Marine Cpl. Gurpreet Singh "was a different guy when he came home on…
Quiet and polite, with a penchant for keeping his emotions in check and his clothes clean and pressed, Gurpreet Singh seemed a perfect fit as a retail shoe salesman.
That was back when most people knew the 17-year-old Sikh American as "G" and he worked part time at a department store near his hometown of Antelope, outside Sacramento.
But in 2007, Singh enlisted in the Marines and soon seemed older, more authoritative, those close to him said.
Cpl. Gurpreet Singh, an infantryman, was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, based at Camp Pendleton.
"G was a different guy when he came home on leave after his first tour in Afghanistan," recalled Joaquin Zavala, 22, of Antelope. "His posture was straight as a board, and he spoke with clarity and authority.
"From that moment on, the tables turned in terms of the way we related to G," Zavala said. "In high school, he had looked up to us. Not anymore. We looked up to him with deep respect and admiration."
After a battle in Afghanistan in mid-June, friends and relatives were relieved to learn that Singh had escaped serious injury. "He called me and said that things were pretty bad over there," recalled longtime friend Simran Singh, 22, of Antelope. "But he said, 'Don't worry, Simran. I'm all right, and I'll be home in November.'
"Then he said, 'Oh, by the way, I got shot in the stomach. But everything's OK because I was wearing body armor, so I'm good.' "
About a week later, on June 22, Singh, 21, died of wounds received while conducting combat operations in the Sangin region of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold, according to military officials.
Five Marines from the battalion have been killed since April.
Singh enlisted in November 2007, shortly after graduating from Oakmont High School in Roseville, near Antelope. He wanted to help his country, said his sister, Manpreet Kaur, 23. Singh went on to serve two combat deployments.
"Even as a little boy, Gurpreet wanted to be a brave soldier more than anything else," recalled his father, Nirmal Singh, of Antelope. "So when he said he wanted to enlist in the Marines, I said, 'You're only 17, but if you want to do this, fine, I support you.' "
Singh's commitment to military service was emphasized in a letter he wrote four days before he died.
"The letter was in a Father's Day card," his father said. "It said, 'I hope you are still not mad about me choosing to come back here. Hopefully, you guys understand it was the right thing to do. It was something I had to do for my Marines. Hopefully, you guys won't say to anybody that the military was a mistake for me because this is the best thing I've ever done for myself and for others.' "
Nirmal Singh said his son hoped to go to college after his military service.
Gurpreet Singh was born in India's Punjab region. In 2000, he moved with his family to Central California. "G was 10 when he arrived in the United States; I was 11 when I arrived from Santiago, Chile," Zavala recalled. "We were from different corners of the world, and neither of us spoke good English. We became best friends helping each other find our way in a new land."
In addition to his father and sister, Singh's survivors include his mother, Satnam Kaur, and his grandmother, Nasib Kaur.