Philip Alexander Johnson realized a childhood dream by joining the U.S. Marine Corps after his graduation from Enfield High School last year, and it showed in the pride and maturity he displayed on a visit home in early July as he prepared for deployment to Iraq, friends say.
"He stood tall with his shoulders back and his hair cut military-style," Ron Jackman, a family friend, said today. "You could tell he was doing what he wanted."
Lance Cpl. Johnson was killed near one of Iraq's most dangerous cities Sunday morning, less than two months after arriving in the war-torn nation.
He died with one other Marine as his unit was traveling from Ramadi, Jackman said.
Ramadi, about 70 miles west of Baghdad, is patrolled by hundreds of Marines. The Marines are confined to bases during the day and return to the streets at night. Daytime foot patrols are limited because of the threat of snipers and roadside bombs.
Jackman said Johnson apparently was killed in a roadside attack. His parents, Louis and Kathy Johnson, were notified by the military Sunday night.
Johnson was the younger of their two children. His 25-year-old sister is a member of the Army Reserves, Jackman said.
Johnson was remembered by many as a young man with goals and a drive to help people.
"All he wanted to do was be in the Marine Corps," childhood friend Jordan Meyer said. "I'm really proud of him. He's one person who actually did what they said they were going to do in life."
Kevin Verheggen, another childhood friend, said Johnson was outgoing and popular.
"Everybody liked him," Verheggen said today.
Verheggen, 22, said Johnson's death has been difficult to grasp.
"A lot of us didn't see him for a while until he came home for vacation," Verheggen said. "Now he's gone and he's not even 20. It's just so sad."
Johnson is the second Marine from Connecticut to die in Iraq in just over a week. Cpl. Jordan Pierson, 21, of Milford, was killed Aug. 25. A memorial service for Pierson was held Monday. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery later this week.
Johnson joined the Westover Young Marines when he was 11 and remained with the unit through high school.
"He was hell-bent on being a Marine," Jackman said.
Once he joined the Marines, Johnson moved through the ranks quickly. He received his basic training in Camp Lejeune, N.C. then trained with a scout sniper unit. He arrived in Iraq on July 14.
"To attain lance corporal, that takes some doing," Jackman said. "He made an impression. He was excited to go to Iraq."
Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, lives a few houses down from Johnson's parents on Frew Terrace. He said Johnson used to play in a band with other neighborhood youth. Kissel remembers seeing Johnson filming home movies with other children in his parents' yard.
"He was extremely nice to all the other children," Kissel said today. "This is painful for us. He was a very nice young man."
Mayor Patrick L. Tallarita said he met with Johnson's parents Monday to express his condolences on behalf of the town.
"His father said the young man was doing what he wanted to do," Tallarita said today. "It's a sad thing for the family and the community as a whole. It brings global events like the war home when something like this happens."
School Superintendent John Gallacher said that a crisis team was put in place at Enfield High School early today, the first day of classes, to help students deal with Johnson's death, and that the principal would soon be talking to the family.
"We're sending over social workers and guidance counselors for students, or anyone else to talk with if they find they are having difficulty," Gallacher said.
The flag at Enfield High School was flying at half-mast early today greeting students on what typically is an exciting day of the year.
Principal Thomas Duffy said Johnson's death was a sad reminder to his students and staff of how fragile life really is.
"It's just awful, and it's frustrating," Duffy said of the news.
Just two weeks before Johnson shipped out overseas he stopped by the high school to visit and say goodbye, Duffy said.
"He looked really good. He was all trim and fit in his fatigues - the all-American type kid," Duffy said. "We told him to be careful and he said he'd be alright. He was proud to go as a Marine. He said he wanted to do the best job he could. He saw it as his responsibility. Philip's career dream was to be a Marine."
"It hurts," Duffy added. "He was a nice kid."
Johnson had a good sense of humor, enjoyed a good laugh, and had a great sense of adventure, Duffy added.
He was totally dedicated to the military, he added, and all through high school couldn't wait to enlist.
Rather than play high school sports, which would have demanded a daily commitment and taken him away from his military duties, Johnson was a member of Voices Incorporated, the school's dual performing choir, Duffy said.