MERCED -- Army Pfc. Lukas Hopper, a 20-year-old paratrooper from Merced, died in a Humvee crash in Baghdad last week, the military said Monday.
A Golden Valley High School graduate, Hopper had been in Iraq for nearly a year. He was less than two weeks away from the end of his deployment when his vehicle flipped Friday in a noncombat-related crash in Baghdad's Karrada district.
His body arrived Monday night at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. His casket will be flown to Merced by the weekend.
Hopper was in the Humvee's gunner seat at the time of the crash.
The cause of the rollover is being investigated, the military said.
Hopper's friends and relatives remembered him as an impetuous thrill-seeker and a protective big brother from an especially close-knit family. They said he joined the Army at 18 in hopes of seeing the world and that he recently volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan.
He loved hiking, going to the beach and pulling pranks.
"He's always been an adventurer, always the one who wanted to be right in the middle of the action," said his mother, Robin Hopper. "He knew he wanted to be infantry, and he knew he wanted to jump out of airplanes."
A Merced native and the oldest of three siblings, Hopper graduated in 2007 from Golden Valley, where he swam and played water polo. He spent a semester at Merced College before joining the military two years ago.
After basic training, he went to Fort Bragg, N.C. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
Relatives said Hopper's unit took on various missions during his deployment, including guarding checkpoints and tracking insurgents.
"He hated guard duty because he couldn't stand staying still," said his mother, who is principal at Yamato Colony Elementary School in Livingston. "He wanted to be out in the streets on missions."
Hopper's best friend, Daniel Alcorn, described Hopper as a deeply caring friend who seized the day.
"He didn't really talk about the future all that often," Alcorn said. "He knew what was important, though. He took really good care of his friends and his family."
Funeral services are tentatively planned for Saturday, relatives said. Hopper will be buried in Catheys Valley, they added, and his unit has planned memorial services in Baghdad and Fort Bragg.
Hopper is the 25th service member from the Northern San Joaquin Valley to die in the Iraq war. Four others have been killed in Afghanistan.
Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at 385-2477 or email@example.com.