Jeremiah McCleery was only 4 when his father drove him from the family's home in Rialto to Twentynine Palms, Calif., to watch the triumphant -- and emotional -- return of U.S. soldiers from the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The outpouring that greeted American forces during that homecoming made a profound impression on the boy, setting him on a path toward serving his country in the military, said his sister, Chasity Sobrero.
At first, his interest took the form of role-playing. He spent hours in his backyard pretending to be a soldier, playfully trying to trap his two older sisters.
"He thought that was the greatest thing," Sobrero wrote in a recent e-mail to a Times reporter.
Later, McCleery would realize his dream and become a soldier, joining the Army the year after he graduated from high school in Portola, a rural California town not far from the Nevada state line, where the family had moved in 1996.
An Army specialist, McCleery was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division at Ft. Hood, Texas.
It was there that he met fellow California resident Jake Velloza -- also an Army specialist -- from Inverness in Marin County. The two men, both easygoing and good- natured, became fast friends, and were deployed together to Iraq.
On May 2, McCleery, 24, and Velloza, 22, were shot and killed at a combat outpost in Hammam Alil, Iraq, north of Baghdad. The attack, which also injured three other American soldiers, was carried out by two gunmen later identified as Iraqi soldiers.
Sobrero said her brother knew the risks of joining the military, especially in wartime.
"Jeremiah knew going in that he wanted to be front line," she wrote in the e-mail. "Jeremiah loved his country and loved his family so much he was willing to give his life. Everything he did, it was always all or nothing for him. For all of us, that's the way we were raised."
Growing up in Portola, a small town set amid rugged forests and hills, McCleery especially loved the outdoors, family members said.
He loved to hunt, go four-wheeling and sport shooting with his buddies, and to go fishing with his father, Joe, often setting off for a secluded lake well before sunrise.
It was a strategy the elder McCleery told his son helped increase their odds of catching a fish. Family members described father and son as best friends. And yet, his sister said, McCleery also was at heart "always a mommy's boy."
Portola was where Colette McCleery had wanted to build her dream home. And Joe McCleery and his son worked side-by-side to make that vision a reality, with the whole clan contributing to the project.
Jeremiah McCleery was a Boy Scout and joined the Civil Air Patrol. He had planned to join the Army right after graduating from Portola High School in 2004, but during his senior year, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. When she died in 2005, he made the decision to go forward with his long-held plan to enlist.
"I asked him one time not to go, that we needed him to take care of us," Sobrero said. "He told me that was his way of protecting his family. All I could do was support him and tell him how proud and brave he was."
In addition to his father and sister, McCleery is survived by another sister, Lynette Flanagan; grandparents Richard and Gerry DuBois; his girlfriend Amanda Harazin; and numerous cousins and in-laws.