A self-described "meat and potatoes" conservative, Tony Ruiz often argued politics with his son.
They clashed over perceptions of Islam after
"He drew a very clear distinction between Muslim radicals and the Islam religion," Tony said. "It actually did convince me."
He is still convinced, a month after his son, Sgt. Clinton K. Ruiz, was killed by small-arms fire in
"It was one man pulling the trigger," the elder Ruiz said firmly. "Harboring ill will is not going to serve my son's memory."
Born in Poway and raised in Murrieta, Clinton was the type of kid who could always find a reason to be in a good mood, Ruiz said. In junior soccer leagues he defended the ball like a "bulldog with a pork chop," but he always had a kind word for anyone who scored a goal, said his mother, Carla Trease.
When he lost at board games, he'd heap accolades on the victor until they started to laugh. He lavished praise on his mother's cooking, sang along to the radio in the car and never minded if his younger siblings followed him around.
"I don't know how he did it." Trease said. "I was never a good cook. but he just made you feel good just by being in the room."
At school, Clinton was confident and athletic, but never a prom king candidate. He was quiet, but his smile won him friends. He tested well, but homework bored him, said Trease, an elementary school teacher. He felt most at home on a four-wheeler, conquering the hills near their Riverside County home at top speed.
"He just always wanted to be going somewhere and doing something," Trease said.
After graduating in 2008, Ruiz enrolled in summer college classes because he knew Trease wanted him to try. But even then, the only class that excited him was a course on emergency medical triage, Trease said. Before the summer was out, he had joined
Kira Ruiz, Clinton's wife, first met him in training camp as they stood shoulder to shoulder in formation for morning drills. Clinton was wearing Rayban glasses with the logo blacked out in Sharpie because regulations prohibited recruits to wear brand names.
"I looked up at him and said 'nice glasses,' and he started laughing," said Kira, who was also a psychological operations specialist.
When Kira became a squad leader during drills, Clinton took a position at road guard to be a few paces closer. Soon, he asked her out. She refused. He asked again, every day, for three weeks.
"I wasn't sure I liked him as more than a friend," Kira said. "But he was pretty sure."
Won over by Clinton's persistence, she started dating him, sneaking moments between language classes at their base, Ft. Bragg. One morning Clinton appeared in Kira's bedroom and shook her awake. In his right hand, he was carrying a caramel macchiato; in his left hand, a ring.
They got married in the county courthouse, after Kira's deployment was moved up. Clinton's father got a text the day of the wedding.
"It said, 'I got married lol,'" Tony Ruiz said. "Not a big planner, that one."
Late last year, soon after Kira gave birth to their son, Caleb, Clinton reenlisted with the Army. The decision sent him to Afghanistan and put him face to face with the small-arms fire that claimed his life.
Trease fought his decision and recalls a strong sense of foreboding. She called, texted and emailed until she feared she was "sounding like a broken record," Trease said.
"But he would always call back. He'd always say, 'I know, Mom, I know,' " Trease said.
Clinton was killed in the Oruzgan province in mountainous central Afghanistan. His awards include the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart and the National Defense Service Medal. He was buried at the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.
One of the last times Trease saw her son, they were driving home from a dinner with her two sons.
She remembers it because the Ruizes are a family that sings in the car during road trips, Trease said. The song doesn't matter as much as singing loudly and remembering as many words as you can. The singer
"I just remember thinking, oh, I hope this song never ends," Trease said. "It was a good, long one."