'It's still kind of surreal': Volusia County grad named USO Marine of the Year

Josie Cruz and Cpl. Jake Dennen pin Alec Cruz to the rank of corporal. Cruz was recently named USO Marine of the Year. The 21-year-old, who graduated from Deltona High School in 2019, is stationed in Hawaii.
Josie Cruz and Cpl. Jake Dennen pin Alec Cruz to the rank of corporal. Cruz was recently named USO Marine of the Year. The 21-year-old, who graduated from Deltona High School in 2019, is stationed in Hawaii.

When Cpl. Alec Cruz, a military police officer and private first class at the time, was dispatched to help an unresponsive woman at the annual Marine Corps Ball in Hawaii last fall, he said he was just doing his job.

The woman was fading in and out of consciousness, so Cruz cleared the restroom she was in and laid her down. The woman became completely unconscious and friends noticed she was no longer breathing.

“I felt for a pulse,” Cruz said. “I didn't feel a pulse, and I started doing CPR.”

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He completed one set of chest compressions and rescue breaths. As he started the second set of chest compressions, the woman came to and he monitored her until an ambulance arrived.

For the potentially life-saving act, Cruz, a Deltona High School graduate, has received multiple recognitions and honors, the latest of which was being named Marine of the Year by the United Service Organizations (USO), the country’s leading organization serving military members.

“In the moment, I just knew I had to do my job. I wasn’t really thinking about it,” he said, noting he would like to think anyone else in the position would have done the same thing.

While he said calls for individuals drifting in and out of consciousness aren’t uncommon, a call that requires CPR is rarer, and it was his first time having to perform CPR on the job.

Cpl. Alec Cruz was recently named USO Marine of the Year. The 21-year-old, who graduated from Deltona High School in 2019, is stationed in Hawaii.
Cpl. Alec Cruz was recently named USO Marine of the Year. The 21-year-old, who graduated from Deltona High School in 2019, is stationed in Hawaii.

Cruz honored with medal, promotions, Marine of the Year award

Cruz’s chain of command recognized the act, and he was honored with a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, as well as Marine of the Quarter within his battalion and within the entire Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe Bay.

Along with the Marine of the Year recognition, which was announced in October, Cruz was promoted to lance corporal in February and meritoriously promoted to corporal in June.

“I was in a lot of shock and disbelief. I kind of didn’t believe it,” he said of hearing that he'd won. “It's still kind of surreal, and I definitely appreciate it.”

An announcement from the Marine Corps noted that the Marine of the Year award is given for a specific act of “heroism or valor” to recognize a Marine “who demonstrates bravery and leadership in the course of his or her service, offers outstanding support and comfort to those with whom they serve, and enhances the morale and personal welfare of others.”

There are more than 180,000 active Marines, and the award was designated for those ranked sergeant or below.

“Cpl. Cruz is deserving of recognition of this award for his actions to his service and the community,” the release said.

Cpl. Alec Cruz was recently named USO Marine of the Year. The 21-year-old, who graduated from Deltona High School in 2019, is stationed in Hawaii. He and his wife, Josie Cruz, are pictured at a recent Marine Corps Ball.
Cpl. Alec Cruz was recently named USO Marine of the Year. The 21-year-old, who graduated from Deltona High School in 2019, is stationed in Hawaii. He and his wife, Josie Cruz, are pictured at a recent Marine Corps Ball.

Cruz and family have Deltona ties

Cruz, who is 21, moved with his family to Deltona in 2015 and graduated from Deltona High School in 2019. He had lived much of his life in North Carolina, where his father, a gunnery sergeant, was stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, but he says he did a lot of his growing up in Deltona.

His mother was a police officer, so he drew on both of his parents’ experiences in becoming a military police officer after enlisting in 2019.

Cruz lives with his wife Josie Cruz, a 2017 Deltona High School graduate. The two met at Deltona High School in 2016 and married in 2019. Josie was born and raised in Deltona, and both of their parents still live there.

“I'm just obviously very proud of him, and I've seen him work really hard,” Josie said. “Every day, he's just very motivated right now and I'm speechless. I'm just very proud of him. He's come a long way.”

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Josie is also a Navy Reserve corpsman and comes from a military family – her parents met over 30 years ago on the same ship in the Navy. One weekend a month she works at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam assisting with medical and dental care. She is pregnant with the couple’s first child, a boy due in January.

Cruz has been stationed in Hawaii since July 2020, after he completed boot camp, combat training and military police training.

“It’s definitely a different transition just being on an island, but it's an experience that most people don't get to have to live out here,” he said. “It's definitely an awesome experience.”

Cruz came back to Florida earlier this year, and the couple’s families have also visited them in Hawaii.

Alec Cruz (center), a Deltona High School graduate, is pictured with his older brother, Nicholas, older sister Alexis, mother Michelle, father Albert and younger brother Seth. Cruz, who is stationed in Hawaii, was recently honored as USO Marine of the Year.
Alec Cruz (center), a Deltona High School graduate, is pictured with his older brother, Nicholas, older sister Alexis, mother Michelle, father Albert and younger brother Seth. Cruz, who is stationed in Hawaii, was recently honored as USO Marine of the Year.

Cruz's family 'extremely proud' of son

Cruz’s mother, Michelle, says she was “ecstatic” to hear about her son’s award.

“Alec is a go-getter,” she said. “Alec was very fast for everything, a very fast learner, spoke early, he was even (born) early — he was a month early.”

She added that he has always been inquisitive and smart, and that the family in Deltona, including his siblings and grandmother, misses him.

"We're just extremely proud of him," she said. "He's number three of four children, so three siblings, brothers and sister, are very proud of him."

Cruz's father, Albert had joined the Marines in 2000 and been deployed to places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti and Africa, his wife said. Michelle was a police officer in the New York Police Department from 1993 to 2004. The couple enjoys talking to Cruz about his work on patrol and in the Marines following in their footsteps.

Alec Cruz is pictured with his father, Albert, who was a gunnery sergeant, and mother Michelle, who was a police officer. Cruz, a Deltona High graduate, followed in their footsteps to become a military police officer in the Marines and recently won USO Marine of the Year.
Alec Cruz is pictured with his father, Albert, who was a gunnery sergeant, and mother Michelle, who was a police officer. Cruz, a Deltona High graduate, followed in their footsteps to become a military police officer in the Marines and recently won USO Marine of the Year.

“He outdid me. He's out of my shadow,” Albert said. “I was a Marine, but it's his time now. I can't take anything away from him, and I can't even say it's because of me. … It's all of his accolades and achievements that got him to be Marine of the Year. I'm just proud that he wears the uniform and has my last name.”

Next in his career, Cruz hopes to become a drill instructor for new recruits back in Parris Island, South Carolina, where boot camp takes place.

In the meantime, USO will honor him at his base in Hawaii this month, and he and his wife are invited to an annual USO awards dinner in Washington, D.C., in March.

Contact reporter Danielle Johnson at djohnson@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Deltona graduate named USO Marine of the Year for life-saving act