A full year before he graduated from Bear River High School, John Lucente committed to fight for freedom as a member of the United States Marine Corps.
His stepfather, Shawn Mason, actively supported the young man's desire to enlist, though he worried that John Lucente might be facing danger too fast, too soon.
Mason even brought home brochures about the Coast Guard, he said, to try and convince his stepson to take a possibly safer military route.
"I told him I'd pay for college, but he wanted to do it," Mason said, speaking from a Bear River High School conference table Thursday, one day after 19-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. John Lucente was killed with three other Marines in a grenade attack in Ubaydi, Iraq. "He wanted to join the Marines."
Lucente, who wrote his senior project on the U.S. Marine Corps, was killed Wednesday after being struck by hostile fire near the Iraq-Syria border. He is the second person with Nevada County ties to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom since the war began 33 months ago.
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Adam Strain, 20, a 2003 Nevada Union graduate who grew up in Smartville, was killed by small-arms fire Aug. 3 in Ar Ramadi, Iraq.
Mason, who was planning to visit Lucente in Hawaii in January, said a trip to Iraq was not part of the ship's itinerary, though Mason said Lucente, who earned high marks in boot camp, served his country with pride. He was taking college courses on the USS Cleveland and wanted to become an officer, Mason said.
"For years, he's always wanted to go into the military. ... He looked forward to everything he got to do," said Mason, who has known Lucente for six years.
Lucente last visited Nevada County on the Fourth of July, watching the Lake of the Pines fireworks show.
Flags at Lake of the Pines and at the Alta Sierra Country Club, where Lucente worked summers as a golf attendant and dishwasher, were flown at half-staff in the fallen Marine's honor.
"It doesn't seem real," Mason said as he sat in Bear River Principal Dave Wiik's office.
Mason and those who knew Lucente described the Marine as a quiet, disciplined individual not easily swayed by peer pressure. He enjoyed rugby, paintball, video games and attending services at Calvary Chapel Grass Valley across from Lake of the Pines.
Calvary Chapel pastor Todd Johnson said word of Lucente's death spread quickly through the 1,000-member congregation.
"We're fine. We're just trying to be there for his family," said Johnson, who spent Thursday at Kristine and Shawn Mason's Lake of the Pines home.
Johnson said Kristine Mason noted her son had strong convictions to God and his country, in that order.
"He had a big, huge, golden heart," said Bear River principal Dave Wiik, who ran into Lucente occasionally on the Alta Sierra golf course.
No amount of coaxing could convince Lucente, a 2004 Bear River High School graduate, not to serve his country, said Mason, adding the family stood firmly behind Lucente's decision to enlist.
"We are not against the war, even though he went over there and lost his life," Mason said said Thursday, one day after the Lake of the Pines head golf pro was greeted in the clubhouse by two Marines in dress blues with news that Lucente had died in Iraq.
Mason and his wife realized just one day before Lucente died that he was in Iraq, after receiving an e-mail dated Oct. 15. Lucente was attached to the Regimental Combat Team 2 of the 2nd Marine Division.
In the e-mail, Lucente wrote how he missed his family and asked for hugs for his three siblings - Cris, 15, Cassie, 9, and his 7-week old brother, Jake, whom he named.
"I miss you," Lucente wrote, "and pray for me and my squad, because we're going into the roughest part in Iraq."
That e-mail, Mason said, was the first time his stepson ever talked about going into the eye of the war.
In July, Lucente left San Diego on the USS Cleveland troop and cargo carrier for stops in Hawaii, the Philippines and Egypt.
Wiik said counselors at Bear River and Nevada Union were dispatched Thursday to talk to students about Lucente's passing. "It's hard for all the staff. It's a small school, and something like this becomes a family situation," Wiik said.
School officials will be discussing ways to remember Lucente, Wiik said.
"We want to honor our heroes, and John's a hero."
Lucente didn't receive his driver's license until his 18th birthday, in part because a bus stop for school was within easy walking distance from his house, Mason said.
On weekends, Mason said, his stepson favored staying home with his family. Though he didn't embrace the game of golf, Lucente worked summers at Alta Sierra Country Club, where his stepfather was the assistant head golf professional.
"The best way I can describe John was that he was a quiet kid. He just kind of came in and did his job," said Jeff Chleboun, Alta Sierra Country Club's director of golf.
Lucente's grandparents, Joanna and Jim Webb, are members of the country club.
"The club is talking about (Lucente) quite a bit because he was part of our family for a while," Chleboun said.
The young man many called "J.T." was always dependable, said Alta Sierra Country Club executive chef Antonio Ayestaran, who worked in the kitchen where Lucente worked as a dishwasher.
Ayestaran and sous chef Joe Harben said they talked occasionally with Lucente about his future.
"I think he wanted to join the military to find himself," said Ayestaran, who said he believed washing dishes in the high-energy kitchen would give Lucente a good work ethic.
"It wasn't going to be his job forever, but it's a piece of the puzzle," Ayestaran said.
Lucente was briefly promoted to pantry duty at the golf course's restaurant, where he prepared salads, appetizers and desserts.
Lucente earned the respect of colleagues after once scuffling with line workers who were making derogatory remarks about his mother, Harben said.
Harben said "J.T." was eager to please his superiors and never overconfident.
The chefs said they'd like to remember their former co-worker by preparing food for Lucente's funeral.
"We want to do something and I don't want their family to worry about it," said Ayestaran, who remembers his co-worker easily.
"I walk around here and I can picture his face," Ayestaran said. "When I was told what happened, my lungs just emptied."
Calvary Chapel youth pastor Brett Wagner said he plans to assist Lucente's friends in praying for the fallen Marine on Sunday.
"This hits close to home, but it's the reality of the world we're in," Wagner said. "The Bible says we're all appointed once to die. This causes us to take inventory of that fact."
To contact staff writer David Mirhadi, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4229. The Union staff writer Dave Moller contributed to this story.