NCO pays it forward, earns Soldier's Medal
December 30, 2009
- NCO earns Soldier's Medal for saving driver of submerged vehicle
- Also has Bronze Star, Purple Heart from his tour in Afghanistan
BAGHDAD -- After an improvised explosive device ripped through his vehicle, Staff Sgt. James Rivera needed medical attention and quick. It was 1st Sgt. Joshua Pentz who saved his life that day in Afghanistan in 2004, by getting him out, using his combat lifesaver skills and calling for a medevac. Nearly five years later, Rivera was the one saving the life of another - an action that earned him the Soldier's Medal Dec. 22.
In the first 12 hours after arriving to Baghdad's Victory Base Complex in May, Rivera and his friend noticed a vehicle veering toward a lake.
"I kept telling my buddy 'it looks like he's going to go in the water' and then he did," said Rivera, a Woodberry Heights, N.J., native serving as the VBC convoy support team noncommissioned officer with the 81st Quartermaster Company, 593rd Sustainment Brigade, from Fort Lewis, Wash.
Rivera immediately dove in after the sinking vehicle, disregarding his own safety, to save whoever was inside. He was able to drag the driver, the only person inside, out of a window of the submerged vehicle and get him to safety until a medical team arrived.
Rivera said the only thing going through his mind was making sure that everyone got out safely.
"Staff Sergeant Rivera saved (the driver's) life at great risk to his own. That is exactly what we expect of our noncommissioned officers, placing someone above himself," said Lt. Gen. Charles H. Jacoby, Jr., commanding general of Multi-National Corps-Iraq.
Before pinning on the Soldier's Medal, Jacoby took a moment to tell the story of the Soldier's Medal, a medal awarded to any person of the Armed Forces of the United States or of a friendly foreign nation who, while serving in any capacity with the Army of the United States, distinguished himself or herself by heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy.
It was introduced by a law passed by United States Congress on July 2, 1926, and two of the first four medals awarded were presented to James K. Wilson and Cleophas C. Burnett for saving people from drowning.
"This really is an honor," Jacoby said, as he prepared to place the medal on Rivera's lapel. This was the first Soldier's Medal Jacoby has awarded a Soldier in his 32-year career in the Army.
Rivera joined the Army in February 2002, after serving as a life support technician in the Air National Guard.
"I always wanted to be a Soldier. At first, I joined the Air Force for the education, but I just really wanted to be in the fight," he said.
He had his chance to be "in the fight" when he deployed to Afghanistan with 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (Light) in 2004. It was there that he provided support to safeguard coalition forces and destroyed the enemy during a conflict on Aug. 12, 2004. He was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for valor. Rivera, serving as a machine gunner, was struck by an IED that caused severe shrapnel wounds to his face and leg; he received a Purple Heart.
Pentz, the first sergeant who saved his life after the blast, will always be one of his heroes, he said.
"He's one of the first NCOs I ever looked up to. He taught me everything I know, and he represents everything the Army stands for," Rivera said.
Taking a cue from Pentz, Rivera strives to provide his junior Soldiers with the same knowledge and mentorship he received.
"As an NCO, you have to care. Not just about Soldiers, but about how you look and how you carry yourself," he said. "I always tell my guys to do their best no matter what. Take whatever menial task you get and exploit it. Make it look like you're the best at it. Even if it's cleaning a toilet, do it better than anyone else. People will notice that, and continue to give you more responsibility. If you can't be trusted to do the small things, how can they trust you to do anything else'"
In 2005, the 25th Inf. Div. (Light) recognized Rivera's achievements during Operation Enduring Freedom and selected him to be the model for a memorial honoring the fallen at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Rivera represents a modern-day Global War on Terrorism Soldier, and is seen standing and paying homage and final honors to a fallen comrade at the sight of a Soldier's cross.
"They call me a hero, but I'm a patriot. The true heroes are the ones that did not make it back home," Rivera said.