Family remembers Marine killed in Twentynine Palms training accident
By SHELBY REYNOLDS | Naples Daily News, Fla. (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 21, 2017
When Austin Ruiz wrote home, it was always about the food.
"The food is great," he wrote in his small, neat handwriting from Parris Island, South Carolina, a Marine Corp recruitment depot. He was there for boot camp for 13 weeks in 2015 — where he became a Marine.
The letter, dated Oct. 19, 2015, had gotten wet, so some of the words were smeared.
"Bacon and sausage," it read, "waffles, hashbrowns, biscuits and gravy, yogurt, fresh fruit and a few other things that I can’t think of but lunch is usually different. But again it’s always good and we get a lot to eat, but it’s just we don’t have a lot of time."
The letter came from a shoe box of other letters and boot camp graduation programs the Ruiz family keeps in a cabinet in their North Naples home. Tuesday was the first time they had opened the box since the Marines showed up at their door last Saturday morning to tell them Austin had died during a training exercise in California.
He was 19.
Seated around the dining room table, Nell Ruiz read the letter from his son aloud to his wife, Sheara, and daughter, April. They laughed about how Austin loved food so much, even the military's ready-to-eat meal packs most Marines can't stomach.
"So anyways, some requests," Nell Ruiz read from the letter, his voice breaking with emotion. "I’m allowed to have actual pictures so it would be really cool to have some pics of Alyana."
Alyana, Austin's niece, now 2 years old, was Austin's favorite.
"I love all of you, and I miss you guys. And I’ll see you soon. It’s all going to be so fast.
"I love you, Austin Ruiz."
'Too young for a funeral'
Hundreds of friends and family have passed through the Ruiz home to share memories of a funny, caring and courageous young man, who aspired to be in the military all his life and who once said he was going to die for his country one day.
His celebration of life begins at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Lovers Key State Park. His family won't call it a funeral.
"Austin’s too young for a funeral," Sheara Hamilton Ruiz said of her son with tears in her eyes.
Lance Cpl. Austin Ruiz, born Sept. 4, 1997, died Jan. 13 during a live fire training exercise that also injured one other unidentified Marine at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California. He had been on base for about 1 ½ weeks.
The Ruiz family doesn't know much about the training or Austin's death. After completing the 29-day exercise in California, he was supposed to deploy to Australia for at least nine months.
He texted his mom that Friday at 12:05 p.m., the day he died, to tell her he was excited for the training. It was the last time they heard from him.
Although Austin's life was short, his family and friends take solace in knowing that he died doing what he loved.
"It was everything he ever wanted his whole life, and he went for it with no hesitation," April Ruiz said.
Ever since they can remember, Austin's parents knew their son wanted to be a Marine.
When Austin was around 8 years old, his aunt took him to a museum with banners representing each branch of military. He pointed at the one for the Marines and said, "I want to be that one."
"That was it and then we never heard the end of it," Sheara recalled.
Austin went on to participate in Cub Scouts for five years, and later joined the Army JROTC program at Naples High School, where he attended from 2012 to 2014. JROTC was the start of his military career. It was his first time in a military uniform.
Lt. Col. Paul Garrah, one of Austin's JROTC leaders, remembered him as being full of life, and that he looked sharp in a suit.
"One thing about Austin is that even though he didn’t have a 4.0 GPA average, he never let it stress him at all," Garrah said. "He was the happiest guy."
Related story: Naples Marine died during live fire training exercise
Garrah's cadets were anxious to lower the flags in Austin's honor; Florida Gov. Rick Scott ordered the lowering of the flags last week as a salute to the Naples native.
"Even though this is a tragic and sad event, Austin did what he wanted to do," Garrah said. "He lived his life the way he wanted. There's some people that live their whole life and don’t get a chance to say that."
Austin wasn't the kind of student that liked sitting at a desk, Garrah remembered. It got in the way of his becoming a Marine. He had a mission, he would say.
So, his junior year at Naples High School, Austin earned his GED.
He spent the summer of 2015 in physical training with a friend and fellow Marine, Colin Pilarski, to pass the fitness test. After all, Austin was a sturdy 6-foot-2-inches and 205 pounds.
"He wasn’t up to the physical requirements," Pilarski said from his base in Yuma, Arizona. "He struggled on the pull-ups and on the runs."
Austin wore a bullet proof vest and ran around his North Naples neighborhood in the middle of the night to prepare for the test. With help from Pilarski, he passed, and left for boot camp Sept. 5, 2015, the day after his 18th birthday. He graduated from boot camp Dec. 4, 2015.
"He was always happy-go-lucky," Pilarski remembered. The two completed boot camp together, but were in different units. "He always had a smile on his face. He was never unhappy about anything. He'd always be there for me."
After learning of his friend's death, Pilarski ordered a black bracelet with Austin's name, birthday and a message engraved into it: "Good man, great friend, and amazing Marine.”
A son and a Marine
Not much could stop Austin Ruiz.
"I'm a Marine now," he would say, and then he would jump off a boat and swim across a pass off Keewaydin Island. He often went fishing and boating with his dad.
Sending their son off to the Marines didn't come so easy, Nell and Sheara said. They tried to talk him out of it several times.
"You’ve got to put the fear in them," Sheara said. "You want them to feel it, so then they’ll say, 'Well maybe I won’t hurt my mom.' But you have to know that they’re going exactly where they want to go."
"There was no stopping him," Nell said of his son. "He’s your baby boy, but he’s a Marine. How do you tell a Marine they can’t do something?"
There was fear and there was pride.
"You go on a serious roller coaster," Sheara said. "Because you don’t want him to go, but then you’re so proud that they’re brave enough to do what they want."
Before going to California, Austin spent about seven months stationed in Okinawa, Japan. He visited Fuji for a few of those months. In September, he met a girl there.
They were engaged in Tokyo on Christmas Eve, according to a Facebook post on Austin's profile.
The Ruiz family heard from her after Austin's death. She was having a hard time processing it all, they said. She did not respond to requests for an interview.
"Christmas this year was perfect," Austin's Facebook post read. "i (sic) couldn't have asked for more."
Hawaiian shirts welcome
Austin was an ordinary teenager with a hysterical sense of humor, Sheara said.
He never cleaned his bedroom, but would clean the entire house.
His family decorated the Christmas tree this year with Marine-themed ornaments.
"He was laughing because we bought this little frame that had another Marine in it and we never got around to printing his picture," Sheara said, laughing. "So he was like, 'Who’s that guy?'"
He loved his niece, Alyana. The Ruiz family had a blanket made with a photo of Austin in uniform holding Alyana. It was Alyana's Christmas gift this year.
"He always wanted to talk to Alyana," his sister, April, said of their FaceTime conversations when he was in Japan. "She would give him kisses on the screen."
Austin always wore colorful, Hawaiian-style shirts, with the large, printed flowers, like the time he landed back home for Easter last year.
"He showed up in these short khakis with these sandals on and he had this horrible tan line because of his boots," Sheara recalled, laughing, "and his head was completely bald with a big huge straw hat around his neck."
The Ruiz family invites people to wear the colorful Hawaiian shirts to his service Sunday.
"He wouldn’t have wanted for us to mourn his death," Nell said. "He would want us to celebrate his life and who he was and what he did. It’s what keeps us going strong and moving forward. But it's hard."
On Sunday, the Marine Corps is expected to provide military funeral honors, including the folding of a U.S. flag, presentation of the flag to the family and the playing of "Taps."
Raising a hero
Vases of flowers and platters of food are scattered across the kitchen counters of the Ruiz home.
"I don't know what we're going to do with all this food," Nell said of the donated items.
"No one can do or say anything," Sheara said, "but just knowing that somebody out there is feeling the pain with you, and that they care enough to reach out... It helps with the healing."
Nell plans on getting a tattoo soon to honor his son. He doesn't know where or what it will look like, but it will be "immense," he said.
Sitting around the family's dining room table as the sun set over a backyard pond, Nell wore a red T-shirt that said "Proud Marine Dad," and, "Most people never meet their heroes. I raised mine."
"He used to say he was going to die for his country," Sheara said. "He said, 'I have a lot of people I need to meet and things I need to do.'
"And he did."
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