HERNANDO BEACH — From Afghanistan, Army Spc. Justin Dean Coleman sent a message to his father on July 17:
Leaving on mission. Can't say more. If you want details, watch the news.
In Hernando Beach, Al Coleman turned on the television. He heard a reporter describe the military's efforts to find a missing soldier captured by the Taliban in the remote, mountainous region of Afghanistan.
A week later, amid a friend's birthday celebration, Al Coleman received the news.
His 21-year-old son had died of a gunshot wound in a firefight outside the town of Bargh-e-Matal in Nuristan province near the Pakistan border.
That is the region where the military believed the Taliban held Army Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl of Hailey, Idaho. The soldier disappeared from his outpost a month ago and appeared in a Taliban hostage video last week.
Army Sgt. 1st Class William Kamer said Coleman's unit was conducting checks in the area when it responded to an exploded bomb and soon encountered gunfire from multiple locations. Three other soldiers in the unit also died in the attack Friday, Kamer said.
"His platoon was in a pretty rough area," Spc. Miguel Guerrero, one of Coleman's Army buddies, said Monday in a telephone interview from Afghanistan. "He was one the best guys we had out there. He did his job and he did it well."
Coleman was a member of 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment with the 10th Mountain Division stationed in Fort Drum, N.Y. He deployed to Afghanistan on Jan. 15.
He enlisted in the Army in June 2007, soon after graduating from Nature Coast Technical High School in Hernando County.
He joined the military to earn money for college, but the move still surprised those who knew him.
Kandy Callaghan, one of his teachers, said she was "flabbergasted." She begged him to change his mind. "I said, 'Please think about this. If you want to go into the military, go into the Navy, go into the Air Force. It's safer,' " she recalled.
"He said, 'Miss Callaghan, I'll be fine.' "
His father, who served in the Army and now works for the U.S. Postal Service, did the same.
"I didn't want him to join. I didn't want him to be in a war somewhere," he said in an interview Monday as he returned from Dover Air Force Base, where his son's body arrived Sunday night. "I just wanted something different for him. He's my only son."
A few days before he left for basic training, Coleman — then 19 — married Nicole Lynn Jenkins, 22, of Spring Hill, in a small ceremony. She said he wanted to join the Army or get a nursing degree. She preferred the latter.
"He was debating," she said in an interview. "I didn't want to stand in the way of his dreams or anything."
His parents divorced when he was 4, and his father raised him in a strict household of modest means. Friends and family members said Coleman seemed shy at first but outgoing among friends. He enjoyed computers and video games like "Halo 2."
In high school, he took classes in criminal justice, nursing and robotics, and in the military took numerous online courses, even earning certification as an ordained minister. Parents called him well-mannered. His male friends cry when they talk about him.
Coleman's photos on social networking sites show him at ease, goofing with friends and partying at bonfires at a farm in New York. But posts indicate a recent spell of hard times, including an impending divorce. And his writings suggest a young man questioning his direction and purpose in life.
His longtime friend, Joseph Ildefonso, 20, said Coleman sounded happy when they spoke recently on the Internet about his scheduled two-week leave in mid August.
Coleman planned to return home to Hernando County and visit with friends and spend time at the beach.
"He just wanted to relax and enjoy the civilian life," Ildefonso said. "I'm just completely devastated."
Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6114.