Standing in a dusty square in Baghdad, Marine Cpl. Jason David Mileowatched as a symbol of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime - a metal statue of thedictator - was toppled by American troops and broken apart by an angry mob.
For the young soldier and former Pasadena resident, it was a pride-filledand patriotic moment, one he shared by using a reporter's satellite phone toleave a message at his parents' home in Centreville on the Eastern Shore.
"You could tell from his voice there was a lot of excitement," Mileo'sgrandfather, Walter J. Hall of Pasadena, recalled yesterday. "He was rightthere in the square."
Mileo's jubilant message was the last his parents, Phillip and Leah Hall,heard from him. They were informed this week that their son had been shot andkilled in the same city he helped liberate, the apparent victim of a case ofmistaken identity.
"Jason's death at this late stage of the war was a tremendous shock," Hallsaid, adding that as the fighting waned, relatives had toasted his expectedreturn. "It's harder because we were looking forward to the end ofhostilities."
A report released Thursday by the Department of the Defense stated thatMileo was shot when he was mistaken for an enemy soldier.
Mileo's death - he is the third serviceman from Maryland to die in the Iraq war - is under investigation.
During his stay in Iraq, Mileo endured - and survived - intense fighting, aMarine spokesman said.
He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st MarineDivision, which is based at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center inSan Bernardino County, Calif.
Mileo's battalion, part of the 7th Regimental Combat Battalion, led thecharge through Iraq on March 19.
"This 7th Regimental Combat team was one of the major players on thechessboard," said spokesman Maj. Matt McLaughlin.
Mileo's battalion arrived in Kuwait shortly after Christmas and crossedinto Iraq at the outset of war a month ago, McLaughlin said. It moved from theRamallah oil fields - a key position U.S. forces gained control of early inthe war - northwest to Nasiriyah. There, Mileo and other Marines engaged insome of the war's heaviest fighting.
From Nasiriyah, Mileo and his battalion followed a branch of the EuphratesRiver toward Kut, where they crossed the Tigris River and turned northwesttoward Baghdad.
After toppling the Hussein statue with a wire noose, his regiment helpedsecure eastern Baghdad, transforming it from a combat zone into one ofrelative peace.
The regiment remained there yesterday, McLaughlin said.
Mileo's family - split between Centreville and Pasadena - recalledyesterday a young soldier eager to live up to the warrior prowess of theMarines.
"He was very proud to be a Marine," said Hall, Mileo's paternalgrandfather, who served as the family's spokesman. "He was drawn to it becauseof the pride and history of the Corps. He looked at the Marines as being thebravest of the brave."
Mileo, who had been stationed in Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif., Okinawa, andJapan before joining the forces in the gulf, wrote a letter to his grandfatheron March 11, a week before the war started.
"You don't realize how good normal food is until you eat in our chow hall,"Mileo wrote after receiving a care package from his grandparents. He alsoteased Hall, who had recently taken up golf again: "When I get back, I willteach you guys a few things about golf."
After the statue episode, and reports that the war was winding down,relatives thought Mileo would be coming home soon. At a recent gathering, theyraised glasses to toast a joyous reunion, Hall said.
Hall said the fact that his grandson was killed by friendly fire doesn'ttake away from the bravery of Mileo's sacrifice.
"Jason put his life down so that liberty could prevail," Hall said. "Hisdeath was a noble death, despite the circumstances. ... That is the risk ofany war that those things can happen."
Along 204th Street, in a Pasadena neighborhood brimming with flags andyellow ribbons, his maternal grandmother, Margaret Mileo, was too distraughtto speak about her grandson. But her grief was evident: A yellow ribbon on themailbox is now tied over with a black streamer; a Marine Corps flag isstitched with a narrow strip of black fabric.
Mileo's parents, who moved from Pasadena to Centreville in Queen Anne'sCounty a year ago, were unavailable for comment.
Their mobile home - where they are living until their new home is finished- was decorated with yellow ribbons and a bow.
American flags hung from the mailbox and a shed. As wind gusted across theopen field, the flags whipped straight, as if at attention. Several vehicleswere parked on the driveway, including a green Toyota 4Runner with a Marinessticker displayed in the back window.
Mileo's parents posted a poem titled "Our Hero" on the Web site of thefuneral home handling arrangements for their son. It read, in part, "He gavehis all, he gave his life, for the sake of you and me. No greater love can anyman show than for his country to die. A true Marine, he helped win the war.The few - the proud - `Semper Fi.'"
Friends from Chesapeake High School recalled a skinny kid in baggy cargopants who was never short of smiles or energy.
"He would go out of his way to make you laugh," said Katherine NocheraBurnstein, 20, of Catonsville, who was a member of the high school theatergroup with Mileo. "He would come up to you, make random funny faces. In a highschool atmosphere, where a lot of people are trying to be cool, that kind ofattitude was rare."
Another theater group member, Tim Grieb, 21, of Pasadena, remembered Mileoas a lighting expert with catlike agility and a sharp eye for detail.
"He was always hanging off the catwalk and fixing lighting," said Grieb,who learned of Mileo's death through e-mails among Chesapeake graduates. "Hewas quite a techie. He knew how to fix anything."
Chesapeake High's stage crew adviser, Tim Simmons of Pasadena, said Mileohad a keen sense of humor, and that he was able to laugh at his own mistakes.
Nochera Burnstein said she never took Mileo, a creative type who sportedspiked hair and alternative-rock group T-shirts at Chesapeake High, for amilitary man. Still, she was proud of the victory her classmate had helped winin Iraq.
"I am very proud of Jason for doing what he did and giving up his life forwhat he believed in," she said. "I hope he gets the happiness he deserveswherever he is now."
Funeral services for Mileo will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at Trinity BibleChurch in Severna Park. Burial will be private.