July 20, 2016 03:10 PM

He’d only been on the job little less than four months, but on Sunday, Baton Rouge policeman Matthew Gerald made the ultimate sacrifice.

Gerald, 41, was one of the three officers killed Sunday morning by the shooter, 29-year-old Gavin Long. Investigators have since determined that Long traveled to Louisiana from his native Missouri with the goal of murdering police officers.

The shooting also claimed the lives of 32-year-old Baton Rouge Police Department Officer Montrell Jackson and East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Deputy Brad Garafola while leaving three other officers injured – one of them, critically.

Gerald, a Marine who served as a former Black Hawk crew chief in the US Army, got married to his wife four years ago. The couple had a three-year-old daughter.

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“She had a child from a previous relationship, and he had no problem stepping up and loving that child as his own,” according to novelist Skye Turner, who is friends with Gerald’s wife. “He was pretty much her hero.”

Matthew Gerald
Baton Rouge Police Department

Turner tells PEOPLE that Gerald “only graduated from the police academy this past March” and that two weeks ago, he was cleared for individual patrols.

“He was a rookie and he was the kind of person who always wanted to do for others,” Turner says. “If he could help someone, he would. I think police work was a natural progression for him.”

For more on the Baton Rouge officers fatally shot in what police said was a targeted attack, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

On the morning of the shooting, Turner says Gerald’s wife, Dechia, tried calling him, but had trouble getting through to his phone.

“A journalist friend of mine sent me a text about an hour later, confirming Matt was one of the casualties,” Turner recalls. “My heart just stopped. It literally crushed me.”

Matthew Gerald
Gerald Family

Turner tells PEOPLE she’ll always remember Gerald as “a jokester” who was “very funny” and laid-back.

“He was just the guy next door everyone wanted to be friends with,” Turner says. “He had an amazing smile. He was always in a good mood and in good spirits – just a typical Louisiana guy.”

Nick Lambert, a friend who served in the military with Gerald, tells PEOPLE that his slain friend was “full of life” and “always excited and looking to have a good time.”

For more on the Baton Rouge officers fatally shot in what police said was a targeted attack, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

According to Lambert, Gerald “had a thick, unforgettable Louisiana drawl” and would “give you the shirt of your back – no problem.” He was also blunt. “He told you how it was,” says Lambert. “He wasn’t worried about people being offended. He just told it like it is. Anytime we’d go out, you knew Matt was around. He always wanted to make everyone laugh. He made fun of himself a lot and he was fearless. He definitely enjoyed life.”

Lambert also claims Gerald was an avid fisherman and “a huge fan” of Louisiana State University football.

“It was crushing,” Lambert tells PEOPLE of Gerald’s death. “When I got that call the other morning, I couldn’t fathom the fact that Matt’s gone. Once it was confirmed, I was shocked and devastated. I couldn’t even speak at times. It’s still choking me up right now.”

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