A psychic once told Army Staff Sgt. James Estep that he would die before his 27th birthday.
Estep never forgot the grim prediction, and before he left for Iraq he refused to have a family portrait taken, considering it "bad luck," his wife, Kelly, said Friday. He went over funeral plans and made special visits to siblings.
On Tuesday, the father of three was killed by a roadside bomb in Taji.
He was 26 years old.
"The last time I saw him, he said, `Dad, I love you and probably won't never see you again,' " Estep's stepfather, Richard Hayton of Umatilla, said. "Like he'd had a premonition."
Estep, who had moved to Clarksville, Tenn., with his wife and children, was among four soldiers fatally wounded Tuesday when the bomb exploded near their Humvee.
The blast also killed Spc. Alexis Roman-Cruz, 33, of Brandon, bringing to 88 the number of Florida soldiers killed in the war. Both soldiers served with the 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, based in Fort Campbell, Ky.
Estep was deployed Oct. 2, a week after he buried his mother and two months after the birth of his daughter, Skyla. It was his first tour of duty in Iraq.
He loved his kids, the Army and racing.
"His biggest wish was to meet Dale Earnhardt Jr.," said his wife, 24.
She spoke with him Sunday, two days before his death. He asked her to send cigarettes because he had run out. He also wanted pictures of the kids from his sons' birthdays.
The young couple would have celebrated their second anniversary Friday.
In a telephone interview Friday, Kelly Estep said her husband fretted as most soldiers do -- not for themselves but for their families -- though committed to service and duty.
"He was doing what he did best," she said.
Estep was born with a cleft palate that had hampered his ability to speak clearly, his stepfather said.
"Once he got all fixed up," Hayton quipped, "you couldn't shut his mouth."
As a boy growing up in rural Virginia, Estep and his siblings fished in icy creeks, catching trout with their bare hands, and played war with BB guns and the neighborhood kids.
When he was 17, he followed his mother and stepfather to Lake County, where he lived for about a year.
Estep graduated in 1998 from Lee Adult High School, a now-defunct alternative school in Leesburg that served adults who dropped out or teens who struggled in traditional schools. He enlisted after graduation.
Estep met his wife while stationed in Germany. Their two sons are Preston, 3, and Dylan, 2.
Michael Estep of Virginia said his brother was proud to fight for his country.
"He cared more for other people than he did for himself. That's how we'll always remember him," he said. "He'd even mow your lawn if you needed help."
Estep's family said many soldiers go to war with fear in their hearts.
But his wife said her husband possessed an especially strong foreboding.
"I had a weird feeling that he knew," she said.
Estep said her husband insisted that he once called a TV psychic who predicted he would marry twice, divorce once and die before his 27th birthday. He had been married once before and turned 26 in March.
"Before he left, we went over funeral plans," Kelly Estep said. "I didn't want to, but he said `just in case.' He wanted to be [buried] by his father, in a steel casket, full military honors."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun