VICENZA, Italy — When Pfc. Joseph Cruz talked, you listened.

That’s one of the things Staff Sgt. Jonathan Brooks remembered about his friend Wednesday at a memorial service at Caserma Ederle, who died Monday at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan following an accident.

Sometimes, Brooks said, you had to think about the words a bit. Other times, they were pretty obvious: “He had you laughing so hard it hurt.”

He said Cruz had had some hard times in the Army “and got into a little trouble and went from an E-4 to an E-1.” He said Cruz responded to the demotion not by getting out of the military or taking it out on others. Instead, he appeared to be determined to get back that rank and “work his way back up through the ranks on his way to becoming an NCO.”

He said he learned a lesson from Cruz that he won’t forget: “Smile, work through it and soon you’ll get past it.”

According to a Department of Defense news release, Cruz died following an accident that was not combat-related Sunday at Orgun-E. More information about the incident, which is reportedly under investigation, was not available.

Cruz is the 15th member of the Southern European Task Force (Airborne) to die in Afghanistan since the unit took over the leadership role of the mission in country in March. He was assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment.

Capt. John McDougall said his fellow Red Devil was special because of who he was: a mortar man.

“His infantry job required him to be sharp,” he said. “The mortar part required him to be smart.”

McDougall said such soldiers are “part mathematician, part muscleman.”

McDougall called Cruz “an absolute expert with his weapon.”

Cruz demonstrated that early on in the mission in Afghanistan.

On May 30, a small group of soldiers whom Cruz was with was ambushed by superior enemy forces from all sides. Cruz responded by firing off 20 rounds to suppress enemy fire. Then he returned to the other soldiers and fired again, killing several enemy combatants with an accurate mortar round.

For his efforts that day, he earned the Army Commendation Medal with valor.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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