On Sept. 16, 2016 at the Sitter and Barfoot Veterans Care Center in Richmond, 96-year-old Borinqueneer and retired Sgt. 1st Class Pablo Rivera was lauded for his service as a member of the 65th during WWII and the Korean War. Virginia Congressman Dave Brat traveled from the nation's capital to present the CGM to Rivera in the company of roughly 60 people to include family members.
September 16, 2016 - Virginia Congressman Dave Brat shakes hands with retired Sgt. 1st Class Pablo Rivera as his wife, Paula, looks on during the legistator's presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal at the Sitter and Barfoot Veterans Care Center in Richmond. (Courtesy photo by U.S. Army Garrison Fort Lee)
“He was awed,” said 66-year-old Claudine Pond, who was in attendance with her mother, 84-year-old Paula S. Rivera, and a host of family and friends.
It was, however, somewhat of a bittersweet occasion for the Rivera family, at least in retrospect. The family patriarch, who retired in 1973 after 26 years in the Army, was excited but his response was not fully discernible.
He has dementia, Pond said, and was diagnosed more than 10 years ago. Mrs. Rivera lamented about the delayed recognition, and the illness that robbed him of the appreciation.
“I felt very good, but in my heart, it hurt because he didn't know much of what was going on. It was kind of late for him to receive that medal,” she said. “I wish he could've received it when he could remember or go to Puerto Rico himself and receive it there.”
A CGM medal ceremony also was held in Rivera's hometown of San Lorenzo, P.R., in August, said Pond, who traveled there to receive the medal on behalf of her father.
Dementia – which degrades cognitive function – has caused Rivera to lose his short-term memory. In fact, Rivera reacted with the same “awe” when shown the medal on several occasions following the ceremony, said Pond.
“Every time we talk to him or we put it in his hand, it's like the first time he's seen it,” she said. “The joy and the surprise in his eyes – it's like he is reliving the first time it was presented to him.”
Additionally, Rivera's reaction to the medal is typically accompanied with a statement expressing his honor to serve and love for the United States, said Pond.
Indeed, there is much truth to Rivera's sense of duty and patriotism. The infantryman (and later quartermaster) saw combat in World War II and Korea, earning three Bronze Stars and other awards.
“My husband dedicated his life to the Army,” said Mrs. Rivera. “He loved the Army, but he went through a lot.”
Mrs. Rivera met her husband in 1956 when he was assigned to a base in Magino, France, where she worked at an exchange. She knew from the outset he was troubled by the horrors he had witnessed during the wars.
“During World War II, I was a 7-year-old little girl,” said the native of Verdun, France. “I saw everything. I saw Soldiers buried on the side of the road; buried with horses. They left one foot of the horse out then put the hat of the Soldier on the top (as a makeshift grave maker). It was horrible. I saw all of that.
“My husband saw it worse, because he was a Soldier.”
When the couple married, the Soldier's troubles were amplified. His nights were sometimes marked with screams and he often isolated himself, said Mrs. Rivera.
“He sometimes was a loner, and I knew something was wrong, but I learned to deal with it,” she said. “The older he got, the worse it got so the doctor had to talk to me. They used to ask me, do you know what your husband went through? I said I saw part of it, but my husband does not like to talk about those things. And he didn't like watching the war movies on the TV ... never, never. The doctors said my husband went through atrocities, and that's what gave him post-traumatic stress disorder combined with dementia.”
When Rivera recognized he was losing his memory, he acted to ensure his record of service would not be forgotten. He recorded his assignments and service dates on pieces of notepaper. It also listed his medals and awards and the fact that he landed on the beaches of France during D-Day. His spoken recollections from the war served as a complement to the documents, said his wife.
“His lieutenant was killed and his sergeant was killed right next to him” during a battle, said Mrs. Rivera in reference to WWII. “That affected him a lot.”
Pond said her father was extremely fortunate to survive the war.
“He told me there were bullets and shrapnel going every which way and he said, ‘I did not get one,'” recalled Pond. “It's like what they say when there's a bullet with your name on it. Standing there and watching people fall around you (and coming out unscathed) is amazing.”
While Rivera did not meet the fate of many others in his unit, he did bear the scars of battle as many U.S. servicemen have. Pond said the man she knows as her father was borne in part by the tragedy of war.
“I believe that all he went through made him a humble person,” she said. “He was not one bit arrogant at all. He was kind. All of this was his appreciation for life and the character of people.”
If her father had retained all of his faculties, Pond said he would probably say he was “honored to serve this country, and it was a great sacrifice for a great country.”
On some levels, it's an indication the Soldier and patriot in Rivera remains strong despite his illness.
By Terrance Bell, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Lee
Provided through DVIDS
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