Casualty of War

updated 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/07/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In 1989 a guidance counselor asked a class of 30 juniors at Mississippi's Harrison County High School if anyone knew what they would do with their lives. Only one raised his hand: Therrel Shane Childers. "He said he was going to join the Marines and be an officer," says classmate Gary Crawford, 31. "He said it with such confidence, we knew it would happen." And it did.

Shane Childers, as everyone called him, enlisted after graduating from high school and served in Desert Storm. In 1998 he enrolled at the Citadel to earn a degree in modern languages—and a commission in the Marines. Last month Second Lt. Childers, 30, arrived in Kuwait with his platoon and was among the first troops to push north into Iraq. On March 21 he became the first U.S. soldier killed in action.

Childers was shot in the stomach during a battle with Iraqi troops as his platoon secured a burning oil-pump station in southern Iraq. Medics evacuated him to a surgical unit in Kuwait but it was too late. "He was a hard charger who worked hard about being the best person he could," says his mother, Judy, 52. "He died doing what he loved best, and that was being a Marine."

The son and grandson of military men—his father, Joseph, 54, was a Navy Seabee who served in Vietnam—the West Virginiaborn Childers spent much of his childhood on military bases. In the early '80s his father was stationed in Iran, and his family—mother Judy, brother Sam, 29, and sister Sandy, 32—would invite Marines from the embassy for dinner. "That's when he fell in love with the idea of being a Marine," says Sandy. "He really looked up to those guys."

Polite and reserved but with a "deadpan sense of humor," says Crawford, Childers "never had a steady girlfriend," says his sister. "Being a Marine interfered with that." There were other interests: the outdoors, sports and competing in triathlons. But there was only one calling. When high school classmates asked him why he ran laps in a rainstorm, he explained he wanted to be prepared for the Marines. "He pushed himself," says Crawford. "He'd push himself when no one was watching. He did it for himself, not anyone else." His final sacrifice, though, was for many more.

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