Growing up in Orange County, Justin W. Pollard was the kind of guy who would jump into a fight if someone threatened to harm one of his numerous friends.
It was that sense of justice that had him so angered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that he joined the Army so he "could do something about it."
A dozen friends and family members praised the 21-year-old soldier's convictions Monday as they gathered at his Foothill Ranch home to mourn his death.
Pollard, an Army specialist, died Dec. 30 in Baghdad of injuries sustained in a noncombat-related incident, according to military officials. The family has not been given additional details.
"I will never regret the decision that he made," said his father, Bill, 50, sitting in the family's living room next to his wife, Sue.
"He was doing what he wanted to do. He made the right decision for the right reasons."
As of Monday, 483 U.S. servicemen and women have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, 354 of them since major fighting in Iraq ended May 1.
Pollard, who was assigned to the 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment based in Ft. Carson, Colo., is one of 53 service members with ties to California who have died.
On Monday, a U.S. flag hung outside the house where the Pollards -- including Justin's brother Cameron, 19, and sister Jennifer, 12 -- have lived for eight years.
Pollard was born in Newport Beach and attended Trabuco Hills High School in Mission Viejo, his family said. The young man who loved bodyboarding in San Clemente and Newport Beach also was a catcher on the varsity baseball team and quarterback, linebacker and fullback on the football team.
"As far as sports was concerned, he was always a leader," said Chris Chandler, 21, a friend who met Pollard on the freshman football team. "He was the one we looked up to on the football field."
A collage of pictures in the Pollards' living room showed Justin as the center of attention at social events, such as the time a couple of dozen friends piled into a limousine for prom night. "We were almost like a family," said one, Kayla Kofron, 21.
Pollard, who struggled to keep his grades up at Trabuco Hills High, graduated in 2001 from Silverado Continuation school. He attended Irvine Valley College briefly. But on Sept. 11, hours after the terrorist attacks, he visited an Army recruitment office.
"It was like an epiphany," his father said. "It just made him angry."
When Pollard returned home after basic training, he seemed to have gained a new appreciation for his family, spending more time during the break with his parents and siblings than out with friends.
"He knew family was important," Kofron said. "Before he was more a free spirit."
Pollard was deployed to Iraq in April. In the last few weeks, he awoke friends back in Orange County regularly with his 7 a.m. calls. He would say, " 'It's not that I like being here, but this is my job and I don't mind doing it,' " Sue Pollard recalled.
"When I would worry about him, I would worry about every other thing that could happen," Bill Pollard said. "But the last thing I worried about was some kind of accidental death."
Pollard will be buried Saturday at Pacific View Memorial Park in Corona del Mar. His grave will overlook the ocean that was his haven. "We thought that would be an appropriate place for him to be," his father said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun