As a child, Ricardo Seija loved to play with toy soldiers.
His mother could tell it wasn't just a passing interest. She knew her son would eventually join the military, a prediction Ricardo proved correct when he enlisted in the U.S. Army right after graduating from Leto High School.
"Since he was a child, he wanted to defend his country," said Ignacia Seija, who affectionately called her son Ricky. "He very much loved liberty. He wanted a free country without war, without problems.
"It was a (strong) emotion that he felt (for the military,)" she said.
On Monday morning, she learned that her 31-year-old son died while serving in Afghanistan.
"Ricky died like a hero fighting for his country," she said. "Not just for his country but for all of us who live in America.
"I know he's in heaven," she said. "He's with God. He's in a better place."
Ricardo Seija was one of six soldiers – and the second from West Central Florida - killed Sunday in eastern Afghanistan when their armored vehicle struck an improvised explosive device.
Clarence Williams III of Brooksville was also killed. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the bomb blast.
Seija joined the U.S. Army in 2000, eventually rising to the rank of staff sergeant. He was a member of the Army's 978th Military Police Company in Fort Bliss, Texas. This was his first combat mission.
He was sent to Afghanistan in March. He was initially scheduled to return in November. But his mother and father are elderly and facing health issues. He was granted permission to return in August to spend time with them and his son, 8-year-old Ricardo, from his first marriage, Ignacia Seija said.
His parents are Colombian, but he was born in Chicago. The family moved to Tampa in 1998.
Seija attended and graduated from Leto High in 1999. He enlisted with the U.S. Army in January 2000, his mother said.
"He wanted to defend his homeland," Ignacia Seija said. "He loved this country very much."
Besides military service, his passion included his family, his mother's Colombian cooking and watching sports, including the Chicago Bears and Chicago Bulls, his mother said.
"He was very playful," Ignacia Seija said. "From a 1 to a 10, I would give him a 10 as a son, brother and classmate."
He was remarried in March 2012. His wife, Sunny, lives in El Paso, Texas, Ignacia Seija said.
"I want America to remember him as a hero," Ignacia Seija said. "And he'll always be in my heart."
Ricardo Seija is survived by his wife, Sunny, of El Paso, Texas; his mother, Ignacia Seija, 61; his father, Ricardo Seija, 89, both of Tampa; a son from a previous marriage, Ricardo Seija, 8, of Missouri; and two older brothers, Jose Seija, and Eduardo Seija, both of Chicago, Ill.