Five years ago, a blast from an improvised explosive device slammed into Capt. Matt Manoukian. Even with a debilitating concussion, the Marine leader scrambled to the aid of one of his men, quickly applying a tourniquet to his leg that saved the soldier's life.

But Manoukian's bravery and resourcefulness couldn't save him this week from a surprise attack in southern Afghanistan by an insurgent disguised as an Afghan policeman.

Manoukian, the 29-year-old son of a Santa Clara County judge and state appellate court justice, and two other Marines were fatally shot after a pre-dawn meal and security meeting at a police checkpoint. It was the third attack on coalition forces by their Afghan counterparts in a week.

The meal took place before dawn because of Ramadan, the month in which Muslims abstain from food during daylight hours. Manoukian's father, Judge Socrates "Pete" Manoukian, said Friday that his son was observing the holiday out of profound respect for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, whom he made a point to get to know during his four tours of duty.

"He was very into their culture,'' the judge said. "He managed to learn Arabic and worked on opening up a school and setting up a police station and got a courthouse running with some of his people. He even taught little kids to play baseball after one of our friends sent baseballs and bats.

"Who knows, one of the these days, maybe little Abdul will be the leadoff batter for the Giants because of Matt.''

Notice of Matt's death came Thursday night with a knock on the door of the family's Los Altos Hills home while the judge was preparing fattoush, a Lebanese salad made of pita bread. When he first opened the door, the porch light wasn't on and all he saw in the gloom were four figures.

"I thought they were Jehovah's witnesses,'' the judge said, his voice cracking. "Then I saw the insignia and I thought, 'oh, this isn't good.'''

Matt's mother, Associate Justice Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian, was returning home from Southern California and couldn't be reached for comment.

Matt Manoukian had dreamed of becoming a Marine since he was 10 years old. After making the dean's list, he graduated from the University of Arizona in 2005 with a degree in political science. A year later, he attended officer candidate school in Quantico, Va., and then infantry school in 2007.

As a platoon commander in Iraq, he was supposed to patrol in a Humvee. But Matt didn't want to be cut off from the locals.

"He didn't believe in that,'' his father said. "So he always walked into town with his guys and talked to little kids and shopkeepers.''

Matt was checking out an abandoned building in 2007 in hopes of opening a sub-station there when the IED went off. He received a Purple Heart, just one of several commendations over the years.

He joined Camp Pendleton's 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion after enduring a grueling training program that only 40 out of 100 men passed, his father said. Matt was in the top five. Among other tests of fortitude, the men had to stay awake for four days.

After seven years of service, Matt was looking forward to leaving the Marines at the end of the year. He was planning to attend law school in the fall of 2013, possibly at Golden Gate University where he'd already been accepted.

He wanted to be a public defender, his father said.

"Matt said he wanted to be one because he was always accused in school of something he didn't do,'' Judge Manoukian said.

His father said he definitely had the chops, recalling how his son stood up to him once after returning home with a detention slip. A teacher had told Matt to throw away his soda. Matt had capped the bottle and complied. But then he had a friend retrieve it and was drinking it again when he ran back into the teacher, who was livid.

So was his father, who as a judge is accustomed to having the last word. But Matt deftly argued his case by bringing up his grandfather, who had nearly starved to death as a victim of the Turkish genocide of Armenians. His grandfather wouldn't approve of wasting food, even soda, Matt insisted, disarming his dad.

He displayed that same pluck in combat, winning a reputation in special ops as "just fearless,'' his father said.

To his younger brothers, Martin and Michael, the tall handsome Marine was their hero.

"Matt was the man,'' his brother Martin said. "Everybody looked up to him.''

Arrangements for services will be announced at a later time.

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482.