Long before Marine 1st Lt. Jared Michael-Vincent Landaker flew a CH-46 helicopter over Iraq rescuing the wounded, he was "flying" off the top of the family's home in an attempt to reach its nearby camper. He later would fly around Big Bear High School's football field as a quarterback and defensive leader who earned conference honors.
Landaker was so talented, his peers say, that he could have flown jets but opted instead to pilot helicopters, joining the Marine Corps' Purple Foxes helicopter squadron.
"He always wanted to fly," said Luke Wagner, a friend since their days as freshmen at Big Bear High. "Flying and helping others were his passions, and that's what he was doing in Iraq every day."
Landaker, 25, and six other troops were killed Feb. 7 when their CH-46 helicopter was shot down while ferrying blood supplies in Iraq's Al Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
He was assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton.
"It was his last flight before coming home," said his father, Joseph Landaker of Big Bear City. "We were planning a party."
Described as smart, athletic and a hometown hero, Jared Landaker spent much of his seven months in Iraq evacuating casualties from Al Anbar province.
His work to help those injured in the war led his mother, Laura, along with others, to organize visits to injured veterans at Camp Pendleton's Wounded Warrior Center and the Naval Medical Center in San Diego.
"They were on the most honorable of missions -- to place yourself in harm's way to come to the aid of others," Lt. Col. Sean Killeen, the commanding officer of his squadron, recently told a packed service for the seven fallen comrades at a Camp Pendleton chapel as a missing-man formation flew overhead.
The Marine Corps initially announced that the crash was mechanical failure but later acknowledged that the helicopter had been shot down. Insurgent groups posted a video on the Internet of the bulky chopper being struck by a surface-to-air missile and of black smoke trailing behind it before it crashed in a ball of flames.
Landaker had been scheduled to leave Iraq in February and begin specialized weapons and tactics training in Yuma, Ariz.
Born in Madera, Calif., Landaker was earning his physics degree and playing baseball at the University of La Verne when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. It led him to the Marine Corps, where, in the words of his MySpace website, he "lived the dream in 'Beautiful' Iraq."
His heroes, according to his profile on MySpace: "Anyone who has put their life on the line serving this country." Since his death, his MySpace page, where he used the name J-Rod, has become a tribute to him. "JRod, I carried you to your final resting place yesterday. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I just can't come to terms with this," one of his friends wrote.
Landaker's hometown of Big Bear City is a small-town community where he was well-known and beloved, said Wagner, who also attended the University of La Verne with him.
Friends and family members are planning a charity run this summer in Big Bear to honor Landaker and his six fallen comrades, and have set up a fund to help wounded veterans.
"He was not only a hero, he was a great son," said his father, a former Marine and retired California Highway Patrol officer. "He did more in 25 years than most of us will do in 75 years."
Landaker was buried at Riverside National Cemetery, where his coffin was carried past dozens of fellow Marines and CHP officers.
In addition to his parents, Landaker is survived by a brother, Jason, 31.