The opening line of Ivan Wilson's last letter home to his mother had a poignant resonance at his memorial service.
"I guess you might say we've reached our final destination."
Father Ron Serban read Wilson's words, describing his Marine unit's arrival at a desert base in Afghanistan, for the overflow crowd gathered Aug. 16 at his hometown church in the small Northern California town of Clearlake.
The 22-year-old lance corporal penned the upbeat note, complete with smiles and doodles, in May. He was killed in a bomb explosion July 21.
The letter reached his mother just days before his funeral at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church, where Wilson grew up taking religious classes and attending youth group activities.
He was the first member of the military from Lake County, which stretches through the forests north of San Francisco, to die in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Stocky, red-headed and with an inquisitive mind, Wilson struggled at times to find his way, Serban said, but appeared to have taken a turn for the better in the Marines, which he joined in September 2005.
"It looked like he had found his niche," the priest said. "I think his life was in a very positive transition."
Fellow Marines recalled that Wilson would volunteer to be the point man, the first one to get out of their Humvee to check out a suspicious situation. "He had really risked his life, putting himself in front of other troops," Serban said.
A rifleman with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Twentynine Palms, Calif., Wilson had served an earlier tour of duty in Iraq.
He was fatally injured while supporting combat operations in Afghanistan's Helmand province, southwest of Kabul.
A Marine Corps spokesman declined to provide details about the incident. But Wilson's father, Christopher, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that his son had stepped on an explosive device and died in a helicopter ambulance while being flown to a hospital.
Wilson's mother, Denise, told the Press Democrat: "He had his good days and bad days. Overall he was a very happy and well-loved young man with a promising future."
Lori White, who taught Wilson at Lower Lake High School, recalled that he was a wrestler and enrolled in her special college preparation program.
"He was a deep thinker. He was well-read," she said. "He liked higher-level science-fiction novels and he also read philosophy. He would ask teachers about what they thought about certain aspects of life. He could be very thoughtful."
She said he stood out at the close-knit, 800-student high school for "his intelligence."
Hundreds of people carrying flags lined the route when his body was returned to Clearlake, Serban recalled. Local and state police units, and a long line of motorcyclists, escorted the procession. Firetrucks formed an arch over the road with their extended ladders.
Nearly 600 mourners -- "people who never met the guy" -- spent much of that Saturday morning and afternoon attending his services and burial at Lower Lake Cemetery, the priest said.
The outpouring partly was a recognition that he was the first county resident to die, Serban said. But it also was a display of the values of the community where Wilson grew up.
"It's a small community. They're very patriotic," Serban said. "I think they would do that for the second [one], God forbid."
Wilson had his own patriotic streak, said White, his high school teacher. In his senior year, he began focusing on joining the Marines.
"That was what he really wanted to do," she said. "The librarian talked to him extensively about the choice he was making."
But, she said, he was committed.
"He said, 'I'm not afraid to die. And I want to serve my country.' "