Her mother and grandmother did not want her to go to Iraq -- did not want her to enlist in the military at all -- but Leslie Jackson believed she had found her calling.

"There's a war going on," the older women had worried.

"I'll be all right," Jackson assured them. "I'll be back."

Now that memory is especially poignant, as they and others mourn the death of the 18-year-old soldier from Richmond, killed last week in Baghdad when the vehicle she was driving struck a roadside bomb.

Believed to be the youngest soldier from the Washington region to die in Iraq, Pfc. Jackson was her mother's only child, a bright-eyed teenager with grit and ambition. She was a leader in the JROTC program at George Wythe High School of the Arts in Richmond. For two years she was commander of the program's 200 students, school officials said.

"She knew what she wanted to do," said her mother, Viola.

Jackson graduated from Wythe in 2003 and landed at Army boot camp before her 18th birthday. After training to be a truck driver, she was assigned to Fort Hood, Tex., where she served with the 1st Cavalry Division. In March, the unit traveled to Kuwait, then Iraq.

In e-mails from Iraq, Jackson wrote her high school principal, Earl M. Pappy, about long days and episodes of mortar fire, about times when she felt a little afraid and of how her sergeant had noted an admirable toughness about her.

At Wythe, Pappy said, "she was a shining star. She was 18 and she was highly respected." He added: "She was a model student. She was a very positive person. If I had a school full of Leslie Jacksons, I would go to sleep at night."

Short but strong, "she walked like a soldier" and wore her uniform proudly, recalled Ronnie Fleming, one of her high school English teachers. "Leslie loved poetry," he said. "She had a way of seeing deeper things than a lot of students in my classroom."

Her aunt, Pearl Roberts, said the teenager had not been sure what she wanted to do with her life until she discovered the JROTC program. "She was very good at it," she said, and Jackson believed that she was "military material" and that the military offered a promising future.

"She wanted to make a difference in the world," Roberts said. "She didn't want to just have children and be in the system. She wanted to do better. . . . She wanted a life and an education and a good job."

In one demonstration of that faith, Jackson mailed her mother a camouflage-covered Bible during boot camp. In it, she inscribed: "To: My Mommy, From: Your Lil Soldier. Trying to make the best of life. To show you. I can make the world come to me. I love you much."

Her aunt's voice broke as she read the words. "She was just so sweet," she said. "She was always kind, always good. . . . She wanted to better her life."