As a child growing up in Conshohocken, Paul Brown III told his mother he wanted to be a fighter pilot.
As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, he joined the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps.
Now 27, Brown is a captain in the Marines and is stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan. He calls that progression - from young dreamer in Montgomery County to veteran soldier on the other side of the world - his natural order of things.
"There was something that always drew me to them," Brown said of the Marines. It was, he said, his search for a sense of belonging.
"I thought of it like this," he said. "If I could prove myself to them, then I can become one of them."
These days, Brown works across the street from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, collecting information for the Combined Security Transition Command. Since the embassy is a prime target for attacks by America's enemies, Brown helps distill information, evaluate threats, and coordinate ground defense for 2,500 military personnel from nearly 40 countries.
While that job is vital, Brown also sees his role as part of an even bigger picture.
"The reason we're here is to ensure that all terrorist attacks don't happen again, that we can give all people a safe environment, and that nobody loses their basic rights and freedoms," Brown said.
In August, as a first lieutenant, Brown helped coordinate Kabul's defense as troops reacted to several suicide attacks that killed 60 civilians and injured about 500 more over a four-day period. His actions during those emergencies helped speed his promotion to captain.
During lulls in the action, Brown said he enjoys learning about other cultures from those with whom he works.
Susan Cacciatore, Brown's mother, is proud of her son's contributions in the service. She gushes about his achievements and has shared photos and news of his promotions with family and friends as he climbed through the ranks.
Cacciatore stays in touch with her son through phone calls, emails, and text messages. But, still, she is his mother. And she worries.
"It makes me happy to see him happy," she said. "I just pray that he's safe."
Brown has one sister, Jessica, 24.
Brown's father, Paul Brown Jr., said he first noticed his son's interest in the Marines during his years at La Salle College High School, where he rowed on the crew team.
"I found it interesting how he grew disgusted with everyday U.S. life . . . and transformed from a normal high school student who played video games a lot to someone who felt he had to do something meaningful," the elder Brown said.
The father and son talk on the phone now, and often hash over the current conflicts. The younger Brown studied history, political science, and administrative justice in college.
Jim Pisani, of Lafayette Hill, was one Brown's childhood friends. They still go to Philadelphia sports events on the rare occasions they can get together and chat about the Eagles. Nicknamed "Trey," Brown gets back to Conshohocken about twice a year.
Like Brown's father, Pisani watched as Brown transformed from "one of the goofiest kids I know" to a no-nonsense Marine.
"No one thought [Brown] wanted to be in the Marines, and it amazed me to see him join," Pisani said
David Lakin, a civilian volunteer working with the Department of Defense in Kabul, is not surprised by anything Brown does these days. Lakin said Brown has shown over and over that he is a dependable soldier.
Brown "would be assigned a job and excel at it as a Marine would," Lakin said.
"They say, 'You bloom where you are planted,' " Lakin said. "And he does exactly that."