District employee Luis Rivera-Rios never met his uncle. All he knew was what his parents told him—that his uncle was killed in the Vietnam War. Decades later, Rivera-Rios, too, would earn the Purple Heart, just like his uncle.
The Rivera-Rios family had a history of military service going back generations, and the 38-year-old from Puerto Rico knew that he wanted to carry on the tradition, especially after hearing of his uncle.
"Then 9/11 came, and that was my call," he said.
After Rivera-Rios returned home from basic training, he decided to research the events that led to his uncle’s death. The Purple Heart citation provided the explanation. Rivera-Rios’ uncle was killed in an ambush after he chased an escaping prisoner of war through the jungle.
Rivera-Rios, an Army reservist, soon returned to Puerto Rico where he served with the 389th Finance Detachment, 65th Readiness Command based out of Fort Buchanan. He was working for a health insurance company and taking accounting classes at Universidad del Este Puerto Rico when his unit was mobilized for its second deployment to Iraq, the place where the younger Rivera-Rios would earn his Purple Heart.
While in country, the unit worked out of Forward Operating Base Falcon, also known as Camp Falcon, located just outside of Baghdad. About every 10 days, Rivera-Rios and some of his Soldiers traveled to the cities of Yusufiyah, Mahmudiyah, and Latifiyah. American Soldiers named the road connecting these cities The Triangle of Death because so many were killed by insurgent-planted improvised explosive devices, or the RPGs and AK-47 rounds that often followed IED attacks. The route became so bad during Rivera-Rios’ tour that road convoys were halted, and supplies and personnel were moved in and out by helicopter.
And the danger didn’t end for troops once they arrived at destinations. Mortar fire was always a threat, and snipers took advantage of the bases’ vulnerabilities. In Yusufiyah and Mahmudiyah, the bases’ perimeter walls were so short that Soldiers could see people walking on the street, Rivera-Rios said.
"Every time the helicopter dropped us off we had to run for cover because they had snipers outside the perimeter who would try and hit us," he said.
But Rivera-Rios and his unit had to complete their missions. A Soldier doesn’t perform well if he or she is worried about a spouse back home who can’t pay for daycare because a pay form wasn’t filled out properly.
Rivera-Rios dodged the dangers along the road, but he couldn’t escape the mortar fire launched inside Mahmudiyah’s perimeter. One day, while eating dinner, a Katyusha rocket ripped through the facility’s walls and landed about 10 feet from where Rivera-Rios was sitting. Those who could, ran from the dining facility, then raced back in to care for the wounded. Rivera-Rios was lying on the ground, knocked unconscious.
"The only thing I remember is the explosion," he recalled. "When I woke up, I was on the floor. I remember there was a lot of wood on top of me. That was a day I’ll never forget. I’d been at that FOB (Forward Operating Base) so many times, and there was always something going on, but I didn’t think anything would happen to me."
Rivera-Rios was lucky to survive, and he was even able—by his request—to stay with his unit until it left six months later. But he didn’t go uninjured. He had two surgeries to repair a shoulder that still has a piece of shrapnel in it, and he suffered the signature wound of the Iraq War—a traumatic brain injury. Still, he knows he’s lucky to be alive. He met many who never made it home.
"It’s very sad," he said. "You meet people who you play sports with and share news from back home with. Then, you run into somebody else who says that person is dead."
Recovery…and on with life
When he returned from Iraq, the Army transferred Rivera-Rios to the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Knox, a location where the Army can better administer the tests, scans and evaluations recovering Soldiers need.
The WTU’s mission is to return the Soldier to duty as quickly as possible. If he or she isn’t able to return to duty, then the Army’s focus is on returning the Soldier to civilian life in the best mental and physical health possible. Advocates from the Army Wounded Warrior Program help Soldiers leaving the service find jobs.
Advocate Joyce Garrett began working with Rivera-Rios several months out from his July 2009 departure date. She found him a job with the district, and he’s been working at the federal building with the military project management, Fort Campbell section as a budget technician since Aug. 3.
"I’m grateful for the opportunity the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave to me," he said. "I had planned to stay in the Army for 20 years and continue to help my nation. (This program) is really great for Soldiers like us."