Rudy A. Acosta is remembered by fellow soldiers and family members as a skilled… (Army )
Army Spc. Rudy Acosta kept a list of goals in his pocket.
Be a good leader. Become a surgeon.
After serving as a medic in Afghanistan for nine months, the 19-year-old soldier was six weeks away from finishing his tour of duty, and he was looking to the future.
On March 19, he was among several soldiers at a U.S. military base in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province, on the Pakistani border. They were cleaning their weapons before a planned patrol when an Afghan contractor hired to help guard the base approached and opened fire with a machine gun.
Acosta was killed in the spray of bullets, along with Cpl. Donald R. Mickler Jr., 29, of Bucyrus, Ohio, according to the Pentagon. Four other soldiers were wounded. Other U.S. soldiers returned fire and killed the gunman.
Acosta and Mickler were both assigned to the 4th Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany.
A strong-jawed former football player, Acosta was remembered by fellow soldiers and family members as a skilled and compassionate medic who was guided by his deep Christian faith.
"He had a heart for people," said his father, Dante Acosta.
He said he last spoke to his son a few weeks before his death. In a long phone conversation, the young man asked about his mother, Carolyn, his younger sister and brother, and his friends from the tight-knit Santa Clarita Christian School he attended for 13 years, his father said.
Acosta grew up in Santa Clarita's Canyon Country community on a quiet cul-de-sac surrounded by sloping canyons dotted with yucca and sage. He was a well-rounded kid, a history buff who in his senior year of high school starred in a school theater production and played on its state champion football team.
"He was the full package," said Derek Swales, principal of Santa Clarita Christian School.
Acosta enlisted in the Army in a delayed-entry program even before he graduated from high school in 2009. Both of his grandfathers had served in the military — one during World War II and the other during the Korean War — and his parents had friends in the armed services. After training as a medic, he deployed to Afghanistan in July 2010.
The Army changed and focused him, Swales said: "He came back a man."
Swales saw Acosta in January, when the young soldier took time from his two-week home leave to give presentations to the school's students about his war experiences.
Along with descriptions of combat missions, he shared a lighter anecdote: a story about a bet he made with fellow soldiers in which he had to drink an entire bottle of Tabasco sauce followed by a Mountain Dew.
When Acosta's father heard that story, he laughed. "He was still a 19-year-old teenager," he said. "He loved to laugh and smile and make people's day."
In the Army, Acosta discovered a passion for medicine, his father said. He hoped to stay in the military and train as a surgeon.
Acosta often posted Bible passages on his Facebook page. But his last post alluded to the impending end of his tour of duty. "I can almost taste it," he wrote.
Acosta's father is furious about the circumstances of his son's death. "Only American soldiers should be standing guard on American stations," he said. "Soldiers on base shouldn't have to be looking over their shoulder."
He said he plans to campaign to change a military policy that allows contractors to guard bases.
On March 31, when Acosta was buried in his hometown, a processional through the city drew thousands to the streets. Banners bearing his portrait were hung from overpasses and the sidewalks were lined with schoolchildren, firefighters and City Council members.
"It was a Norman Rockwell moment," Swales said.
The motorcade started at Acosta's school and passed by the Army recruiting station where he enlisted. It drove past the hospital where he was born, past the state Department of Motor Vehicles office where he got his driver's license and by a park memorializing veterans.
It ended at Eternal Valley Memorial Park, where Acosta was buried with full military honors.