Army Staff Sgt. Joseph P. Garyantes had been stationed in Iraq since February, but his outfit hadn't patrolled outside of a U.S. base there until last week.

A few weeks ago, the native of Rehoboth Beach, Del., wrote home to relatives to say that his unit would finally venture outside Camp Normandy. In a letter to his niece, Garyantes said he was scared but that they were ready.

The 34-year-old soldier was killed by sniper fire Tuesday during a combat patrol in Muqdadiyah, about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad, Defense Department officials said yesterday.

"He wasn't even really in danger until last week," his niece Heather Marowski said in a telephone interview last night from the home of Garyantes' mother in Milton, Del. "He said he was ready and he was well prepared."

Garyantes spent 12 years in the military and had been based in Germany for the past nine years, his family said. He was stationed in Vilseck, Germany, with the 63rd Armor Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division before the unit left for Iraq.

He met his wife, Monika, in Europe and had two sons: Ryan, 4, and Tevin, 7. Garyantes phoned his wife in Germany every one or two days, his niece said.

"He had a love for his country and his family. He was proud to be overseas," Marowski said. "He was proud to be there."

News of Garyantes' death spread through Delaware's seaside communities yesterday, as childhood friends contacted his mother and relatives. As a youth, he loved to swim, played varsity basketball and worked at an ice cream parlor.

Richard Trice, vice principal of Epworth Christian School in Laurel, Del., which Garyantes attended, remembered a caring youth with a lot of energy.

"He was full of life, exuberant, likable," Trice said last night.

Garyantes and his family had returned three times in the past two years to Delaware, where he would frolic in the surf with his wife and boys. He loved his wife's family and tried to improve his German language skills, family members said, but the couple planned to move back to the United States in coming years.

Garyantes also is survived by two brothers and three sisters.

"We're very proud of him," Marowski said. "We're praying for all the other soldiers over there, too."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

Staff Sgt. Joseph P. Garyantes had been in the Army for 12 years.