The mother of Arturo Huerta-Cruz, a soldier from Clearwater killed in Iraq on April 14, once said that her son "wanted to leave something of himself" for the country he loved and that's why he joined the U.S. Army.
On June 14 hundreds of volunteers helped deliver Arturo's wish for a legacy. They built a new children's playground that day and dedicated it to the soldier they honored as a true American hero.
However, the United States was Arturo's adopted country, not his native land. Born in Hidalgo, Mexico, he came to the United States with his family as a small child. He was a legal, permanent resident, but not a citizen. That seemed to make no difference to Arturo. He graduated from Countryside High School, attended St. Petersburg College, and dreamed of being an architect, but after his country went to war, he did, too. He became a chemical operations specialist with the 10th Mountain Division based in New York.
While he fought, life went on back home in his old neighborhood, a diverse community of working-class families in south Clearwater. Children there were busy selecting the equipment they wanted to see in a new playground the city planned to build at the nearby Ross Norton Recreation and Aquatic Complex, 1426 S Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.
It is said that Arturo loved children, and if he had lived, he might have come home and played there with his young nieces and nephews. But on April 14, an improvised explosive device detonated near his patrol in Iraq and took Arturo's life. Now his memory lives on at the playground, with a plaque in his honor.
Capt. Andrew Lynch, Arturo's company commander, was with the 23-year-old soldier when the bomb went off. Lynch was seriously injured, but he made it to Clearwater for the playground dedication ceremony. Wearing an eye patch, Lynch told the crowd that Arturo's service was "heroic and patriotic" and said he was "the best soldier I have ever served with in eight years of service and three deployments."
"He has joined a long line of men and women who have given more back to their country than they ever received," Lynch said. "He is one of those soldiers, one of those community members, who never did anything for himself. I owe him my life."
One of Arturo's cousins, Roger Cruz, said the family questioned why he wanted to join the Army and now struggles to accept his death. But they are proud of him, Cruz said, and the family was filled with emotion over the dedication of the playground.
"From now on, this playground, where the kids will come to have fun and be happy, will have the name of a grand hero that represents us, the immigrants," Cruz said. "Sometimes we are humiliated and looked down on. Our only intention when we immigrate to this country is to work hard and serve others, to accomplish our dreams."
On the Ross Norton playground, natives and immigrants will play side by side, just as they fight and die side by side in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the beginning of this year, there were 20,326 immigrants on active duty in the military, and 13,151 in the Reserves.
Arturo Huerta-Cruz was awarded the Purple Heart. The government will begin an effort to also award him posthumous citizenship.
Diane Steinle's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org