Ask 1st Lt. David Rivera what he missed most while serving in Saudi Arabia, and the answer will be quick.
"Family - family a lot," he said during a recent visit home.
Last year, Rivera served what was supposed to be a six-month rotation at Riyadh Air Base for Operation Southern Watch. When the Iraqi war began, the soldiers were told they were "going to be extended until further notice," he said.
Rivera said that in February they were moved to another air base farther north to provide defense against possible missile attacks from Iraqi forces.
Besides thinking about family members back home, he and his fellow soldiers also missed the usual things, Rivera said.
Army 1st Lt. David Rivera Jr. (left) sits with his parents, Helen Rivera and Col. David Rivera Sr., after returning from duty in the Middle East.
"You know, we'd say we can't wait to eat steak" or eat at fast-food restaurants, adding that little things took on new significance. "I missed the green trees and grass and water," he said. "I've learned to appreciate all the stuff you don't have."
Rivera's mother, Helen, and fiancee, Shaunna Moncibaiz, tried to help by sending care packages.
"We sent things like wet wipes, toothpaste, mouthwash, candy," Helen Rivera said. "Things to keep their energy up and to help David and his friends to think of home."
She added that she and Moncibaiz knew to pack extra goods because Rivera always shared what he had with those nearby.
It was hard, his mother admitted, adding that sometimes the packages took up to a month to reach her son. She said that contact was also difficult. Twice-weekly phone calls placed before the war dwindled to one every few weeks.
"When the war kicked off, there were such long lines that he didn't call for a long time," Moncibaiz said.
While on leave in August, Rivera took the time to speak about his experiences to Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps classes at Evans High School, his alma mater.
"What's surprising is how many are pursuing the armed forces," he said, explaining that more than 50 percent of the students indicated future military plans. "It takes a certain kind of person to join the military."
Rivera disputed the notion of soldiers as war junkies.
"A reason why every soldier goes over there is because of his beliefs," he said. "He's thankful for the freedoms - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Rivera also said soldiers know that many of those who went to wars before them never came home.
"We know that brave men and women have died," he said. "That's why we do it."
Senior Army Instructor Patrick Rivette, who taught Rivera at Evans, said that reactions from the JROTC classes were very positive. Rivette described the 1996 graduate as hard working and tenacious with a "great desire to succeed."
Rivera's father, Col. David E. Rivera, who is chief of surgery at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center, agreed.
"I'm tremendously proud of my son and the young soldiers he was with in Saudi Arabia," he said. "You know, as long as we have young men and women like David, there's hope for America."
As the younger Rivera prepared to head back to Fort Bliss, Texas, to go back to work and plan his upcoming wedding, he urged the community not to forget soldiers who are deployed.
"I want to thank all those who prayed for me and the soldiers over there, especially those at West Acres Baptist Church," he said. "It's easy to forget that there are still U.S. soldiers dying - almost every couple of days.
"We can not forget. They still need support, prayers and packages."
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