When he wasn't defusing roadside bombs, Army Sgt. James K. Healy often could be found drawing, taking out the stress of each day by creating cartoon characters of family members and friends.
"Any time he would sit down in the evenings, he would have a sketchbook with him. He was always drawing something," said his wife, Shannon, 23. "I have books and books full of his drawings."
Family members said Healy, 25, an avid "Star Wars" enthusiast from Hesperia, was the unofficial artist for the Ft. Knox, Ky.-based 703rd Explosive Ordnance Detachment while it was fighting in Afghanistan. He designed a logo for his company and made signs that some of the soldiers hung on their doors.
At home with his wife and 15-month-old son Wyatt, he "would draw Wyatt and I as comic characters and himself as well," his wife said. "He would do little comic strips of the three of us . . . as he did one of us when Wyatt was first born."
Healy was killed Jan. 7 on his second tour of duty when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Laghar Juy, Afghanistan, southeast of Kabul and in a mountainous region on the eastern border with Pakistan. Also killed in the attack was Army Maj. Michael L. Green, 36, of Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
Healy and his crew had defused scores of such bombs before, family members said.
"He wasn't drafted; he did this on his own," said Shannon Healy's brother Alan Olney, 15. "He died a hero. He did it for others."
Olney is a sophomore at Hesperia High School, the same school where his sister met Healy for the first time in 1999.
"It started out as a simple high school crush," Olney said. "They met through band. He played a mean trumpet; she played saxophone."
Shannon Healy remembers walking into the band room during first period on her first day at the school. She had just transferred from another high school near Victorville.
"She's mine," James Healy told a few friends as she walked through the door.
After graduating from Hesperia High in 2000 and spending two years at community college studying math and science, Healy enlisted in the military.
"It was always something he had wanted to do. He loved the idea of it," his wife said. "He was always ready to be on the front lines."
The couple married after he finished boot camp in 2003, and his wife moved to North Carolina while he was stationed at Ft. Bragg. She said it was a foreign place to them, two kids from the desert, but that they "loved the winter."
Shannon Healy, who now lives in Kentucky, said that one of her favorite memories is when they went on what should have been a routine trip to the corner market. But when they stepped outside, there was black ice under their tennis shoes.
"We just skated," she said, "laughing and falling all over."
Healy's death has been keenly felt in Hesperia, a desert city of 80,000.
"We feel a tremendous loss as a school and as a community," said Ken Jones, 59, who has been teaching at Hesperia High for 18 years. He said the school and town are particularly invested in the war effort.
The military "helps us and we help them," Jones said. "I know several teachers who have children that are over there. . . . We're all proud."
Jones said he had mixed emotions about the high-stakes choices that students make when they join the armed forces.
"I understand the cost of freedom," he said. "I don't like the fact that they have to lay their lives on the line, but that's what it is. I try not to think about it that much because I've had my sons over there."
In addition to his wife and son, Healy is survived by his parents, Timothy and Linda; and a brother, Ian.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Total U.S. deaths*:
* In and around Iraq**: 3,963
* In and around Afghanistan***: 416
* Other locations***: 63
*Includes military and Department of Defense-employed civilian personnel killed in action and in nonhostile circumstances
**As of Friday
***As of Feb. 16
Source: Department of Defense