PLANT CITY — As soldier David Andrew Croft Jr. prepared to return from Iraq, he told his mother he wanted as many people as possible at his homecoming.
"I want to see everyone," he said over the phone.
On Wednesday, thousands who didn't even know the 22-year-old showed up to pay their respects. Army Sgt. Croft died Jan. 5 in Baghdad after insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device and small arms fire.
From MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa to his native Plant City, kids and adults, friends, relatives and strangers, current troops and veterans paused as the motorcade carrying Croft's remains passed by.
"It is just overwhelming," Croft's sister, Andrea Pryor, said afterward. "It's heartfelt, it's amazing to see all these people. We can't thank them enough for coming out here and supporting our brother."
Following Croft's arrival from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Hillsborough County sheriff's motorcycle deputies led the procession through Tampa, where the mayor and police chief were among those in the crowd.
At least 500 kids at Nativity Catholic School stood along State Road 60 in Brandon. When the motorcade drove by, some of the kids saluted the fallen soldier; others placed their hands on their hearts.
Down the road in Valrico, motorcyclists with the Nam Knights gathered in a parking lot. "Just paying honor to a guy who laid down his life for us," said veteran Andy Huber, sitting on his Harley-Davidson. "I don't know him. He doesn't know me, but he did everything for me."
Cadets from the Sheriff's Office stood in formation off Turkey Creek Road and saluted Croft, who would have turned 23 two weeks ago. "We're all a family, regardless of whether we know him or not," cadet Savana Kelly said.
An emotional crowd lined the street outside Haught Funeral Home to await the soldier's remains. Many waved American flags and embraced as members of the Winter Haven chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars wheeled the flag-draped casket inside.
After the procession, Croft's sisters said they were grateful for the community's support.
Croft, a 2005 Durant High School graduate, leaves behind a fiancee. He was a cavalry scout stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. In his recent deployment, which would have ended this month, Croft was a gunner. He loved the role.
Although he was unsure of how long he would stay in the Army, Croft aspired to one day work in law enforcement.
Instead, the Army posthumously promoted him to sergeant.
His sister, Robin Croft, is an Air Force reservist. Their mother relished the chance to see her kids in uniform together.
All her son talked about, Vicki Croft told the Times a couple of days after his death, was coming home.
"He had a big homecoming," Robin Croft said. "And I know David is smiling down and saying, 'Wow, mom.' "
Times staff writer Kim Wilmath contributed to this report. Kevin Smetana can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2439.