CLEARWATER — Arturo Huerta-Cruz, a fallen soldier from Pinellas County, will be laid to rest Tuesday.
His grieving family and friends met his remains at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport on Sunday.
"We try to be strong but when we remember him, it's difficult," said his cousin, Roger Cruz. "He had ambitions, he had dreams. He wanted to explore life."
The 23-year-old Countryside High School graduate was killed last week when an IED, or improvised explosive device, detonated near his patrol near Tuz, Iraq.
His body was flown from Dover, Del., to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport, touching down at 11:17 a.m.
About 50 family members and friends bowed their heads as the aircraft carrying the body made its way onto the tarmac under an arch created by a water cannon.
When it stopped, service personnel with the Florida Military Funeral Honor Guard carried the coffin to a gurney.
Huerta-Cruz's father, Pascual Huerta, mother Maria Huerta-Cruz, brother Humberto Huerta-Cruz, cousin Roger Cruz and uncle Rosalio Cruz stood crying at the aircraft's left wing tip.
Then they approached the casket, bent over it and cried, their sobs at times drowned out by the roar of passing planes. Pascual Huerta pounded his fist on the coffin. Then he caressed it.
U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young and his wife, Beverly, stood behind them.
Before the arrival of the body, the congressman met with the family privately. At one point Beverly Young said to her husband, "Give me your handkerchief.''
She gave it to Maria Huerta-Cruz, who had tears streaming down her face.
"It affects me personally, every one of these kids who lose their lives or get injured," Young said. "I'll be extremely happy when they are all home."
Because Huerta-Cruz's grandparents are elderly and live in the country two hours from Mexico City, the Youngs arranged for an American Embassy car to drive them to the airport so they could make the flight to Clearwater for the funeral.
After the ceremony, the casket was loaded into a white hearse and was driven to Global Mortuary at 7210 Ulmerton Road in Largo. Maria Huerta-Cruz was inconsolable as her son's remains were taken away.
The family said that during his six months in Iraq, Huerta-Cruz stayed in touch but was careful to never say anything to upset them.
"He e-mailed us every two weeks, asking us how we were doing," Humberto Huerta-Cruz said. "I would ask him how are you doing and he said good. He didn't want us to worry."
Eileen Schulte can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153.