James J. Stoddard Jr. was the kind of man who called his family almost every day, even when he was thousands of miles away. He checked on his mother, who was recently widowed, to make sure she was taking care of herself, and he always wanted the latest pictures of his three children.

Although he was a career soldier, he never told his relatives much about what he did. Just be there when I get off the airplane, he would tell them.

On Sept. 25, he called home to Crofton, as he always did, to say that he would be out of touch for a while, off on another mission in Afghanistan, where he was serving.

Sgt. 1st Class Stoddard, 29, died Friday when his Humvee rolled over into a ditch outside Kandahar as it went to assist another unit, the Pentagon announced yesterday.

Stoddard moved with his parents and two sisters to Crofton, in Anne Arundel County, from New York's Hudson Valley when he was 8, and he brought his love of the Giants and Mets with him. At Arundel High School he was a wide receiver, third baseman and pitcher, his mother said. In the off-season, he ran indoor track so that he could keep his legs in shape for football. He graduated in 1994.

After attending two colleges but graduating from neither, Stoddard joined the Army in 1998 to find a purpose, his mother, Kathleen Stoddard, said last night.

Stoddard was following a path set by his father, a Vietnam veteran who died last year, and an uncle who was a brigadier general. The structure of the Army suited him perfectly, his mother said.

"We're a very strong military family," she said. "This family gives."

Stoddard met his wife, Amy, while he was in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga. In 1999, the couple moved to Fort Bragg, N.C., where Stoddard was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division.

When Stoddard left for Afghanistan in April, his wife moved to Crofton with their children, Megan, 13, James, 4, and Makenzie Erin, 13 months.

As a soldier, Stoddard was always striving for more -- more information for his soldiers, more equipment, more details about missions and more time to serve, friends said.

He reenlisted last year, and a year ago, after a three-month tour in Iraq, he was promoted to sergeant first class, 61/2 years after joining the Army. Usually, it takes twelve years, his platoon leader said.

"He was an excellent soldier, always proactive on the job," Lt. Michael Adams, who served with Stoddard during his second tour of Afghanistan, said in an interview from the Stoddard home last night. "Anytime he would train soldiers, he would have an exact plan, and he would execute that plan. Our soldiers were always the best-trained in our battalion."

On his first tour of Afghanistan, when his soldiers were performing duties outside in the dead of winter, he made sure they had coffee, soup, warm clothes and heaters.

"He was the type of guy that stood out because he took care of his fellow soldiers and his family," said Capt. Kyle Reed, who also served with Stoddard in Afghanistan.

"He was a phenomenal leader, father and husband who was always dedicated and devoted."

Although he had a serious face, his mother said, he had a bright smile and loved to tease. He didn't even mind being called a mama's boy.

"He was my boy," she said. "My baby."

Burial will be 2 p.m. Friday at Arlington National Cemetery.

Sgt. 1st Class James J. Stoddard Jr., 29, was a 1994 graduate of Arundel High School. He died Friday.