Minutes later, Blecksmith led his platoon into a house and climbed a flight of stairs to the roof to survey the surrounding landscape. Shots came from a building across the street. Blecksmith stood up to direct the squads under his command, shouting at them to take aim at the enemy nest. He was tall, and was now visible above the protective wall. “He was up front a lot, and he made a big target, and we’d talked to him about that,” Colonel Malay says. “He exposed himself consistently to enemy fire in the execution of his duties. He displayed a fearlessness to the point that we had to talk to him about the fact that nobody is bulletproof.”

As Blecksmith stood on the roof, a sniper’s 7.62-mm bullet found one of the places on his body where he was vulnerable. It was a spot on his left shoulder, less than an inch above the rim of his protective breastplate. The bullet sliced downward diagonally, coming to rest in his right hip, and along the way it tore through his heart. “I’m hit,” Blecksmith said. He fell. He raised his head for a moment, and that was it. A Navy medic got to Blecksmith immediately, but he was already dead, and his men carried his heavy body back down the stairs. He was 24.

That night in San Marino, Alex Blecksmith came home from work and noticed that the house was dark. He opened the front door and saw his mother, Pam, sitting at the kitchen table with a couple of marines in dress blues and white gloves, and he heard the phrase We regret to inform you . . .

The funeral was so magnificent, so full of pageantry, that at times it was difficult for Alex to remember that the guy being buried was his brother. The Marines do it right when it comes to honoring the fallen. They do it so right that you can get swept up in the ceremony and feel as though you’re watching a parade. The funeral took place at the Church of Our Saviour in San Gabriel—the church where the most celebrated of San Marino’s favorite sons, General George S. Patton, had been baptized as a baby. As the flag-draped casket was carried out of the sanctuary and into the California sun, a long, silent line of almost 2,000 people followed. There were marines and midshipmen and local firefighters in uniform. There was a 21-gun salute. Four World War II fighter planes swooped toward the cemetery in the “missing man” formation—just as they passed over the funeral, the fourth plane symbolically split from the quartet and veered into the sky. A bagpiper played a Scottish dirge. One of JP’s old friends would later observe that the day, in all of its glory and pomp, made him think of Princess Diana’s wedding.

As Public support for the war in Iraq wavers, it’s easy to forget that people like JP Blecksmith even exist. The American military is so predominantly blue-collar that we tend to assume that the sons and daughters of the rich never voluntarily die in warfare anymore. Blecksmith was born in September 1980, just weeks before his state’s own Ronald Reagan was elected president, and he spent most of his youth in the small Los Angeles County town of San Marino during what felt, for many of its wealthy and conservative inhabitants, like something of a Leave It to Beaver golden age. To look at a photograph of him, blue-eyed and suntanned and grinning, is to understand the enduring magnetism of the word California. He stood six foot three and weighed 225 pounds. His chest was a keg; his biceps were gourds. His biography reads as though it were scripted by a Hollywood publicist: legendary quarterback on the Flintridge Prep football team, track star, graduate of the United States Naval Academy.