This Iraq War Veteran Didn't Just See 'Water by the Spoonful.' He Lived It

Elliot Ruiz 1200
Iraq war veteran Elliot Ruiz is the real-life inspiration for the character Elliot in playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes' plays "Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue," "Water by the Spoonful" and "The Happiest Song Plays Last." (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

LOS ANGELES _ It's intermission during Quiara Alegria Hudes' "Water by the Spoonful," the Pulitzer Prize-winning centerpiece of her Elliot trilogy of plays portraying the experiences of a Marine during and after the Iraq war. It's interesting, a tall young man says, how each actor in each play puts his stamp on the role of Elliot.

The tall young man has seen "Water by the Spoonful" more than once, and he's also seen "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue" (which just finished a run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre) and "The Happiest Song Plays Last" (now at the Los Angeles Theatre Center) several times apiece. He even went to Armenia to see "Water by the Spoonful" there. He doesn't know Armenian, so the only word he understood was "dissonance," spoken by the music professor character lecturing on John Coltrane. But he had no problem following the story.

He lived it.

The tall young man is Elliot Ruiz, the playwright's cousin, whom she sometimes calls her muse. They grew up together in North Philadelphia. By the time he returned from Iraq, she had a degree in music from Yale and a degree in playwriting from Brown. They had lunch together one day to catch up. He had been through a lot. She asked if she could write about it.

In the plays, his name is Elliot Ortiz, and Hudes changed other details too, reshaping them for dramatic purposes, weaving them into stories about other members of her extended Puerto Rican family and setting them to different forms of music.

But the fictional Elliot's life is close enough to this young man's that he can confidently be regarded as the Ur-Elliot, the original model, the irreducible essence of Elliot-ness from whom all other Elliots on various stages have sprung.

Ruiz enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2002 at age 17, before he had a driver's license. He went to Iraq and suffered a leg injury that required multiple surgeries, years of recovery and a medical retirement from the only career he knew. Along the way he battled _ and beat _ an addiction to pain medication.

He moved to Los Angeles to start over again, got a job, took a trip back home and ran into his senior prom date, who hated him since that night because he'd left her alone at the table and danced with other girls. She forgave him, and they married.

He became a character in a play. Then another play. Then a third play.

Ruiz has had plenty of experience watching people act out painful scenes from his past, but that doesn't mean it's not weird. Now 33, he's in the lobby of the Mark Taper Forum, where "Water by the Spoonful" is playing. He has a gentlemanly demeanor and a sweet smile, a hit of pure sugar. His eyes look a little red, though.

"This is a tough one for me," he confesses. "The second act. Well, you'll see."

A few days before, at a coffee shop in West Hollywood, he said he'd given Hudes his blessing, all those years ago, to do whatever she wanted with the story he had shared with her. He didn't know what to expect. His only experience with theater had been school plays. But he wasn't worried.

"I trust Quiara," he said. "She's my big cous'."

When "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue" came out, he said, it was cool.

"Water by the Spoonful" was different. It covers deep and painful territory for Ruiz in life and in art: the death of the woman who raised him, and his anger at his biological mother, Odessa, a recovering crack addict.

"It was a lot," Ruiz said, about the first time he saw it. He recalled going backstage to congratulate the actor, Armando Riesco, who originated the role of Elliot. "All these emotions came over me and I just broke down crying."

But he also credited the play with helping his relationship with Odessa. They are on good terms now, and he looks forward to her being a grandmother to his children, when he has them.

After sitting at the coffee shop for about 10 minutes, Ruiz's right leg began shaking uncontrollably. His 2003 accident caused lasting nerve damage. A car ran the checkpoint he was guarding and caught some concertina wire, which closed around his leg and dragged him down the street.

"I felt a cool breeze and when I reached back and touched my leg, my entire hand went into my leg and touched the bone," he said.

He showed a photo of the mangled, stitched-up leg on his phone. Doctors said he wouldn't walk again without a cane.

Today he walks with just a slight limp _ and no cane. In spite of the tremor, the overall impression he conveys is of daunting fitness and health.

"People look at me and say, 'Nothing wrong with you.' " But some days, he said, he struggles to get out of bed. "My wife has to help me put my socks on. I have to take an Uber to work. My wife tells me, 'Just stay home.' But I can't. I'll go crazy."

Ruiz didn't want to retire from the Marines, even after his injury. He remembers begging to be allowed a second tour of duty.

"I knew I couldn't run or anything," he said. "But I even asked if I could be in an ammo vehicle, handing out ammo. It was difficult to see my friends leave without me."

And for his military career to end so early.

"That was all I knew," he said. "There was no Plan B."

He moved to L.A. and ate Top Ramen for months. Then a neighbor hired him to be in a Crest commercial, and the residuals ("I didn't even know what residuals were," he said) expanded his diet a bit. He went on to serve as a technical advisor for movies about the Iraq war.

Ten years ago, in search of steadier work, he found a job moving boxes for a company that owns convalescent homes and assisted living facilities. Now he's a manager there.

"I'm a renaissance man," he said. When asked what that means, he said everything from unclogging toilets to greeting presidential candidates. "And that's within 15 minutes. I've been in a suit, with a trash bag and a snake, and then I wash up really quick and the candidate walks in.

"I'll do whatever," he said, smiling. "I've done worse. Trust me."

As he prepared to depart, he mentioned that he'd be missing the Latino Theater Company production of the last part in the trilogy, "The Happiest Song Plays Last." He was flying to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and raise money for Waterboys, a charity that builds wells in Tanzania.

"That's why I'm wearing these shoes," he explained. "I have to break them in."

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