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Lack of citizenship didn't deter soldier from Clearwater

CLEARWATER — One picture in the living room memorial is of a barefoot little boy standing on the roof of a modest house in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico.

Another shows the same boy years later in America. He is wearing U.S. Army fatigues, gripping a machine gun with both hands.

Although he was not yet an American citizen, Arturo Huerta-Cruz, 23, volunteered to serve in his adopted country's military. On Monday, he died when an improvised explosive device exploded by his patrol near Tuz, Iraq.

His mother and father — Pascual Huerta and Maria Cruz — sat Wednesday on a couch in their Barbara Avenue home in north Clearwater and wept over the loss.

Their younger son, Humberto Huerta, 18, sat somberly nearby.

"The memory of my son is that he was always a good student, a good son, very respectful," said Maria Cruz, 40, who works stuffing advertisements into envelopes. "He always had a lot of desire to come out ahead, improve himself."

Mr. Huerta-Cruz was about 7 when his family moved to Clearwater. They became part of the city's close-knit immigrant community from Mexico.

He was always surrounded by family members. Only his grandparents remained in Hidalgo. The rest — uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces — lived in Clearwater.

"He liked to play a lot with his cousins," said one of his older cousins, Roger Cruz, 29.

Mr. Huerta-Cruz attended Sandy Lane Elementary and Safety Harbor Middle School.

He loved soccer. A 1996 picture from the Dunedin Winter League shows him in the front row, second from the right, the only Hispanic kid on the team.

After graduating from Countryside High School in 2003, Mr. Huerta-Cruz enrolled at St. Petersburg College. In 2006, he received an associate's degree in architectural design and construction technology.

Seeking adventure, he joined the Army.

"I think he did it because he wanted new experiences," said Cruz. "It's a decision he made and it's a decision we respect."

Army Warrant Officer Mark Summers, the family's casualty affairs officer, said Mr. Huerta-Cruz's body landed in Andover, Md., around 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Within the next couple of days, Summers said, Mr. Huerta-Cruz would be flown to St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport.

His family was still deciding Wednesday where to bury him. Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg was one option.

Mr. Huerta-Cruz received a Purple Heart, Army Achievement Medal and National Defense Service Medal.

Mr. Huerta-Cruz was what is known as a "green card soldier." Under U.S. law, immigrants who are permanent residents can join the military.

A Defense Department spokesman said Wednesday that as of February there were 20,326 immigrants on active duty in all the branches of the military. Another 13,151 are in the Reserves.

The spokesman said that of the more than 4,000 American casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflicts related to the war on terrorism, 144 were immigrants.

Soon after the war in Iraq started, President George W. Bush signed an executive order to expedite citizenship for green-card holders in the military.

Summers said the Army would begin the process to try to bestow posthumous citizenship on Mr. Huerta-Cruz.

"I think he's entitled to that," said Summers, who is assigned to Special Operations Command Central at MacDill Air Force Base.

"We are able to do that for fallen soldiers who don't have naturalized citizenship," he said. "We would want to honor that."

Pascual Huerta, a carpenter who works making pool tables, said he welcomed the gesture.

"We told him that we would accept that they give that honor to him," he said.

Jose Cardenas can be reached at jcardenas@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4224.

Lack of citizenship didn't deter soldier from Clearwater 04/16/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2008 3:39pm]
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