Tikrit, Iraq - As three young boys begin to tear apart the Christmas wrapping paper around their gifts, they smile and laugh with unrestrained joy, finally free to discover what "Santa Claus" had put under the tree the night before.
Sgt. Maj. Raymond Rodriguez Jr., Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Special Troops Battalion, 25th Infantry Division Task Force Lightning, carries this holiday memory from some 15 years ago with him in Iraq. But he admits he's missed plenty of other precious holiday moments. Rodriguez, with more than 20 years in the Army, remembers many occasions when "Dad" wasn't home.
Like many deployed fathers, Rodriguez will again reminisce about moments of family togetherness far away from home. But this holiday season, there's a special twist.
His son, Spc. Jeremy Rodriguez, is serving in Iraq over the holidays just like his father. The food service specialist with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, is now in the waning months of a 15-month tour.
The two Soldiers met briefly at Contingency Operating Base Warhorse for Thanksgiving. They traded hugs and had a few laughs before duty called, and Sgt. Maj. Rodriguez had to continue on to another base.
"When I got to see my father out here, it was like I wasn't in Iraq anymore," said the younger Rodriguez. "It's so much easier over here when you get to see a loved one. Fifteen months is a long time without family, and knowing that he is here serving here too, makes it a lot easier."
The father in uniform says he's very proud his son chose to wear the same.
"As any young kid growing up, he did not understand why the Army had me gone a lot of the time, but it did not stop him from joining the Army Team," said Sgt. Maj. Rodriguez. "He saw what kind of life he had growing up and wanted to have the same for him and his wife."
With memories from youth still fresh in his mind, Spc. Rodriguez knows how he arrived at this point. As a boy, he used to walk around the house wearing Army jump boots, gloves and helmet when his father was home.
"When I got older, I would wear his uniform while I went paintballing with my friends," said Spc. Rodriguez. "I always wanted to be an Airborne Ranger, and still do."
Like his father, Spc. Rodriguez now recognizes the commitment a person must make in order to become a great Soldier. And he now endures the difficult times away from his family that his father had to endure during his career.
"I guess when I was younger, I just took everything for granted," said Spc. Rodriguez. "Being over here makes you appreciate everything you have."
With both Soldiers deployed to Iraq, their wives are patiently awaiting their return back home.
"I could not be more proud of my husband or my son, or my entire family for that matter. I am not sure if they know just how proud I am of them," said Lori Rodriguez. "They both are definitely my heroes. Our other two sons miss them, but fully understand what they do."
Only a handful of Soldiers can say they spent Christmas with their family in Iraq. Sgt. Major and Spc. Rodriguez will have that distinction when they meet up during the holidays and spend some time together as they did more than 15 years ago in their house near the Christmas tree.
"The reason I joined the Army is because I aspired to do as well as he did, and try to become an adult and be successful," said Spc. Rodriguez. "However, even though he's only like four feet tall, he's got some pretty big shoes to fill."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16