PLANT CITY — Just three weeks ago, Army Spc. Samuel Valdez headed back to Newport News, Va., after spending a month on leave in his hometown, surrounded by family.
"We had a huge get-together for him and his wife and son," said his uncle, Johnny Rodriguez. "We have a really big family, but we're really close."
His family celebrated every time he brought home his wife, Lynda Ysasi Valdez, and son, Sammy Jr. Now memories of their most recent visit are clouded with grief.
"I didn't think that would be the last time we saw him," Rodriguez said.
Army officials say Valdez fell overboard off the North Carolina coast Sunday and was presumed dead after the Coast Guard suspended its search for him Tuesday.
Like his older brother, Valdez, 22, joined the Army, and spent 16 months in the Middle East. The 2004 Plant City High graduate was a watercraft operator of the 7th Sustainment Brigade.
On Sunday, he was serving aboard the Major General Winfield Scott, a large Army tugboat with a 24-person crew that was on its way to Charleston, S.C., to support a Navy training mission.
Other soldiers aboard the vessel last saw him on the bridge. When he could not be found, they searched the craft and concluded that he must have fallen overboard.
Coast Guard authorities say the Army requested assistance around 11:20 a.m. Sunday. Seas were 7 feet at the time, and by that night, they reached 12 feet.
The Coast Guard searched for more than 40 hours in an area about 15 miles off of Drum Inlet, south of Ocracoke Inlet in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
The tug finally returned to Fort Eustis, Va., on Tuesday.
Valdez's mother-in-law, Santa Inez Ysasi, reached by telephone in Virginia, said she and her daughter had talked twice before on the day her son-in-law disappeared. So when she got a third call she feared something bad had happened.
Ysasi booked a plane ticket Sunday night to be with her daughter, but the Monday departure seemed too far off.
"My husband and I just got in the car and drove here to be with her and our grandson," Ysasi said. Lynda is also three months pregnant, her mother said.
"Sammy was very happy person and he lived every day like it was his last," Ysasi recalled.
An avid sports fan, Valdez always favored wrestling above all others, and was a wrestler in high school, Rodriguez said.
And it was in high school that Valdez and Lynda met.
In a quote e-mailed to the Times, Lynda Valdez had this to say about the man who had been her high school sweetheart: "The little time I spent with my husband my life was perfect, and we lived it to the fullest."
Ysasi said her son-in-law was a good kid and she knew he was the one for her daughter the moment she met him.
"He was very respectful, not like the others. He came in and shook our hands and was very polite," she said.
Rodriguez said that was part of his upbringing. Valdez has two brothers and two sisters, and they all spent a lot of time being involved with their church.
News that the search had been called off on Tuesday spread to his dozens of relatives in the Plant City, and they were devastated.
"It's so hard," said Rodriguez, his voice beginning to betray his grief. "It's going to be very, very difficult knowing we don't have someone to mourn."
Information from the Associated Press and the Orlando Sentinel was used in this story. Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.