Growing up in Yelm, Jerome Potter liked to sneak onto Fort Lewis and secretly watch up close as the troops trained in the woods.
One time, he got too close. There was an explosion, and he got his bell rung so hard his ears bled.
"They brought him home and said don't ever come back unless you're going to join up," recalled his mom, Holly Burson.
Six years later, he did. And from then on Burson of Tacoma, said she always worried she would one day have to hear the worst news a soldier's mom can imagine.
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That day came Thursday, when the Army said that Jerome had died in Iraq.
Casualty notification officers told her that Pfc. Jerome Potter, 24, died in a roadside bomb blast Thursday while on patrol in Baghdad with the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment from the 1st Cavalry Division.
Potter, based at Fort Hood, Texas, went to Iraq in October.
The Department of Defense has not yet announced his death.
Burson said she had to hide her fears the day her son came to her a couple summers ago and said he was joining up. They both knew the risks, she said.
"I just decided, don't fight it, support him. ... I could never tell him 'this is killing me.' All the while he's been in Iraq, it's just been tearing me up.
But Potter wanted to become a soldier from an early age.
"He was very adamant," said his sister Amber. "He said 'I know there's this chance, but I'm going to do it.' It was what he really loved and what he wanted to do."
His family said he grew up in Yelm and Olympia, and attended Yelm High School before joining the Job Corps, where he got his GED. He worked a couple years as a forestry firefighter.
When he finished his enlistment he aspired to use his G.I. Bill money to become a park ranger.
The last time she spoke with her son, about four weeks ago, he told her things were getting tough in Baghdad. He said his unit was getting pushed into new areas.
"He said it was getting pretty brutal, and that he didn't think he was coming home. I told him 'you're coming home, you're coming home. Don't talk like that.' "
His mom and sisters Amber and Bobbi Jo have made T-shirts with his picture and a banner that they're going to put up on an Interstate 5 overpass at Fort Lewis.
The shirts bear the words, "I fought for you. Remember me."
The family said funeral arrangements will be worked out after Potter's remains are returned.
"He was a spectacular kid," his mom said. "He had a lot of challenges in his life, a difficult childhood, but he overcame them. He had his whole life mapped out and he was following it to a T."