Mr. Martin was blocks away, at a neighbor's house, cutting grass as a favor when his niece called his cell phone. He knew.
"She said there were two and dressed in full uniform," Mr. Martin said. "It was a parent's worst nightmare. They don't come unless there's a death."
Staff Sgt. Jay E. Martin, a 1996 graduate of Forest Park High School, was killed Sunday in Baghdad when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle during combat operations, the Department of Defense announced yesterday.
Two other soldiers, Sgt. Alexander J. Funcheon, 21, of Bel Aire, Kan., and Pfc. Brian A. Botello, 19, of Alta, Iowa, also died in the attack.
All three were assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, in Fort Carson, Colo.
Sergeant Martin, 29, was the third alumnus of Forest Park and its Junior ROTC program to die at war. Within two weeks in August 2005, two members of the Class of 2000 died in combat -- Army Spc. Toccara Renee Green in Iraq and Army Staff Sgt. Damion G. Campbell in Afghanistan.
"When the city is just full of so much sadness, he was just a shining star," said one of Sergeant Martin's sisters, Lark Adams, 25, of Reservoir Hill. "He followed the rules. He did what he was supposed to. He was an example to everyone."
He has three other sisters: Dove Adams, 21, also of Reservoir Hill; Raven Adams, 19, of Suitland; and Shannon Griffin, 14, of Anne Arundel County.
Family and friends described him yesterday as a typical kid who loved Star Wars and playing Mortal Kombat on a television in his grandmother's kitchen. When an aunt brought him to Disney World, there wasn't a ride he wouldn't get on. But in other ways, they recalled him as remarkable.
Even as a young boy, he talked military. Playing hide-and-go-seek in his West Baltimore neighborhood in the Dickey Hill Forest Apartments, he created strategies, said a childhood friend, Dwight Taylor-Peay. He commanded the others to serve as "lookouts." He warned of "an ambush."
Later, as the boys grew into young men, Sergeant Martin preached to friends the importance of college, Mr. Taylor-Peay said. Sergeant Martin, who also ran track at Forest Park, attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. He left after a year, realizing he could never be a pilot because he didn't have 20/20 vision.
"Jay was always ... positive, ambitious, militant," said Mr. Taylor-Peay, 28, of York, Pa. "He was always your good conscience. Just fooling around, playing a prank on somebody that went too far, Jay was always the civilized one. He had a good sense of humor, but at the same time he was serious. He was about his business."
From about 7, he dreamed of being a pilot and joining the military, his family said. About a year later, his mother, Robin Adams, a local model and avid Prince fan, died of complications from an asthma attack, the family said. The boy went to live with his father, who worked for UPS.
One of his aunts, Lori Martin-Graham, who lives in Woodlawn, became a second mother to him. He vacationed with her every year at her time-share in Florida and would talk about military service for hours with her husband, James Graham, who served in the Navy from 1985 to 1994.
"He loved military planes," Mr. Graham said. "The F-14, he would say, 'James, that's an old bird. They're gonna drop that thing. That thing is old.'"
Sergeant Martin joined the Army in November 1997. After basic training, his father said, he served for close to two years in Germany and did a brief stint in Bosnia, where he learned to operate Stinger missiles. He was based later at Fort Irwin in California as an Army recruiter.
Sergeant Martin visited home when he could, his family said, attending family reunions in Virginia Beach, Va., and Florida. He took great pride in his car, a Dodge Stratus RT. An avid runner, he ran eight miles three or four times a week. After the military, he wanted to become a Los Angeles police officer.
He soon grew bored with recruiting and wanted to go to Baghdad, telling Mr. Taylor-Peay, "I'm supposed to be fighting for my country, I can't sit in an office."
It was a decision that didn't please his father.
"You don't want your child in harm's way," Dwight Martin, 57, said. "You protect them all your life. I said, 'Don't. Definitely don't.' If it was protecting your family or your country was invaded, then that's one thing, but to go into a country that people have lied about and kill thousands of people basically for greed. ..."
His aunt added, "He was excited to go. He said he was going to fight for his country."
Sergeant Martin worked reconnaissance and was often on the go, his family said, able to call or e-mail only a few times since he left for Iraq in October. In an e-mail to Mrs. Martin-Graham, he told his aunt, "I don't stay in one spot too long, we're on top of buildings setting up."
His sister, Lark Adams, recalls him sharing how much violence he saw in Iraq. "He told me that this is the most gunfire I've ever seen in my life. He just kept on saying, 'I've never seen anything like this. I've never seen anything like this.' But he said, 'We're catching the bad guys.'"
Sergeant Martin had been scheduled for a two-week break from Iraq in April, but -- in a move typical of his nature -- his family said he allowed a fellow soldier whose wife just had a baby to take his place.
His family is still arranging his services.