Whether he was with his fellow soldiers in Iraq or at home with his family, Matthew Gerald's life was spent in service to others.

As a young man in the 1990s he served four years as a Marine, attaining the rank of corporal. He rejoined the military in 2002 and deployed to the Middle East with the U.S. Army three times, working as a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief and earning many decorations, including four Air Medals.

In October 2015, Gerald joined the Baton Rouge Police Department. Less than a year later, he was shot and killed in the July 2016 ambush on Baton Rouge law enforcement.

A loving husband, father

Gerald, 41, left behind his wife, Dechia, and two young children, Fynleigh and Dawclyn. In September, Dechia Gerald announced that she was pregnant with the couple's third child, conceived just five days before Gerald's death, WAFB reported. "There's no better gift that a husband can leave behind than a baby," she said. 

Dechia Gerald gave birth to their son, Falyn Matthew Gerald, on March 21. When she held Falyn for the first time, he immediately grabbed on to her husband's wedding ring, which Dechia has worn around her neck since his death, according to the WAFB report. 

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A true patriot

After his death, friends and family consistently spoke of Gerald's willingness to serve his country and city, remembering him as the embodiment of the word "patriot."

His best friend, Dave Mulkey, recalled how he had reacted to the news of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "He screams at the TV and he says, 'I'm going back in for these people.'

"I could remember watching movies with war scenes and he would scream at the TV, 'you never leave a man behind!' How poignant is that now?" Mulkey said.

In a letter to mourners at his funeral, Gerald's wife described how his favorite holiday was Independence Day and his second-favorite holiday was Memorial Day.  "I got to spend the Fourth of July with Matt, Dechia, Dawclyn and Fynleigh," said Justin Badeaux, a relative by marriage. "He had such a glow, it was contagious. I've never in my life seen a man light up and have so much honor and respect as he did when they said the Pledge of Allegiance."

Dechia Gerald

Dechia Gerald and children show off Falyn Matthew Gerald, the newest member of the family, on Tuesday, March 21, 2017. Falyn is the son of fallen Baton Rouge officer Matthew Gerald. 

The letter from Gerald's wife also described how their marriage flourished after her husband answered the call to become a police officer. She said it was the answer to her prayers. "Ultimately, the only thing stronger than his love for the red, white and blue was his love for us," she wrote.

A 'damn good man'

Many knew Gerald by his nickname among the police force, "Benjamin Buttons." At his funeral, Healing Place Pastor Mike Haman said the name took on further meaning because buttons unite things and bring them together -- a trait Gerald shared.

A neighbor who knew Gerald recalled how the officer, a rookie, had received his police cruiser about two months before the shootings. Stephanie Morgan said he was proud to have the vehicle. 

“Every time he wasn’t on duty, Matt would be washing that car,” she said. “He would have the seats pulled back.

“He was a damn good man,” Morgan said. “You’re not going to find any better.”

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Mulkey, his best friend, joked about calling Gerald "my little Ewok" because of how hairy he was. He said Gerald was supposed to be the best man at his wedding, but couldn't fulfill that duty because of his military service.

When Mulkey tried to show Gerald his wedding video, he said Gerald became too emotional to watch it. They agreed to watch it another time in the future, though he "never got to."

He recalled his final text message from Gerald, saying it summed up his friend's life. Mulkey texted when protests began after the Sterling shooting, telling him to be safe.

"I'm going to do what I've got to do to keep y'all safe, ole boy," Gerald responded.

Staff writers Steve Hardy, Andrea Gallo and Maya Lau contributed to this report. 

Click here for a tribute to slain East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Deputy Brad Garafola

Click here for a tribute to slain Baton Rouge officer Montrell Jackson