U.S. Army Specialist Joseph A. Kennedy was fearless and adventurous, friends say. But the 25-year-old Inver Grove Heights native also yearned to settle down and start a family after his military service.

Now his family and friends are mourning the loss of that dream and his life after Kennedy was killed Friday in Afghanistan by small-arms fire from insurgents who attacked his unit in Helmand Province.

"It's tough to even think about it," said Eric Backer, 25, of Inver Grove Heights. "He wanted to be a family man, and it's so sad it got cut short."

Kennedy's family members released a statement Saturday, saying they appreciate the outpouring of support and prayers and asking for privacy as they grieve. "Joe was a fine young man. He is our hero," his mother, Valerie Kennedy, wrote. "He lived life with the volume tuned up full blast. We are extremely proud of him and his service to our country."

Kennedy, a 2004 Simley High School graduate and a St. Paul resident, had been deployed overseas since January. That was the last time that Backer and Tim Holzemer saw their longtime friend, whom they described as a free-spirited daredevil.

Holzemer and Kennedy began their friendship in second grade, starting with a brawl on the playground. It ended with a truce over a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figure. They've been inseparable ever since.

"It's like 50 percent of who I am just got ripped out of me," said Holzemer, 25, of Oakdale. "Your whole world falls apart."

He said Kennedy missed his wedding last year because he was in the service but was looking forward to the birth of Holzemer's son in June and to meeting the baby after his deployment. "Now he never will," Holzemer said, choking up.

All four years at Simley, Kennedy competed on the wrestling team, where coach Jim Short said he was well-liked and a hard worker. "Joe basically came in the room and stuck to business," Short said.

Kennedy was fascinated by mechanics, mischievously building an 8-foot catapult in his back yard or designing the suspension for a Ford Bronco truck. Industrial technology teacher Thom Fisher had Kennedy in several of his classes and saw him earlier this school year when Kennedy stopped by to say hi to his former teachers. "He was a good kid," he said.

Kennedy was an expert at welding and construction, learned from his father, Holzemer said. He also loved motorcycles -- and riding fast. "Joe was a daredevil," he said. "He wasn't afraid of anything."

After graduating, Kennedy worked with his father for a couple years but was reluctant to settle into a career, looking for more. He found that in the Army, which he joined in 2009. He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Fort Knox, Ky. "He loved every minute he was there," Holzemer said.

Kennedy is survived by brother Casey, a senior at Simley, and parents Valerie and Jim. Services are pending.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141