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Even when he was a little boy, Joshua Harris had a fascination with the military. For Halloween he would dress as a soldier and his bedroom walls were decorated with posters celebrating the courageous nature of serving one’s country.

Historically, few of Harris’ classmates at Walther Lutheran High School enlist in any branch of the U.S. military, but his classmates and educators said he always remained confident in his decision. By the time he graduated in 2006, Harris had been a member of the Illinois Army National Guard for a year.

On Sept. 17, just weeks after being deployed to Afghanistan in late August, Harris was killed in an explosion that also claimed the lives of four others. He was 21 years old.

“The way we feel now is it’s a wound that we don’t know how deep it has to be before it can heal,” father Bill Harris said.

Harris was born and raised in Forest Park, growing up near a small-town grocery and just a short walk from the middle school. He attended St. John Lutheran School on Circle Avenue and as he worked toward a diploma at Walther Lutheran, his family scattered to Brookfield and Romeoville. Because he was still a minor when he decided to enlist, Harris needed his parents’ permission to join the armed forces.

“It was hard for me at first,” Bill Harris said of his son’s decision. “After the initial shock, I was like, he’s my son and I have to support him.”

In the wake of his sudden death, family and friends described Harris as a good-natured young man who liked to make others laugh. He was particularly close with his four cousins and the oldest of the group, 30-year-old Eric Raad, said Harris could always crack them up.

“We would watch My Cousin Vinny all the time and he would do lines from that movie,” Raad said. “Perfect. Perfect to a T of what [actor Joe] Pesci would do.”

Raad, his three bothers and Harris, all earned the rank of Eagle Scout and helped one another on their projects. They went camping and fishing together, played video games and Harris never hesitated to lend a hand when someone needed it, said Raad. That commitment to helping others, said Raad, seemed less like a responsibility to his cousin and more like second-nature.

Carlos Rojas, a classmate of Harris’, said word of his friend’s death spread quickly last week after an announcement was made at their alma mater. Disbelief was his initial reaction, said Rojas.

“He was a great guy,” Rojas, 21, of Melrose Park, said. “He was hilarious in school. He made every teacher laugh. There were times he got in trouble, but in a funny way.”

Harris was assigned to Battery B, 2nd Battalion of the 122nd Field Artillery based in south suburban Robbins. He was killed alongside Sgt. Jason Vazquez, 24, of Chicago. According to a statement released by the military, two other coalition soldiers were killed, as was an Afghan national.

Harris and Vazquez are the 17th and 18th soldiers of the Illinois Army National Guard to be killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Harris was posthumously promoted to the rank of sergeant.

Don Gillingham, the executive director at Walther Lutheran, remembered Harris for his permanent smile. As a student and member of the football team, Harris never captured the spotlight, but Gillingham said he never got the sense that Harris sought it either.

“Josh just was a good kid who wanted to belong to things,” Gillingham said. “Josh wanted to serve and be part of a community. He stood out because he always had a quick smile.”

The soldier’s step-mother, Jean Harris, said she and his father have saved a recording of Harris’ voice from one of the last phone calls he made to them. In a recent e-mail, she said, Harris signed off with “give peace a chance.”

Family members weren’t certain of the exact nature of Harris’ duties in Afghanistan and understand that he had a four-page list of things he couldn’t talk about. But Harris was always upbeat in his calls back home and recently encouraged his 10-year-old half-sister Kalyin to tryout for the school orchestra.

“It’s so early we still don’t know what the blessing is,” Bill Harris said.

Harris also leaves behind an older sister, Kristen, his cousins and a niece and nephew. His mother, Mille Harris, lives in Romeoville and his aunt, Mary Raad, is a resident of Oak Park.