallujah. There, his best friend he had met at boot camp lost an arm and a leg in the fierce fighting.
    "It was one of the scariest times," said Cory Smith, 22.
    Gary Smith said his son came close to harm with bullets whizzing by his head but survived -- only to lose his life on a more peaceful assignment.
    Matthew Smith planned to become a firefighter after his stint in the Marines ended in November.
    He was among at least 27 of the dead based at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe, according to The Associated Press. It was the single worst loss of Hawaii troops since the attack on Pearl Harbor some 63 years ago.
    The crash also was the single deadliest event for the American military since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 -- and the single largest number of Marines to die since the terrorist bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in October 1983.
    "To the families of these brave men, our heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to you in this most difficult time," said Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
    The helicopter, from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, was transporting personnel from the 1st Marine Division when it went down, Sattler said in a statement on Thursday from Iraq posted on the Pentagon's Web site.
    Sattler said a recovery team was at the site and the cause was under investigation.
    Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, said the weather in western Iraq was bad.
    Today, the Smith family will meet with a representative of the Marines to arrange for a full military funeral in Utah. The South Salt Lake City Police Department, where stepfather Stan Parkin is a detective, will provide an escort for the service.
    The family has started a trust fund in the name of Matthew Smith. All money donated to the fund at any Wells Fargo branch will go to his best friend, Brian Johnston, who lost an arm and leg during fighting in Fallujah.