Joseph Ildefonso works hard to remember his best friend's life in Hernando County, not the gunshot wound that killed him in Afghanistan in July 2009, just short of his 22nd birthday.
"He was the best friend that anyone could ever ask for," Ildefonso, 25, of Spring Hill, said of Army Spc. Justin Coleman.
But recently it has been difficult to forget Coleman's death, which is at the center of a national controversy over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Along with criticism of the release of five Taliban members in exchange for Bergdahl, Republican lawmakers and former service members have said that Bergdahl was not originally a prisoner but a deserter, and that several of his fellow soldiers died in the search for him.
Coleman was not included in a widely circulated Daily Beast essay by a former member of Bergdahl's battalion that listed the eight soldiers who died during the search. But Army Sgt. 1st Class William Kamer told the Tampa Bay Times in 2009 that Coleman was part of a unit conducting security checks in the area where officials believed Bergdahl was taken.
Friends and family members of other soldiers who died in the aftermath of Bergdahl's disappearance have slammed the exchange.
This includes Bob Curtiss, father of Army Staff Sgt. Kurt Curtiss of Utah, who told the Salt Lake Tribune the trade was "disgraceful."
"It's very hurtful to the soldiers who gave their lives to their country," Curtiss said. "It's like a slap in the face to these soldiers.
But both Ildefonso and Coleman's father, Dean "Al" Coleman, were more willing to focus on the good news that Bergdahl had been returned.
"I'm happy for him and his family and that he can appreciate the life he still has left to live," Ildefonso said.
"They have their son back. I'm happy for them that they have their son back," Al Coleman told a Fox 13 television news reporter.
Coleman, who did not respond to several requests for interviews from the Times on Wednesday, also told the station that he wasn't sure his son had died in the search for Bergdahl.
Ildefonso said he knew Coleman was looking for a missing soldier and believes that soldier was Bergdahl.
"It was confirmed to me that it was a search and rescue," he said.
The possibility of Coleman's involvement in the controversy doesn't change how Ildefonso feels about his friend — that, like always, he went beyond the call of duty to get the job done or die trying.
The pair met on the school bus while attending Fox Chapel Middle School in Spring Hill. Ildefonso, who described himself as a social outcast, was bullied during school. The well-liked Coleman befriended him and defended him against the bullies.
"He found me more than I found him," Ildefonso said. "He went out of his way to connect with me."
They moved on to Nature Coast Technical High School together. On weekends, they'd stay up all night playing video games. During school, Coleman developed interests in information technology and electronics, Ildefonso said.
After high school, Coleman joined the Army to pay for college. He used to talk about learning the language and culture of Afghanistan. He wanted to connect with the people there.
The news of Coleman's death came while Ildefonso was working at a Weeki Wachee Hardee's. He clocked out and drove to his mother's house in shock.
Each year since then, Ildefonso has visited his grave on Aug. 31, Coleman's birthday.
"I like to remember his birth and who he was rather than his death," he said.
The last time they spoke was a brief message exchange on MySpace to catch up. Ildefonso ended the conversation as he always did.
"Come home safe."
Times staff researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Kathryn Varn can be reached at (352)754-6114 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @kathrynvarn.