BAGHDAD - Staff Sgt. James Rivera saw the Toyota pickup careening out of control. First it swerved into incoming traffic and clipped a car. Then it bounced over a curb, hit a street sign and plunged into a lake.
“It was like it went in slow motion,” the Fort Lewis soldier said. “I just kept thinking, ‘He’s not stopping.’”
Rivera, a transportation management coordinator with the 593rd Sustainment Brigade, parked his van and sprinted from his vehicle. He ran through head-high reeds on the edge of Z Lake on Baghdad’s Victory Base Complex and jumped into the water.
The truck was about 10 feet from the shore and already submerged. Rivera banged on the door, waking the driver. Rivera didn’t know at the time, but the driver had suffered a seizure. The man, a civilian contractor, looked dazed and didn’t appear to understand what the soldier was yelling.
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Rivera yelled for help. He hit the truck’s window with his elbow and knocked it off its track. He pulled the glass down, grabbed the man and swam with him back to shore.
Rivera, a 30-year-old Lacey resident, received the Soldier’s Medal last month for saving the contractor’s life on May 1. The medal, established by Congress in 1926, is awarded to a service member 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.”
The medal ceremony at the Al Faw Palace in Baghdad – a hulking marble monument built by the Saddam Hussein government – attracted some of the top U.S. commanders in the country.
Rivera, though, said in an interview this month he just acted by instinct.
“I didn’t think going in the lake after him was such a huge deal at the time,” Rivera said. “It was just a natural reaction. I saw him heading into the lake, and I just went.”
It was the second time in the past six years Rivera has been honored for heroism.
He served with the 25th Infantry Division in southern Afghanistan in 2004. On one patrol, a rocket-propelled grenade struck the vehicle in front of him, flipping it on its side. Rivera and the soldiers in his Humvee dismounted and took cover behind a nearby wall.
A soldier from the overturned vehicle was separated from the rest of the platoon and pinned down by enemy fire. Rivera yelled for him but noticed he appeared stunned from the blast.
Rivera threw his M-4 carbine to the soldier next to him, jumped over the wall, grabbed the soldier and carried him back over the wall. Rivera performed first aid on him after they safely cleared the wall and kept him safe until reinforcements began attacking the enemy positions.
About a week later, Rivera’s unit was on patrol in the Arghandab River valley – where Fort Lewis’ 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division fought throughout the latter half of 2009 – when a roadside bomb detonated near their vehicle. The blast shattered his left leg. Bits of glass, sand and oil ripped into the left side of his face. Today his face is a reminder of that attack: The skin healed over the droplets of engine oil, leaving black spots across his face.
He left Afghanistan with a Bronze Star with V device for valor and a Purple Heart.
His injuries meant his infantry days were effectively over. But before he left his duty station at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, Rivera received an additional honor: His likeness was used for a life-sized statue representing the 25th Infantry Division soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The statue today stands alongside similar ones representing the division’s soldiers who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
“They call me a hero, but I’m a patriot,” he said at the time. “The true heroes are the ones that did not make it back home.”
His wife, Jennifer, disagrees.
“I understand how he doesn’t think he is a hero, but I do,” she wrote in an e-mail. “He doesn’t plan to do heroic things, it just comes naturally to him to react the way he does.”
Rivera transferred to the 593rd Sustainment Brigade at Fort Lewis in March 2008 and deployed to Iraq in April. He serves as the top noncommissioned officer on the Victory Base Complex convoy support team, helping oversee the hundreds of trucks that arrive and depart daily to deliver the necessities of maintaining the war effort.
He’s received plenty of attention since the night at Z Lake. People around the base recognize him. Generals have congratulated him. And he has given interviews to hometown newspapers and television stations – much more attention than someone in his position could expect to receive.
That last point has become a source of humor between Rivera and his wife.
“Before he left this time, I told him not to be a hero,” Jennifer Rivera wrote. “It was said as a joke because I never thought with his new position he would even have the opportunity to be in a situation like that.”
But, she added, her husband “is like a superhero who just happens to be in the right spot at the right time, ready to rescue.”