Even in death, Lukas Hopper found a way to make people laugh.
The charismatic 20-year-old paratrooper died Oct. 30 when an armored vehicle he was riding in rolled over on a road southeast of Baghdad.
Along with the news about his death, Hopper's family received an Army questionnaire he had filled out before his deployment.
What the Army intended as a somber list of last requests to be fulfilled in the event of a soldier's death became another opportunity for Hopper to crack wise.
Army: Persons you want to eulogize you at your funeral, if available.
Hopper: Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Jack Nicholson.
Army: Personal effects you want buried with you.
Hopper: My gold, TV, PS3. Some food. Anything else of value.
Army: Clothes you want to be buried in.
Hopper: In the nude. (Modesty must have overtaken him because he crossed that out and wrote, "In my jeans.")
Army: In the event of your death, the unit will conduct a memorial ceremony. Who would you like to speak at this ceremony?
Hopper selected his friend Spc. Jeffrey Kern, who has a pronounced stutter.
"I pray that you stutter through the whole thing," Kern recalled his buddy telling him as he filled out the form. "It was a joke. . . . It was funny."
Kern did give the eulogy, and he did stutter. The guys in the unit laughed. And they cried. It was classic Hopper.
His wit could be sharp -- such as when it was aimed at a unit "interpreter" who spoke little English -- but it also was self-deprecating -- as when he made fun of his own awkward dancing style.
"He always knew what could get a laugh or smile," Spc. Brennan Tougias wrote in an e-mail to Hopper's family. "That truly was a gift of his and he has used it countless times to help every one of us get through our bad moods. I guess you really couldn't be in a bad mood around him."
Said Spc. Christopher Caudill: "In one sentence or goofy gesture, he could break the ice and put the platoon in laughter, raising the morale."
Born and raised in Merced, Hopper was Yancy and Robin Hopper's only son and the oldest of three children. As a youngster, he loved camping with his family and hanging out with friends.
In high school, Hopper swam on the water polo and swim teams. He was smart, but not an exceptional student -- delving deeply into subjects that interested him, ignoring those that didn't. He briefly went to community college in Merced but put his education on hold to enlist in the Army.
He told his family that he had intended to join the Navy, as his father and grandfather had, but when he went to the office to sign up, the recruiter was out to lunch. So he enlisted in the Army instead.
His decision to join the military took his parents by surprise. Then again, Robin Hopper said, her son lived in the moment and was drawn to adventures. "He was full of life," she said. "And he liked to do things on his own terms."
His friends agreed. Though he was raised Mormon, Hopper liked to attend the Jewish services on base because at the end of the service, everyone danced and ate doughnuts and bagels, he told his pals.
When Hopper left for basic training, a couple of his high school friends, Dan Alcorn and Heather Waldron, created Flat Luke, a photo of Hopper pasted to a stick. They carried it with them to parties and on trips. They documented Flat Luke's travels on a website, www.flatluke.com. His alter ego is pictured on a cruise with his parents, hanging out at Disneyland, posing with NFL cheerleaders and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner in Hawaii.
"He said he joined the Army to see the world and Flat Luke was the one going everywhere," Robin Hopper said.
Those close to him said Hopper was much more than just a funny guy. He was a movie buff who particularly liked films by Quentin Tarantino. He could recite dialogue from the TV shows "Friends" and "Scrubs." He was loyal and opinionated. And when he was told he couldn't do something, he sought to prove that he could.
"He never conformed to what society or anyone around him wanted him to do, be, or say. He did what he thought was best for him, his family and his friends, whether it was a popular decision or not," said Kevin Pope, a family friend.
"The saddest part of his death is that he was truly coming into his own as an adult. . . . He definitely had a sense of purpose and a sense of direction that he might not have had prior to joining the military, and it was great to see him doing things that he loved."
Hopper, a specialist assigned to Company D, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, N.C., died less than two weeks before he was scheduled to return from Iraq. He had planned to transfer to another brigade to fight in Afghanistan and was interested in going through Ranger school.
Alcorn said he and Hopper were as close as brothers. They had met in kindergarten and shared many of the same dreams.
The last time he saw Hopper, Alcorn said, his friend was becoming more serious about his future.
"He wanted to go to school after the Army," Alcorn said. "He wanted a family, wanted to grow old together and live simply."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times