Soldier's death under investigation

YAKIMA -- Funeral plans are under way for Robert J. Near, a 21-year-old Granger native who died last week while serving in Afghanistan.

Near's grandmother, Vera Near, said her grandson grew up in her Granger home from the age of 2. She declined to talk further Monday afternoon, instead referring calls to another relative who could not be reached for comment.

Near, an Army private first class, died Friday in Kandahar, according to the Department of Defense. The Nampa, Idaho, resident was assigned to the Army's 86th Signal Battalion, based in Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

The circumstances of Near's death are under investigation, said Tanja Linton, a civilian spokeswoman for Fort Huachuca, on Monday night.

Family members told the Idaho Press-Tribune that they were informed by Army officials that his death was combat-related.

Near had family in Ontario, Ore., the Press-Tribune reported.

The 2007 Granger High School graduate had been deployed to Afghanistan in March and was due to return home within a few weeks, the paper reported.

Those who knew Near remembered him for his sense of humor and quick wit.

"He was a funny and a fun kid," said Lisa Rosberg, principal at Granger Middle School. "He just always was looking for a way to make people laugh and get people's attention."

Michael Delaney, Near's computer instructor at Centennial Job Corps in Nampa, said much the same, remembering him as an upbeat class clown who excelled at his studies.

"Many students in the program have emotional baggage because of their backgrounds," Delaney said. "I never really saw that with Robert. I never saw him sulking in the corner."

Before joining the military, Near completed 13 months of training at Job Corps, a federal program, earning certificates as a computer operator and in business technology.

Near left for the Army straight from the Nampa campus, Delaney said.

Delaney, a former military recruiter, encouraged Near to consider joining the military after Job Corps, partly to help pay for college. However, he said Near understood the risks of combat when he enlisted.

"He thought the benefits were higher than the risks," Delaney said.

Smith Funeral Home in Sunnyside is handling funeral arrangements. A date has not been set.

Near is the 13th soldier or Marine with ties to the Yakima Valley or Goldendale area to die in the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.