ONEIDA, Wis.—Ryan Jerabek was enthralled with Ireland, his ancestral home. He and his older brother Aaron visited Ireland once, the fulfillment of a boyhood dream.
"He was an old soul," Aaron said. Ryan watched the History Channel, read a lot. Anything Celtic interested him.
Ryan and his good friend Mike Andrews joined the Marines while they were still in high school under a delayed-enlistment program. Both were 17. They needed their parents' permission. They left for boot camp in the summer of 2003, after graduating from Pulaski High School.
As a member of Echo Company's weapons platoon, Ryan wore a silver Celestial Celtic cross, jingling with his dog tags against his chest. Various symbols were etched in the metal: the sun, the moon, earth, water, fire and air, all meant to bring balance and harmony.
He also wore what he jokingly told his family were "BC glasses"—birth control glasses—military issue with plastic frames so ugly that they chased girls away.
In his eyeglasses case, he saved a folded ticket stub from a San Diego Padres game he attended as a reward for best platoon in boot camp.
In February, Echo Company flew from California to Germany and on to Kuwait, headed for Iraq. During the flight, the commanding officer asked the platoon sergeant to send up a hardworking Marine. Ryan got to sit in the cockpit of the C-17.
In a letter from what Ryan described as "one big giant sandbox" he wrote, "One of the section leaders said to me, `Jerabek, you're always smiling and happy. You don't let anything get you down. Don't ever lose that. You are fortunate to have that characteristic. Fortunate.'"
In March, Echo Company arrived at Combat Outpost, the base in Ramadi.
On a bright cloudless day in April, Ryan, age 18, rode atop a green camouflaged Humvee as it turned a corner.
"Courage was no stranger to Ryan," his captain, Kelly Royer, wrote. Ambushed and trapped by enemy fire, "it was Ryan who laid down a superior volume of machine gun fire so that the other men around him could move to safety." He died in the fight April 6.
"He was a gift," his mother, Rita, said through tears. Her 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, had died of cancer when Rita was five months' pregnant with Ryan. In almost every photo in the Jerabek home, older brother Aaron's arms are touching or wrapped around Ryan's shoulders.
In May, a month after Ryan was killed, a month after his brown-framed military glasses lay crushed in the sand, a package arrived at the Jerabek home. Inside was a white shield with the family crest painted on it and a polished silver and gold sword, presents that Ryan had ordered from Ireland in December.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.