As a young boy curled in the crook of his father’s arm, Nicanor Amper IV watched John Wayne war movies over and over, discovering deep comfort in the films despite the violence they featured.
“For him, those movies were always about sticking up for the little guy, patriotism and doing the right thing,” said his father, Nicanor Amper III.
As he grew, the military gave him a sense of belonging. He pleaded with his father for a trip to Fleet Week, then a military helmet, then a Marine poster to put on his bedroom wall.
The shrine of military artifacts he built in his boyhood bedroom kept him on track. They guided his transformation from a good-natured but unruly teen to a dedicated young man.
Soon after Amper graduated from Westmont High School in San Jose in 1994, he and his brother enlisted in the Marines. Amper’s military odyssey took him to bases across the United States, to South Korea and, finally, to Afghanistan. He was scheduled to retire in December.
Amper, 36, died July 5 in Khowst, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit with a rocket-propelled grenade. Posthumously promoted to staff sergeant, Amper was assigned to the 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, based at Ft. Knox, Ky. He is survived by his wife, Shanna, and two sons, ages 7 and 9.
“I am really proud of who he was,” his father said. “He was a man, and he lived life to the fullest, and that’s all a dad can ask for.”
Always a warrior, Amper gave serious thought to civilian life just once, his father said. For a short time, he left the Marines and took a job as an arborist. He was good at it, knowing how to care for every type of tree and spotting when one was at risk of dying. But the camaraderie wasn’t the same.
“He came to me and said, ‘Dad, I don’t like it out here. I want to go back in. Nobody has your back out here. Everybody is out for themselves’,” his father said.
In 2005, he joined the Army. Last December, he was deployed to Afghanistan to serve as a scout. When he left Kentucky, he promised the wives of each of his men that he would return them safely.
The men were just out of high school — younger versions of himself, headstrong and prone to testing the rules. He had a knack for turning them around, telling them to be upright and true to their word. They affectionately called him Old Man.
On Facebook, he commented on a picture of three friends vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to say that he would soon be with those pictured. “Hey Bro, We still love you. Be careful,” they replied.
But in video chats with his father, fear crept in. “‘They keep sending us on these suicide missions. As they pull guys out of here, we have to do more’,” the older man recalls his son saying.
The soldiers traveled in small truck convoys to scout enemy positions. As they drove through valleys surrounded by steep mountains, insurgents often had the higher ground.
At the time Amper died, the convoy was engaged in its third firefight of the day. The gunner ran out of bullets. Amper took a grenade launcher and left the truck to pull the enemy’s attention away while the gunner reloaded, according to an account his comrades provided to friends back home.
“He put himself out there,” said Kristen Camacho Grimaldo, a close friend. “I thought that was huge and beautiful, to be someone willing to do that for those younger soldiers. He must have known he was going to lose his life. It gives me goose bumps.”