As a medic at a San Diego naval clinic, he had been resolute in volunteering for duty in Iraq. But Michael V. Johnson Jr. was a healer by training and temperament, and once he arrived in the Middle East, he was uncertain of the morality of having placed himself in war.

In letters to his wife, Cherice, sometimes two letters a day, he wrote out his worries about what he -- and the Marine division to which he was attached -- might be called upon to do. How would God view him if he helped take a life?

On the war's sixth day, last Tuesday, it was Johnson who was killed, becoming the first naval casualty in Iraq. His 26th birthday would have been tomorrow,his wedding anniversary in two weeks. At 4:30 a.m. Thursday, Cherice Johnson was awakened by knocks on the door of their military housing. Seeing the chaplain and the officer through the peephole, she understood why they had come.

The information was sketchy. Johnson apparently had died when shrapnel from a grenade struck his head, she was told. The military emissaries did not say exactly where he had been. Nor did they explain "if it was an accident on our behalf or in combat," said his wife, 24, who had fallen in love with him when she was a high school senior and he a college sophomore in Little Rock.

He was a young man of many facets: an extrovert with the energy of a child, a passion for basketball, a gift for drawing and singing, a knack for science and calculus.

In Little Rock, his mother, Jana Norfleet, said she is trying to draw comfort from a certain symmetry: a son born in the spring and lost in the spring.

She said she tried to instill a sense of striving in the youngest of her three children, her only son. "I pushed him a lot," she said. "We would spend many nights just sitting, studying together. We didn't move until he was finished." And even when he was young, she was explicit about her reasons. "I'm doing this to make you realize there are many kids out there who are going to excel higher," she would tell him, "and I want you to be in that group."

Starting in second grade, he was in classes for gifted and talented students. He graduated from Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School, which selects its students from the entire county. His mother and stepfather still keep on a living room shelf a plaque from his freshman year, when he was listed in Who's Who Among American High School Students.

Six-foot-one, he excelled at basketball. "I think he saw himself as a basketball professional in his dreams," his mother said, "but we kind of swayed him in the other direction. We told him, 'That should be your second love. You need to make a living, son.' "

Growing up, he had loved the cats, dogs, gerbils and fish in his family's house, and he was fascinated in biology classes by dissection. Compassion was part of his Christian faith, forged by his stepfather's insistence on attending church every Sunday.

He thought of a career that involved medicine. Together with a girlfriend at the time, he enrolled at the University of Central Arkansas, commuting the 45 minutes north to Conway, Ark. He hoped to enter classes that would lead him into physical therapy, but they were full, and he pursued pre-engineering classes for two years before he left.

"He went into the Navy to continue his education, to have it paid for by Uncle Sam," said his mother, who was uneasy about his choice but told him she would support him.

"He had wanted to strive for bigger and better things and travel, and he just came upon the Navy and decided that would be the starting point for what he wanted to do," his wife, Cherice, said.

After basic training, he trained as a hospital corpsman at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., then was assigned to a clinic at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot that is part of the Naval Medical Center, San Diego. He had an affinity for the work. He gave physicals to potential recruits, helped to treat the sick and, at times, provided counseling.

He and Cherice formed a wide circle of friends, and he developed an attachment to the men he thought of as brothers in a surrogate, West Coast family. Last June, he extended his five-year enlistment by a year.

Late in the year, as the prospect of war grew, he was among fewer than a half-dozen of the clinic co-workers he knew who volunteered for the Middle East, Cherice Johnson said.

He did not ask his mother for her opinion before deciding. If he had, she would have told him not to go, "because that's what mothers say," Norfleet said. "I'm selfish. I'm going to tell you that right here and now. That's my baby. But he didn't ask me. He's a man."

She told him, once again, that she supported his choice, but her feelings slipped out. "Don't you think you could find a tent like on the 'M*A*S*H' series, a tent to treat the wounded back behind?" she asked.

He replied, she recalled, that "they were his brothers, and he wanted to be there with them and for them."

His final conversation with his mother went on for two hours, on a cell phone as he was about to be deployed from California. He last called his wife on a refueling stop in Spain.

The last letter to his mother arrived just over two weeks ago from Kuwait. "By the time you receive this letter, I will have gone to war," he wrote. "If I don't make it back, don't be sad for me. Be happy for me and praise God, because I've gone to heaven to be with grandma."

"The reality of war draws you closer to God," the medic wrote. "It lets you know how valuable life really is."

Medic Michael V. Johnson Jr., shown in a 2001 family photo, became the Navy's first casualty in the Iraq war.