George Pruitte will never forget the high-pitched voice he heard while volunteering nearly 20 years ago at a soup kitchen in Oceanside, Calif. It punctuated the din from the scruffy men with deep voices.
“Can I have a blanket?” said a slender boy, preparing to spend another night in the bushes near the San Luis Rey River with his mother.
Pruitte remembered that voice when he learned that the once-homeless boy, Army Sgt. Richard A. Soukenka, 30, was among three soldiers killed Feb. 27 when a roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle in Baghdad. They were all assigned to the 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) at Ft. Drum, N.Y.
The simple request for a blanket reminded Pruitte of all the challenges that Soukenka faced in his short life. He was born in poverty and left homeless until he was a teenager. He hit his stride as a high school athlete, but struggled to create a stable life and died in a war that he did not believe in, Pruitte said.
Soon after getting Soukenka a blanket, Pruitte was taking the boy to his home nearly every night after serving dinner to hundreds of homeless people. Three years later, in 1993, records show, he legally adopted the boy.
“I tried to teach him how to have a good life,” said Pruitte, a retired telephone communications repairman. “But a lot of his was very, very rough.”
Soukenka, born Aug. 2, 1976, in Escondido, Calif., was the son of Rita May Garcia and Ivan Soukenka, who broke up when he was a toddler. Soon after, he and his mother often lived on the streets, in bushes and in the riverbed.
Before he was adopted, he would take the school bus to the soup kitchen every day, amazing teachers that he could handle the adversity.
Beverly Hill, an Oceanside High School studies skills teacher, recalled that Soukenka “had the most incredible spirit about him. Whatever setback he encountered, he found a way to dust himself off and move on.”
Pruitte became his backbone, leading him to participate in the Civil Air Patrol, an Air Force auxiliary, where he learned to fly. Pruitte, Soukenka and the teen’s friend Mike Wallace often would fly to Chino Airport and eat lunch at Flo’s Airport Cafe before flying back.
Pruitte also attended Soukenka’s sporting events. And he bought him a pet parakeet, Jeremiah.
“George was more of a father to him than anyone,” said Christine Archuleta, Soukenka’s first wife, who now lives in New York.
Oceanside High wrestling coach Ben Davis said Gordon Helper, the head coach who has since died, spent extra time with Soukenka to urge him to excel in sports.
Helper’s wife, Mary, said Soukenka attended Bible study sessions on Mondays in the couple’s home. He also would regularly come over for dinner.
Soukenka earned seven varsity letters in pole vaulting, cross country, track and wrestling. Despite learning disabilities, he earned a high school diploma, Pruitte said.
Wallace, of Oceanside, recalls that even after he passed his 20th birthday, Soukenka could run a mile in 4 minutes, 15 seconds. Friends “could not keep up with him,” Wallace said.
Soukenka also was a daredevil, Wallace said. On a camping trip near Borrego Springs, Calif., a group decided to descend a cliff with ropes. Soukenka did it without the ropes, Wallace said.
When it came to his parents, however, he lost stamina. He could not establish a close relationship with them. Neither returned calls seeking comment.
Wallace said Soukenka “decided that he forgave his parents, and he tried to move on.”
When Soukenka was 17, he met Archuleta, a member of the tennis team who was 16. They soon were inseparable and got married in 1997, but divorced in 2005.
Soukenka married again, to Soek Young, whom he met while stationed at Ft. Drum. They separated about a year after marrying, before Soukenka left for Iraq, said Pruitte and Archuleta’s sister, Joanie. Young did not return calls.
Soukenka remained in the Army for nearly 10 years, receiving recognitions and awards, including the Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
Pruitte said Soukenka was in Iraq from April 2003 to August 2004 and returned for a second tour in September 2006.
Before he left for Iraq the second time, he and Wallace shared beers at one of their favorite places, Rookies Restaurant and Sports Bar in Oceanside.
Soukenka told his closest friend that he was worried about his safety but had no choice but to go.
Pruitte said Soukenka “thought the war was useless. He felt this was a civil war and we were in the middle of it.”
When friends learned that Soukenka died, they returned to Rookies and drank “Irish car bombs” -- a mixed drink of beer, Irish cream and Irish whiskey -- in his honor.
“He was always looking forward to life after the military,” said Joanie Archuleta, who spoke to Soukenka a week before he died. “He wanted to enjoy Oceanside and Southern California. He wanted to settle here and just be at peace.”