Ray Estrada was flipping through the Sunday paper during the Memorial Day weekend when his eyes lit upon Parade magazine's cover story about a 22-year-old Marine who gave his life by throwing his helmet over a hand grenade to save his men.
"The fact that he had the character, the conviction to do that -- it was a really touching story," Estrada said.
The Marine's character and conviction were precisely the traits Estrada wanted his sons, Josh, 16, and Jordan, 14, to have. "They needed to understand what other youngsters were doing out there," he said.
The article also struck a chord with Josh and Jordan, so much so that the Ashburn brothers, both All-County guitarists, decided to put the story of Cpl. Jason L. Dunham to music.
Dunham was patrolling near the Iraq-Syria border April 14, 2004, when he and another member of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment began searching a vehicle for weapons. The hand grenade was thrown by the Iraqi driver, wounding Dunham and two of his men. A metal fragment the size of a pencil eraser was embedded in Dunham's brain, the Parade article said. He was flown to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, where his parents removed him from life support a week later.
"I know a lot of people sacrifice their lives, but something about what Jason did hit me and my brother," Josh Estrada said.
Within a month, the brothers had written and recorded "Last Letters and New Tears," a four-minute rock ballad. The brothers and 14-year-old percussionist Jordan Faett, who call themselves the "Josh Estrada Project," performed the song in public for the second time Friday evening at the Broadlands Live! summer concert in Ashburn.
"It gets you a little teary-eyed when you think about what's behind it," said Gail Bottoms, a member of the audience who lives four houses down from the Estradas.
The song's title and refrain come from President Bush's Memorial Day speech: "Today is a day of last letters and fresh tears," the president said after reading from the final correspondence of several soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Because of the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, two terror regimes are gone forever, freedom is on the march and America is more secure," Bush said.
"Last Letters and New Tears" is the Estrada brothers' way of supporting the troops. "Whatever our issues, [the troops] need our support -- let them do their job and bring them home," Ray Estrada said.
The brothers have received numerous e-mails from veterans and their family members who have heard the song, which is available only on the Internet (www.joshestrada.com).
"Even though before now, you probably didn't know [my husband] by name, to know that you are remembering all our heroes brings me a comfort I can't describe," wrote one woman whose husband was killed in Iraq in 2003.
A soldier who recently returned from Baghdad e-mailed to say that he had lost a couple of friends and that the song "hit hard, but in a good way."
When Jason Dunham's mother, Deb, heard the song, she cried.
"I was just so impressed by their talent and their ability to put into words something to honor all of our soldiers, those that are still here and those that have passed on," she said from her home in Scio, N.Y. "To know that a story about my son was a catalyst to that -- I'm speechless."
The song differs from Josh Estrada's previous work, which "exudes happiness and teenage kind of stuff -- about girls, fun stuff," Ray Estrada said. Josh has released one album, "Life Is What I Make It," on his own label. He calls his music a blend of punk and "power pop" and draws on such artists as Blink-182, Green Day and Santana.
The difference is due partly to the sensitivity of the subject and partly to Jordan's influence. This is the first song Josh has collaborated on with his younger brother. Jordan, who plays guitar and bass and provides backup vocals, created the bass line.
"It feels like a heartbeat," Ray Estrada said.
As a result of their teamwork, "we get different ideas now and different input," Josh said. "We really enjoy working with each other. It's something we don't do often because we're very different."
Jordan, a rising freshman at Briar Woods High School, is taller, plays basketball and is stronger in math. Josh, a rising junior, is stockier, plays football and is more of a humanities student. But they share a penchant for music -- and a familial allegiance to the military.
Ray Estrada, 39, a banker, was a Marine who served in Operations Desert Shield and Storm. The boys' grandfather was a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and their great-grandfather fought in both world wars and was a POW in World War II and survived the Bataan Death March. An uncle is in the Air Force.
Despite the family history, Josh said enlisting "is not something I've ever thought of doing."
"They're still kids," Ray Estrada said. "We just want to get them through high school and college. That's a war zone in itself."
Staff writer Arianne Aryanpur contributed to this report.