Michelle Suter-Unthank had never heard her son sound so poised, so mature.
On a Friday evening in May, Marine Pfc.
Jake Suter,18, called his mother and stepfather at their Stevenson Ranch home. For about six months, Suter had been stationed at the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. Two days later, he would be deployed to Afghanistan.
That night, he spoke to his parents for 2 1/2 hours.
“We had a work-up on the Afghani people, and they’re really nice people, they’re very respectful people,” his mother quoted him as saying. “I’m a liberal now. I’m going to liberate the Afghani people.”
Throughout the conversation, she said, he emphasized how much he had learned in his first year as a Marine. His mother said he was excited and motivated, and ready to go.
“It was our first glimpse of what kind of adult he was going to be,” she said. “He was so mature, and he was looking at things so clearly. He talked about everything, and he was honest about everything.”
Two weeks later, Jake William Suter was killed while supporting combat operations in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, on the Pakistani border. The cause of his death has not been disclosed and is under investigation. He was an assaultman assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force at Kaneohe Bay.
Suter graduated from West Ranch High School in Stevenson Ranch on May 29, 2009; he was killed in Afghanistan one year later, May 29, 2010.
“He was just very intelligent and strong-willed,” his mother said. “He knew who he was, and he knew what he wanted to do.”
She said her neighbors and community members offered strong support after her son’s death. Just hours after she got the news, church members came to her home to offer condolences. Then Boy Scouts arrived, carrying American flags. The following week, after she and her husband watched as her son’s casket arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, her neighbors organized a vigil. Several hundred people attended.
Friends, teachers and coaches remember Suter as a young man with a rare combination of intelligence, passion and courage.
Lance Cpl. Max Bernstein, 20, met Suter in November 2008 when both enlisted in the Marine Corps Delayed Entry Program. During his senior year of high school, Suter would often volunteer at the recruiting station where Bernstein worked. The two became close friends, Bernstein said.
Suter scored 94 points out of 100 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, which opened a variety of opportunities for him, his friend said.
“He had every single job in the Marine Corps available to him, and he chose to grab a rifle and go patrol,” Bernstein said. “That’s the ultimate dedication to your country; that’s an extraordinary amount of courage and bravery.”
Tracy Kane, who taught Suter’s sophomore English class at West Ranch High, said she wasn’t surprised when he told her he was enlisting. He was always passionate about his beliefs, she said.
Like Suter’s mother, Kane said she was stunned by the way the Marine Corps had transformed Suter.
In April, Kane walked into her classroom with her son, a student at the school, and found a man she barely recognized. Suter had lost weight and sported a fresh military haircut. He was waiting to visit with her.
“The way he spoke to my son, I saw a changed Jake,” Kane said. “He was talking to my son like a grown man …. It gives me chills just thinking about it.”
Born July 31, 1991, in American Fork, Utah, Suter moved to California with his mother when he was 8. His father, Kevin Scott Suter, still lives in Utah.
As he grew up in Stevenson Ranch, Jake Suter joined the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, and participated in youth programs at his family’s church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For three years in high school, he played linebacker for the Wildcats’ football team. Coach Sean O’Brien said his conversations with Suter often focused on the future.
“He was trying to find out who he was,” O’Brien said. “I know everyone in high school does that, but he was doing it much more sincerely and intensely than most kids.”
Patriotism was always important to Jake, his mother said. He loved American history and politics, and as he progressed through high school he became more vocal and opinionated.
When he first brought up the Marines to his mother in the first weeks of his senior year, she said she wouldn’t discuss it. “I told him he could make that kind of decision when he turned 18,” she said.
But Suter was persistent. He arranged for a recruiter to come to the family’s home. Afterward, his mother asked him if he realized that the country was fighting two wars.
Suter said he still wanted to go.
“You can fight it and they’re still going to do it,” his mother said of her son’s decision to enlist. “Or you can support them.”
In October 2008, she signed the paperwork that allowed her son to enlist at age 17. By the time Suter turned 18 in July 2009, he had already graduated from West Ranch and started boot camp.
After boot camp and infantry school, Suter was stationed in Hawaii. He visited home for the last time in April.
His mother said no memories stand out for her quite like the final phone calls she shared with her son.
She said she was happy to hear him sounding so upbeat when he called from Hawaii, and thankful that he called once more May 25, his first day in Afghanistan.
“I know my job is arduous,” he told her. “But I can’t imagine doing anything else.”