In September 2001, as he entered his senior year of high school, Morgen Jacobs of Santa Cruz was unsure what to do with his life. He considered getting a business degree at a local two-year college, but didn't feel strongly drawn to academics.
Then came the 9/11 attacks. Deeply affected like many Americans, he spent two or three weeks quietly pondering his place in the world. And he knew exactly what he wanted to do.
He came home from classes at Soquel High School and announced to his parents, "I have to talk to you guys; I'm joining the Army," recalled his father, Todd Jacobs. "He said, 'I'm going to serve and protect my country.' "
The 20-year-old Army specialist was killed in combat Oct. 6 near Tikrit, Iraq. Jacobs was a gunner on one of three Humvees on patrol when a roadside bomb detonated, killing him and injuring several other soldiers. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division in Schweinfurt, Germany.
The young man's enlistment surprised relatives and friends, who knew him as a beach lover and devotee of mountain biking rather than someone inclined toward military life. His parents tried to talk him out of joining the Army. But Jacobs didn't budge, insisting that he wanted to make the world a safer place.
Seeing his determination, they gave their blessing despite their fear that he would be sent on a dangerous post-9/11 mission. "We said, 'If this is your endeavor, we're going to support it,' " his father said. Shortly after his graduation in June 2002, Jacobs enlisted.
He was deployed to Kuwait in January and to Baghdad in February. In phone calls and e-mails home, he never spoke of life in the war zone except to say that it was uncomfortably hot. He wanted to hear what his family and friends were doing.
After his death, "his recruiter called and was in tears, saying he wished it could have been him instead," Todd Jacobs said. "I said, 'You didn't recruit Morgen; Morgen recruited the Army. Morgen chose this path because he was a patriot, and he loved this country to death and he wanted to protect all of us.' "
No one would have ever guessed that young Morgen would grow up to become a soldier. He whiled away time splashing in the surf and skim-boarding with friends near the family home on the Santa Cruz seashore. At age 5, he acquired a lifelong love of reggae music, whose unrestrained rhythms matched his free spirit. He relished daredevil rides on his mountain bike that often left him with skinned knees and elbows.
As a teenager, he and his grandfather flew to the wilds of Alaska to hike and fish. "He never sat around watching TV," said Todd Jacobs, who was not his birth father but raised him like his own son from age 3 after marrying the boy's mother, Cindy. "He was always in motion. Thank goodness he did a lot of stuff for a young man."
Blue-eyed, his blond locks slicked into an Elvis-style pompadour, Jacobs grinned constantly and had a nonchalant air.
But his devotion to his family was plain to see. During his last military leave in July, he took his 12-year-old sister, Austin, on daylong excursions to the Great America amusement park and a shopping mall. "I was touched that at age 20 he wanted to spend time with his little sister," his father said.
Jacobs' relatives credit military life with bringing him into full adulthood. "When he was home on leave, we noticed how much he had matured," his father said. "He was self-sufficient and self-confident. He said to me, 'You know what? I'm really glad I joined the Army.' "
Jacobs also is survived by his birth father, Michael Cummings, who lives in Costa Rica.
Jacobs' ashes will be scattered at sea.