Annette Kirk kneels among the bright bouquets dotting the lawn of the Hillsboro Memorial Gardens. She points out her son’s grave to friend, Wrenita Codrington. The decorative headstone is the only one like it in the cemetery. On it is a collage of memories, pictures of Paul Cuzzupe II in life.
At the top, he’s dressed in an astronaut uniform. Cuzzupe was infatuated with space when he was a little boy.
Then, there’s the senior Prom. A band geek-turned-football star at Armwood High School.
In the middle, his signature is immortalized in stone on a letter he wrote to his girlfriend when he first joined the U.S. Army.
The bottom is speckled with photographs of Cuzzupe living his dream as a combat medic. He dons his uniform, throwing up deuces to represent peace.
Cuzzupe did not live long enough to see the day peace would reign over the war-torn terrain of Afghanistan. He died from wounds he sustained in 2010, when insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device.
“Anyone (who) comes here, they can see that this is a story of his life,” Kirk said.
Now, all Kirk has left of her son is that story. She cherishes the photographs. She keeps his old clothes. She visits the grave every day.
But, Kirk also has a new family. Codrington isn’t just a friend. She, too, lost her son, Sgt. Cory Clark, in 2007, while he also was deployed in Afghanistan. The women are part of the American Gold Star Mothers, an organization of mothers who have lost children in war. They proudly wear their pins, along with their sons’ dog tags.
“Family is very supportive but, when it’s another mom, it’s different,” Kirk said. “They understand.”
“(American Gold Star Mothers) has been a life-saver for me,” Codrington said. “We want to reach out to others. In our group, it’s OK to cry. We’re the weepers. Sometimes, you don’t know what triggers it. But, in our group, it’s OK to still be crying.”
There was still a week to go until Memorial Day. Flags already had been set out around veterans’ graves in remembrance. It’s a touching gesture for the mothers. But, they live the meaning of the holiday more than once a year.
“Every day is Memorial Day for us,” Kirk said. “It may come once a year for people who don’t know the loss, but it’s every day for us.”
“Every single day,” Codrington added.
PFC. PAUL CUZZUPE
Kirk has a tattoo on her wrist reminding her of her son.
It reads, “Destino,” Italian for “destiny.”
Cuzzupe only had three credits to go until he finished his degree at St. Leo University. But, the 23-year-old just couldn’t wait to go into the military. It was his destiny.
“He said, ‘This is something I’ve got to do,’” Kirk said.
So, Cuzzupe packed his bags for boot camp. He said goodbye to his band, The Flawless Affect, and left his guitar, his girlfriend and his mother behind.
Could Kirk really be surprised? Both she and Cuzzupe’s father, Paul, had been in the Army, and he was born on the Army base at Fort Riley, Kan.
Cuzzupe was assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany. He had been deployed for less than two months to Akhtar-Mohammad-Khan, when he earned the Army Commendation Medal.
An Afghan father had attached bombs to his children. In the blink of an eye, they detonated. As a medic, Cuzzupe rushed to help one of the boys. Three of his limbs had been blown off. He couldn’t save him.
He called his mother at 3 a.m. after the incident. He was exhausted. And haunted. The child was the same age as his younger sister, Alexis, back home, safe and sound.
“He worked tirelessly on that child,” Kirk said. “It affected him, because it was a child. How could someone do that to their own child?
“I just let him talk,” Kirk said. “I’ll never forget what he said to me: “Tell ‘Boop,’ tell Lexi, I love her.”
One week later, he was killed.
“It was a doorbell,” Kirk said.
She was in the shower after taking a walk around the neighborhood. The military personnel tasked with the responsibility of relaying the news had watched her as she rounded the block and entered her home. They waited a moment to let her get settled inside.
“It wasn’t reality,” Kirk said. “I didn’t believe it until I saw him.”
Kirk, and his grandmother, Judy Allard, traveled to Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, to receive his body.
Before they laid him to rest, Kirk gazed upon his face one last time before the ceremony.
“That was probably one of the hardest parts,” Kirk said.
In a mere matter of months, Cuzzupe went from being the king of selfies to the recipient of a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and a Combat Medic Badge.
“I feel as moms, we did raise heroes,” Kirk said. “Young men willing to go and fight for something they believe in. My son, like her son, has a lot of compassion for people in those countries.”
SGT. CORY CLARK
Cory Clark made sure he wasn’t going to get lost in the shuffle as a middle child. From the moment his younger sister was born, he became a full-fledged social butterfly.
“Cory was Plant City’s child,” Codrington said. “He had to know everyone, and everyone had to know him.”
The Durant High School alum carved out many personas for himself.
He loved to cooking, aspiring to become a restaurateur.
He was the protector who talked Codrington into signing up on Myspace to keep an eye on his younger cousins. He did the job himself when he wasn’t deployed.
He was a mentor, who often helped his family and other service members with advice.
“Cory enjoyed life; he enjoyed people,” Codrington said.
Clark didn’t want to work in the Food Lion warehouse freezer for the rest of his life. So in 2001, he carved a new identity as an Army engineer.
He was deployed once to Iraq, and then again to Jaji, Afghanistan, near the Pakistani boarder. But, his service would end shortly after celebrating six years in the armed forces.
Codrington had just received an email photo of her son hours before she got the devastating news.
She was at work when the news was delivered to her front door. The problem was, she had just moved. After neighbors saw the military personnel, word spread quickly around town. Codrington had dozens of missed calls when she was summoned to the human-resources office while still on the job. Security escorted her into the room.
She had no idea what she had done. Someone gave her a telephone, with a relative on the line.
A suicide bomber had killed the 25-year-old while he was fixing a bridge.
“It was a blur after that,” Codrington said.
She awoke in the emergency room hours later, insisting to be released. Insisting it wasn’t true. That it was all a mistake.
Clark was escorted home by his brother, Master Sgt. Kedrick Wright. He returned with an impressive list of military honors, including a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and a marksmanship award. His contagious personality and giving spirit also remains in the hearts of many. Two friends named their children after the military mentor and protector of peace.
“It just showed the honor that Cory did have,” Codrington said about her son’s ultimate sacrifice. “There is no greater loss than the one you brought forward and the one that gave you life. No greater loss.”
Contact Amber Jurgensen at [email protected].
Plant City Memorial Day Ceremony
Plant City’s annual Memorial Day Ceremony will take place at 11 a.m. Monday, May 26, at the Plant City American Legion, 2207 W. Baker St., Plant City.
Lunch will be served following the service.
For more information, call (813) 752-8608.