PLANT CITY — David Andrew Croft Jr. was the exception in a neighborhood where youth often turned to drugs and crime.
Even some members of Croft's family had brushes with the law, but he stayed away from trouble. The 22-year-old Plant City native joined the Army after graduating from Durant High School in 2005.
"He beat this neighborhood," said Dannie Sawyer, Croft's uncle. "And he was doing something with his life."
Spc. Croft died Tuesday in Baghdad after insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device and small arms fire, the U.S. Department of Defense said Thursday. He was nearing the end of his second deployment to Iraq.
Today would have been his 23rd birthday.
Croft was assigned to the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas. He expected the yearlong deployment to end later this month.
"That's all he talked about was coming home," said his mom, Vicki Croft, who last spoke to her son Saturday. "He was ready to come home."
Upon his return to Fort Hood, Croft and his fiancee, Susie Clark, planned to move in together. She said he loved food, guns and family.
"He was just a good ol' boy from Plant City," said Clark, 21, of Brandon. "He always meant well."
As a cavalry scout, Croft drove a Humvee during his first deployment to Iraq, which lasted 15 months. In his recent trip to Iraq, he was a gunner.
"He loved his job," Vicki Croft said. "He took great pride in being a soldier."
While still in school, Croft would stop by regularly to check on neighbors Gary and Ethel Hogue. He also made it a point to have dinner with the couple whenever he was home on leave.
"He's about as fine a young man as I've ever seen," said Gary Hogue, 77. "We thought of him as our own son."
Croft played youth football for a local team. He enjoyed riding go-carts and fishing with his best friend, Jacob Hollifield. One time, Hollifield recalled, Croft caught a 5- to 6-pound bass in a pond behind Walmart.
Sawyer, Croft's uncle who still lives in the soldier's old neighborhood off Fortner Road, said his nephew was one of the few kids from the area to stay out of trouble and away from drugs.
"Little David didn't have time for that," Sawyer said. "He was the best person you ever wanted to be around. He wasn't a person to go out and cause trouble. He would laugh, joke, had a great sense of humor."
Croft especially liked video games, particularly ones related to battle and the military.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks inspired him to join the Army.
"That was his life," Hollifield said. "That's what he wanted to do."
Whether Croft would make a career out of the military was going to depend on the outlook of the job market when his contract ended, he told his mom. In 2008, he re-enlisted for three more years.
After the Army, Croft aspired to join law enforcement and work with gang task forces. He also aimed to rid the local community of drugs and help kids.
"He wanted to make a difference over there (in the war)," Hollifield said. "But he wanted to make a difference here, too."
Croft's mom and two of his sisters spent Thursday evening in Delaware, awaiting the arrival of his body at Dover Air Force Base.
Funeral arrangements haven't been made yet, but Vicki Croft said a service will take place at Shiloh Baptist Church in Plant City. Her son will be buried with the ashes of his father, David Croft Sr., who died almost two years ago from heart failure.
Croft's decorations and awards include the Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Overseas Service Ribbon and Army Service Ribbon.
"He always said that if he were going to die over there he wanted to die honorably . . . which he did," said Clark, his fiancee. "He was going to be home soon, and he was just taken away."
Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Andy Boyle contributed to this report. Kevin Smetana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2439.