PARSIPPANY, N.J.—Maybe it happened while he was driving a hand-me-down pickup named the Brown Beauty, long fingers tapping the steering wheel to Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." Or it could have been while he was working a summer job as a security guard at his mother's workplace. Or perhaps it was while he was watching "Saving Private Ryan" with his three younger brothers in the rec room of their New Jersey home.
Wherever it started, John Wroblewski decided to enlist with the Marine Corps. It was something he deeply believed he needed to do.
Wroblewski was a high school linebacker. He'd played Little League baseball with his brother, Mike. He was a Yankees fan and liked Notre Dame football and the Detroit Lions. Every Sunday, he and his four brothers would watch sports on TV.
"He was our big big brother," said Mike, 24. "He watched over me."
Always smiling, John was the oldest, and he kept his brothers in line and taught them what he'd learned. The brothers bought mowers and tractors and started a landscaping business, often working seven days a week driving around in his truck.
Inherited from his father, the "piece of work" 1979 Custom Deluxe pickup that "pretty much had no floor board" got John where he needed to go, Mike remembered.
If John was lifting weights at Olympus Gym or at home, he would listen to Springsteen, Pantera, Fear Factory or Metallica. He worked out at home in the wooded back yard where he and his best friend, Ryan Flemming, had built a small obstacle course. His father would watch from a deck as he performed endless chin-ups and dips on iron bars fastened between towering trees.
Wroblewski enrolled at County College of Morris with Mike.
"He had caught my eye when he walked into class the first day," a self-defense class, wife Joanna Wroblewski said. She remembers thinking, "Wow, that guy's hot."
"I had to ask him out," she said. He was shy, or maybe humble.
John later enrolled in Officers Candidate School in Quantico, Va. He graduated in the top 10 with honors and chose the infantry. After basic school, John and Joanna drove cross-country in five days to Camp Pendleton, Calif. There he met his platoon and they trained.
Mike Wroblewski remembers when John called last winter and told them he'd be leaving for the Persian Gulf in 24 hours, heading to Ramadi, Iraq.
"It's real American-friendly," he told his younger brother, who was crying on the other end of the line. "Don't worry. Don't worry about it, Mike. Everything's going to be fine."
"What do they have there, just sand?"
"No, Mike, they have a chow hall; they have water."
"Shouldn't all these places have chow halls and water?"
"No, some places don't."
He answered his brother's questions and repeated, "I'll be fine. I'll be fine."
Joanna and John spent Valentine's Day together. They moved a coffee table and shared a romantic dance in the living room.
The next day, he and his platoon and Echo Company left for Kuwait and Iraq.
In the firefight in which he died, 2nd Lt. John Wroblewski fired his weapon between communications with his base. He was shot in the jaw April 6 and died from his wounds in a helicopter over Iraq early the next day, nine days before his 26th birthday.