The students in Michael Alleman's class didn't take kindly to the news.
   
    It was the middle of the school year, and the popular fifth-grade teacher was leaving his career as an educator to join the Army. He told the class he wanted to be like the nation's first president, who left his career as a Virginia planter to take up arms against the British monarchy.
   
    "He said that George Washington was his hero," said Samantha Larkin, 11, a student in Alleman's class at Nibley Elementary School in Cache County, last year. "But it was a little bit confusing to us."
   
    On Tuesday, Alleman's former students were among those in several Utah communities coming to terms with a revelation that was even more difficult to accept: Army officials said that the 31-year-old Utahn, whose wife, children and parents reside together in American Fork, died Monday alongside two other soldiers and their interpreter in a firefight in Iraq's eastern Diyala Province.
   
    The details of Monday's assault remain vague, but the father of another soldier killed in the battle told The Daily Star newspaper in Oneonta, N.Y., that the soldiers' patrol encountered a bunker and, when the soldiers drew near it, they were fired upon. The Army earlier had reported that Alleman, Zachary Nordmeyer and Michael Mayne had died in a roadside bomb attack. Iraq's insurgents often use bombs to draw in or disable the vehicles of U.S. soldiers, then follow the blast with small arms fire, but the Army did not provide an expanded account of the fight.
   
    Alleman is the first Utah service member to have been killed in either of the nation's ongoing wars this year, and his death marks the first time a Utahn has fallen in combat in Iraq since July 2007, when American Fork resident Nathan Barnes was killed near Baghdad. The period between the two men's deaths coincides with a precipitous drop in violence across Iraq, including in Diyala, which was once among the nation's deadliest areas.
   
    Given the significant security gains, the commander of Alleman's Alaska-based brigade combat team said in a recent conference call with reporters that his soldiers were sometimes bored with their duties.
   
    "They came here expecting it to be more of a fight," Col. Burt Thompson, commander of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry, said earlier this month.
   
    But Thompson warned that Diyala was still a dangerous place, where al-Qaida guerillas remained capable of mounting deadly attacks.
   
    Though too young to understand the complexities of the Iraq war, many of Alleman's young scholars had worried that their teacher might be harmed in the fighting. And so, Larkin said, not all of the students were supportive of Alleman's decision to leave. "The class was a little bit mean to him," she said.
   
    Mindy Heaton, a literacy aid at the school and the past president of Nibley's PTA, said Alleman's departure left a difficult-to-fill gap in the staff and was hard on some of the students. "It was tough, because his class really liked him," she said.
   
    But all seemed forgiven when Alleman returned from basic training to visit with his former students last winter. Arriving at the school with his family and wearing his dress uniform, just before Valentine's Day, he was greeted with gifts and handmade cards.
    Larkin said Alleman looked proud in his uniform and seeing him dressed that way helped many of the students understand why he had left.
   
    Principal Bill Landauer said it was clear that Alleman had found his niche. "He was the epitome of a soldier," Landauer said. "That's what he wanted to do, more than anything else. Teaching came second the only thing that didn't come second was his family."
    That family was huddled together Tuesday evening at Alleman's parent's home, where his wife and two sons have lived since shortly after he joined the Army.