TAMPA — To the men he served with and supervised in the military, Staff Sgt. Carlos Alberto Lazaney Rodriguez was a Puerto Rican G.I. Joe, a leader who collected Star Wars bobblehead figures and was fearless when it came to jumping out of airplanes, but found flying in them nail-biting.
"He seemed, from a distance, like he was hard and tough on people, but he wasn't at all," said Devin Dawes, 23, recalling how the older man watched out for him when Dawes joined the Army in 2009. "He took care of me."
Lazaney, 38, who has family members across the Tampa Bay area, was one of three soldiers killed Wednesday in the second mass shooting on the Fort Hood Army base in Texas since 2009. Military officials say he was fatally shot by Spc. Ivan Antonio Lopez, whose rampage wounded 16 more of his fellow soldiers and ended when he put his own gun to his head and fired.
Also killed was Sgt. 1st Class Danny Ferguson, 39, who was from Mulberry in Polk County and had recently returned from Afghanistan. According to his fiancee, who spoke to WTSP-TV, Ferguson tried to prevent the gunman from entering a room full of military officials by leaning against the door.
The third soldier who lost his life was Army Sgt. Timothy Owens, 37, of Illinois, who joined the military in 2004 and, according to the New York Times, had recently signed up for another six years in the Army.
On Friday, law enforcement officials said they had identified a possible motive for the shooting, which took place on the same day Lopez clashed with his supervisors over a leave request they had denied.
Names of the Fort Hood victims began to trickle out on Thursday as family members and friends learned of the deaths. Contacted by a reporter, members of both the Lazaney and Ferguson families declined to comment.
Dawes, who left the Army six months ago, said he learned of his friend Lazaney's death from a Facebook group of Iraq War veterans. Dawes had met the staff sergeant in Hawaii, where Lazaney was in charge of supplies. When military police officers needed new uniforms, they came to him, and he took pride in the smallest of details, like whether an officer was wearing the right socks or belt.
But the meticulous staff sergeant could also be playful, Dawes said, recalling how Lazaney, who loved the Star Wars movies, spray-painted a logo from the series on one of Dawes' storage boxes before both men were deployed to Iraq for a year.
Lazaney joined the military when he was 18 years old, leaving his hometown of Aguadilla, at Puerto Rico's northwest tip, with a strong Spanish accent that he never lost. While he traveled around the United States, from one Army base to the next, his father and brothers settled in Tampa. A neighbor of Lazaney's Tampa relatives said Friday afternoon that the family wanted their privacy.
In an interview with CNN en Español, the mayor of Aguadilla, where Lazaney's aunt still lives, described the late staff sergeant's family as close-knit. "Excellent, decent, very good people. I know his family and his parents. They are good people," said Mayor Carlos Mendez. He said that Lazaney was planning to retire from the Army soon.
Raised in Florida, Ferguson was a 1993 graduate of Mulberry High School. On Friday morning, assistant principal Lori Leverett announced Ferguson's death to the student body. She told students what she'd learned from news reports, that Ferguson had acted heroically to block the gunman from entering a crowded room where he could have killed many more people.
"That's why they're calling him 'the hero of Fort Hood,' " said Leverett, who described Ferguson as "a quite, wholesome kid."
In high school, Ferguson played football and baseball and ran track. A former classmate, Kimberly Bowling, now an English teacher at Mulberry, recalled that he and a female friend had been a "calendar couple," featured in a school calendar that included a couple for each month.
"He was always nice, respectful, kind," she said.
Bowling's husband played football with Ferguson. She recalled that when the news broke about this week's shootings, her husband said, " 'Hey, do you remember Danny Ferguson?' "
Though she hadn't seen Ferguson in years, she immediately remembered him — and felt a loss.
"It hits home to know that one of your former classmates was a hero at Fort Hood," she said. "It makes it a little more real."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Times news researchers John Martin and Carolyn Edds and staff writers Jodie Tillman, Dan Sullivan, Jimmy Geurts and Weston Phippen contributed to this report.