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Face of Defense: NCO Pays it Forward on Lifesaving

By Army Sgt. Lindsey Bradford
Special to American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Jan. 20, 2010 – After an improvised explosive device ripped through his vehicle, Army 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.

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Army Lt. Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr. awards Army Staff Sgt. James Rivera, the Victory Base Complex convoy support team noncommissioned officer in charge, the Soldier's Medal at Camp Victory's Al Faw Palace in Baghdad, Dec. 22, 2009. Rivera jumped into a lake to rescue the driver of a vehicle that had plunged into the water. U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Mark Woelzlein
  

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Nearly five years later, Rivera was the one saving the life of another.

In the first 12 hours after arriving here at 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 to save whoever was inside. He was able to drag the driver, the only occupant, 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. His actions earned him the Soldier’s Medal at a Dec. 22 ceremony here.

"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 Army Lt. Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., commanding general of Multinational Corps Iraq. Multinational Corps Iraq became U.S. Forces Iraq earlier this month.

Before pinning on the medal, Jacoby took a moment to tell the story of the Soldier's Medal, which is awarded to any servicemember of the United States or of a friendly foreign nation who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Army, distinguished him- or herself by heroism not involving battle with an enemy.

"This really is an honor," Jacoby said, as he prepared to place the medal on Rivera's lapel. It was the first Soldier's Medal Jacoby has awarded in his 32-year Army career.

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,” he said. “At first, I joined the Air Force for the education, but I just really wanted to be in the fight."

Rivera had his chance to join the fight when he deployed to Afghanistan with 25th Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, in 2004. It was there that he provided support to safeguard coalition forces and received a Bronze Star Medal for valor following an Aug. 12, 2004, battle. Rivera, serving as a machine gunner, was struck by an improvised explosive device that caused severe shrapnel wounds to his face and leg, for which he received a Purple Heart.

Pentz, the first sergeant who saved his life after the blast, always will be one of his heroes, Rivera 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 Infantry Division 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 soldier, and is seen standing and paying homage and final honors to a fallen comrade at the site 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.

(Army Sgt. Lindsey Bradford serves with Multinational Corps Iraq public affairs.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Staff Sgt. James Rivera and his wife, Jennifer, pose for a picture at a football game. Rivera, who has been called a hero, says he is inspired by his wife. After being injured in Afghanistan in 2004, he said she made him feel like he had something to live for. "She has truly saved me," he said. Courtesy photo  
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