Those who knew him said he was a patriot in the purest sense of the word, a man whose love of God and country was unshakable.

On Wednesday, he died in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

Funeral arrangements were being made Friday for Marine First Lt. Ryan K. Iannelli, 27, a Gloucester County resident and graduate of Kingsway Regional High School, where he was a standout student and athlete.

Iannelli died "while conducting combat operations in Helmand province," according to a brief statement issued by the U.S. Defense Department on Thursday.

Word of Iannelli's death spread quickly through East Greenwich Township, Gloucester County, where he was raised and where his parents still live.

Iannelli, who graduated from Kingsway in 2002, was class president, a member of the National Honor Society, and captain of the baseball team that won the Tri-County Conference championship his senior year.

Friends and school officials recalled his life with pride and noted his passing with sadness Friday. His death was to be marked by a moment of silence at Friday night's football game, said Kingsway principal Craig Stephenson.

"He was one of the nicest, most genuine human beings I ever met," said Stephenson, who was a teacher and an assistant baseball coach when Iannelli was a student.

"Always in these situations, people go out of their way to say the right thing, but the thing about Ryan was that he was a gem of a human being. . . . I spoke with several teachers today who knew him. They all said they would want their sons to grow up to be the kind of person that Ryan was."

Selfless, self-effacing, and dedicated to what he believed in were the most common descriptions applied to the dark-haired, 5-foot-8 speedster.

Iannelli went to Oral Roberts University, where he earned a degree in public relations and advertising. He added an M.B.A. from Felician College in North Jersey before deciding to join the Marines in November 2007.

"He loved his country and felt that it was something that he needed to do," said Stephenson.

After basic training, he attended naval aviation flight training school, according to biographical data released by the Marine Corps Friday.

He attained the rank of first lieutenant on Nov. 30, 2009, and had earned Global War on Terrorism and National Defense service medals before his deployment to Afghanistan in August.

Iannelli flew AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters. He was a pilot assigned to a light attack helicopter squadron, part of the II Marine Expeditionary Force.

Helmand, in southwest Afghanistan, is considered one of the world's largest producers of opium. The region has long had a strong Taliban presence.

The Defense Department has not provided specific details about the operation that led to the deaths of Iannelli and another Marine.

"This incident is under investigation," said the brief statement issued Thursday.

Iannelli is the 30th U.S. soldier from New Jersey to be killed in Afghanistan since the beginning of that war 10 years ago, according to a tally kept by the Associated Press. Eighty soldiers from New Jersey have died in Iraq.

Deeply religious, Iannelli included several quotes from the Bible on his Facebook page. But he also added a quip from Mark Twain and a quote often attributed to an unnamed Vietnam War-era Marine who, like him, was a lieutenant.

Each quote, said those who knew Iannelli, captured a part of his persona.

"It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog" came from Twain.

The other, Iannelli wrote, came from the unnamed lieutenant: "Courage is endurance for one more moment."

In a brief interview with The Inquirer on Thursday night, his mother, Donna, said her son "served our lord and savior. That's his first love."

But, she added, "he always made his buddies laugh. He liked to have a good time."

"There was just a brightness about him," said Thomas Coleman, who was principal at Kingsway when Iannelli graduated in 2002. "He loved everything he did. Some students stand out like shining lights. He was one of them."

Coleman, who is now superintendent in the Woodstown-Pilesgrove School District, said he last saw Iannelli at Kingsway's annual Memorial Day ceremony shortly after he joined the Marines. The ceremony is a special tribute the school holds each Friday before the holiday.

At the time, Coleman said he had not realized that Iannelli had enlisted until he showed up that day in his dress blues.

"What I remember was how proud he was of that uniform," Coleman said.

"He was one of those special kids. . . . He lost his life the same way he lived it . . . giving to others."

The Memorial Day ceremony traditionally has included a tribute to the three Kingsway graduates who lost their lives in Vietnam.

When the ceremony is held in May 2012, Iannelli's name will be added to that list, school officials said.

Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or