Jared Verbeek had always wanted to be a Marine — like his father, who retired as a gunnery sergeant.
As a kid, he sometimes wore his father's old uniforms. When he graduated from high school in the Central Valley city of Visalia, southeast of Fresno, he had earned a spot at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was offered a free education and a commission as a Marine officer.
But family members said Verbeek was impatient to become a Marine and serve his country during a time of war. After graduating from Mt. Whitney High School, where he was a standout middle-distance runner and long-jumper on the track team, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and went to boot camp in San Diego.
Even as a lance corporal, he won the respect of more senior Marines with his intelligence, dedication to duty and perseverance. When his battalion was sent to Afghanistan, he was assigned to help mentor the Afghan security forces, a key assignment as the U.S. tries to disengage after a decade of struggle against the Taliban.
"He led by example," said Cpl. Gary Lehman, who served with Verbeek. "He never complained."
Lehman's comments came at a memorial service at Camp Pendleton in October for Verbeek and 16 other Marines from the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division who were killed during the seven-month deployment.
Verbeek, 22, died June 21 while on a combat patrol in southern Helmand province, on the Pakistani border. He had been in Afghanistan for three months.
As thousands of American families of the fallen have done, Verbeek's relatives traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to greet the plane bringing him back to the U.S. Days later, Visalia residents honored the Marine on the day of his funeral, lining the streets in silence, some waving American flags, many in tears.
Verbeek's parents, Travis and Rosalia, visit his grave often, sometimes twice a day. "We know it's only a shell that's there," his father said. "But we miss him, we want to honor him."
Verbeek is also survived by his wife, Vanessa, and their 2-year-old son, Jacob. The couple were introduced in the summer of 2008 by Ashley Verbeek, one of Jared's sisters.
Vanessa was attending Cal State Monterey Bay and Jared was training at Camp Pendleton. They spoke often by telephone and via MySpace. On weekends, each would drive hundreds of miles to Visalia to be together, their relatives said.
They were married June 6, 2009. "It was a beautiful wedding," said Guillermo Salazar, Vanessa's father. "You could see how much they loved each other."
But military training and semester finals do not easily accommodate love. There was no time for a honeymoon.
Verbeek had been scheduled to deploy in late 2009 but received a waiver to be with his wife for their son's birth. He left for Afghanistan early this year as his battalion assumed responsibility for the Sangin region, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand province.
On Father's Day, Verbeek called his wife. For an hour, they talked about what they would do when he returned home and the places they would take Jacob, including Disneyland. It was their final conversation.
At the memorial service in Visalia, Verbeek's sister, Adrienna Masiel, shared a moment from the days before he deployed to war. She said that she had seen him leaning over Jacob's crib, watching the boy sleep. Verbeek had tears in his eyes, and she cried too as they hugged each other.
During the service, a photo montage of Verbeek was displayed, accompanied by a recording of singer Tim McGraw's mournful ballad "If You're Reading This," about a soldier's letter to his family, to be read after his death. The song, which is popular among military families, includes the lines:
"I'm laying down my gun, I'm hanging up my boots
Tell Dad I don't regret that I followed in his shoes."
In addition to his wife, son, parents and sisters, all of Visalia, Verbeek's survivors include his grandparents, Donald and Marilyn Verbeek, and great-grandfather, Alva Tracy, all of Fremont, Neb.; and his grandmother Rosalia Villarreal of the San Joaquin Valley.