NEWMAN -- Margarita Rodriguez sat in her living room on Monday holding a photo of her son, Sgt. Jose Rodriguez, as she and other loved ones shared some of their memories of the soldier who was killed in Afghanistan last week.
The 2008 Gustine High School graduate, who first joined the Army in 2008 and was assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., in 2009, died after being shot while serving in Kandahar province.
The 22-year-old Stryker sergeant was on his second tour in Afghanistan.
He was in the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, and his death is the fourth fatal casualty suffered by that roughly 700-man unit since it was deployed to Kandahar province in late April, the Tacoma News-Tribune reported. He had received the Army Achievement Medal and the Army Good Conduct Medal.
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"We will always remember him," his mother said in Spanish.
His family called him a responsible, quiet and caring man who wanted to become a firefighter after returning home. He was scheduled to come back for good next year, said his wife, Maria Rodriguez, 19, who goes by the name Lupita.
He died in a rural, hostile territory where American forces are trying to build confidence in the Afghan government ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by 2014, according to the Tacoma News-Tribune.
Sgt. Rodriguez was supposed to be done with his military service in December 2011, but decided to extend his stay with the Army to better provide for his family, his wife said. The couple, who got married in 2010, had recently had a son, Octavian, who is now 13 months old.
She recalled telling her husband that he was going to miss their son's first birthday, which was May 20. "He said, 'It doesn't matter, I will be here for all his other (birthdays),' " she said.
Lupita Rodriguez said she last heard his voice when he called her June 13.
It never crossed her mind that it would be the last time she would talk to him. "I told him, 'We'll be waiting for you,' " she said.
Still, she said she's glad that the last couple of times she talked to him they were happy. "I could hear him actually laugh," she said. "We were happy, and he knew that we loved him."
She described her husband as a great father.
Lupita Rodriguez said it will be difficult to explain to their son why his father is not around as he grows older. "I will always love him," she said. "I have so many memories that I can share with my son."
Of all the memories that Margarita Rodriguez has of her son, one stands out.
When he was getting ready to leave for Georgia in 2008 to attend boot camp, they went to buy a bag for his clothes.
"He came out with a Spiderman backpack," his mother said. "I thought he was going to give it to my little grandson before leaving, but he said, 'No, it's for my clothes.' "
Lupita Rodriguez said he later used the backpack to store pins and medals that were presented to him in the Army. "He loved Spiderman," she said.
As the family shared their memories of Jose Rodriguez, his mother said the reality of what's happened won't completely hit her until she has the body of her son in front of her.
His remains are expected to arrive some time after Friday, his wife said.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.