Specialist Emilio Campo Jr. always reassured his buddies that even though he was in a war zone, he was fine, it was all good.

So the news that Campo, 20, an Army medic, had been killed late Sunday hit hard in the small town of Madelia, Minn., where his family still lives.

Details were scarce Tuesday -- his parents were enroute to Baltimore to escort their middle son's body back to Minnesota. The Army has not disclosed how he died, only that it was as part of Operation New Dawn in Iraq.

"It's like losing a son, even though he's not my son," said Kathy Schumacher, a teacher at Madelia High School whose son, Tom, has been friends with Campo since they were in third grade.

Allan Beyer, the high school principal, said Campo, a 2009 graduate, "was a credit to his school and the community" and called him "a very outstanding young man."

Campo played basketball, his main sport, but also soccer, track and football. Whenever he returned to his hometown of 2,400 people about 100 miles southwest of Minneapolis, he'd stop at school to say hello to the staff. Five of his classmates stopped by Tuesday to share their grief and their memories, Beyer said.

Campo's death was the first war loss for Madelia since Vietnam, Beyer said.

Dustin VanHale, a classmate and good friend, said Campo "was always best friends with everybody." He was a motivator, telling basketball teammates after a 25-point loss, "don't worry, we'll get 'em next time."

He'd done mission trips with his church, St. Mary's, across the country to build or remodel houses and work for food shelves. And wherever he went, the girls swarmed to him.

"He's not the best-looking guy in the world but he was always getting all the girls," VanHale said. "We'd be playing basketball and he'd leave with two, three girls' phone numbers. He was always traveling to different places to hang with this girl or that girl."

Now, though, he had a steady girlfriend -- Samantha Crowley, who was prom queen to Campo's prom king in 2009.

Campo was "a very social person," "a smooth talker," "a big partier," "a regular Casanova," said his longtime friend, Tom Schumacher.

"He was always the most calm. He was the funny one. We did a lot of stuff, he just loved doing stuff," Schumacher said. "He just tried to live his life to the fullest. He was always helping other people. He felt [the Army] was one way he could help."

Campo followed his older brother, Hector, into the military. His younger brother, Hugo, will be a senior at Madelia High School next fall, his friends said.

Brendon Caraway said he and "Junior" had a special bond; Caraway joined the Marine Reserves about the same time Campo joined the Army.

"He's a guy who could light up a room, it's just the way he was," Caraway said. "He only lived 20 years but he lived every day to the fullest. Every day he was doing something with somebody, hanging out with somebody.

"I haven't been overseas," Caraway said. "When he came home in February he was talking to me about what it's like and everything: He's a medic, just doing his job, just gotta do the best you can and be careful."

Said Schumacher, "Everybody always worried about him, told him to come home. He was always the one who told everybody not to worry, shrugged it off like it was no big deal. Made it seem like he was invincible. That's what we always said."

Pat Pheifer • 612-673-7252