U.S. Army Specialist Travys Rivers: "I Believe In The Mission"
|U.S. Army Specialist Travys Rivers returned home recently from one year in Afghanistan. [Photo by Sue Bush]|
And after a year stationed in Afghanistan, 26-year-old Travys Rivers is something more, he said.
The Biggest Gift
He is proud of the work done there by U.S. troops and members of the Afghanistan National Army.
"We are trained by the best of the best and the ANA is trained by the best of the best," Rivers said during a Jan. 16 interview. "I believe in the mission. We are helping the people of Afghanistan. Slowly, we are making progress there. The [troops] for the most part, don't like being away from home but they are proud of what they are doing. With the U.S. military and the ANA, we are giving the Afghan people the
biggest gift; their freedom."
Rivers arrived in the U.S. last week along with other 20th Engineer Brigade 37th Engineer Battalion troops. He is very happy to be reunited with his high school sweetheart and wife of almost five years Jennifer [Morris] Rivers and his 19-month-old son Connor, he said.
He will be returning to duty at Fort Bragg, North Carolina soon.
Always On Alert
The bonds forged among troops stationed in Afghanistan are extremely strong, Rivers said.
"I've been a firefighter and I know how strong the camaraderie is," he said. "The camaraderie, the brotherhood and sisterhood of the military blows that out of the water. You are always 'on alert,' because you have to make sure your buddy is safe. You have to make sure your buddy gets home to their family."
"You have to always be on your 'aware.'"
Despite a very strong sense of being aware, lives are lost and the losses are felt deeply by the troops, he said.
True Leader, True Courage
Rivers shared the story of Charlie Company 37th Engineer Battalion Sgt. Christopher C. Rafferty, who was killed in action in Afghanistan in July.
Rafferty, who was 37 at the time of his death, had a widely-recognized reputation as being dedicated to keeping his troops alive, safe, and able to return home, Rivers said.
"He was a good guy," he said. "I was told he would back you up all the way if you were doing the right things and if you weren't, he'd bring the wrath. The night he was killed, he was making sure that all his guys were getting to safety. He took the hit, and he took the hit making sure that his guys would be able to get home safely."
Rafferty was married with two daughters. He was a resident of Brownsville, Pennsylvania.
Rivers' company did not suffer any loss of life, and Rivers attributed that to a combination of "good leadership and luck." The military does provide troops with good body armor, Rivers said.
"Our leadership is adamant that the guys are safe," he said.
"We Are Helping The People Of Afghanistan"
Afghanistan is poverty-stricken to the point that "it isn't even considered a Third World country," Rivers said.
But despite the poverty -the likes of which would shock most Americans, he said - the people are very self-reliant, self-sufficient and make the most of the very little that they have. Many Afghan people are very appreciative of the troops and the efforts the troops are making on their behalf, he said.
There are positive interactions between troops and Afghan civilians, he stressed. There are many children affected by injury and illness and sanitary conditions rarely exist. Modern medicines and medical equipment is unheard of in most parts of the country and people most often walk, ride donkeys, or drive very old vehicles left over from a Russian occupation of the country, he said.
"Our medics help out tremendously," he said. "Our medics go out and help these kids. For example, the kids get dirt in their eyes and the medics get the dirt out and give the fathers eye drops to take care of things. They aren't doctors but out there they help a lot. They do what they can. And the kids have this game called hoparound; our medics and some of my friends played hoparound with the kids. And I'm telling you, the kids loved it and my friends loved it."
"Of course you still have to keep you guard up but we are trained for that, trained for what to look out for," he said, and added "And when you let people just be people...."
"Sometimes when we ask for certain care packages it's so we can give stuff to the kids," Rivers said.
"I like the interaction with the people," he said. "I believe in the mission. We are helping the people of Afghanistan."
For instance, while in Afghanistan, Rivers helped build a road that linked rural areas with larger communities and created a much-needed accessway to items such as food and some medicines.
Other U.S.-influenced changes include education for young Afghan girls in the country's schools, Rivers noted.
And It Did Not Taste Like Chicken
There are similarities between U.S. citizens and Afghan citizens, Rivers said.
"They take care of their families. The men protect their children and their wives. The wives do what they can do for their families. They live in homes made from mud and straw, but the homes are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. A lot of the people make their living -what is a living there- from farming."
Rivers has eaten goat meat, which he described as "kind of greasy." The meat did taste good and was prepared in a pot of water and cooked over a fire, he said. Several of his friends sampled camel meat and told Rivers it tasted "sweet."
"And it didn't taste like chicken, like everybody says everything else tastes like," he said with a smile.
Most Afghan civilians respect the troops and their religious beliefs, and the troops respect the beliefs of the Afghan people, he said.
Politics And Religion
Islam's Ramadan is a very significant religious time for most Afghan people and there is inflexible structure about when people may eat, when they must fast, what they may eat, and other specifics, he said.
"People don't always understand a lot about it but really, it isn't so much different from Lent for Catholics," he noted."There's things you are supposed to do and things you aren't supposed to do. Today, you have to learn about other religions and other cultures. If people took more time to find out about things, then people would understand so much more."
"And unfortunately, fighting nowadays is all about politics or religion."
Daily Life In Afghanistan
Even the weather has some likeness to the Northern Berkshires, Rivers said, and referred to an Afghan "mud season."
"Although in the summer it can get between 98 and 112 degrees," he said, and added that during one brief span, he saw a thermometer reading of 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Troops slept primarily in tents equipped with air-conditioning systems that "struggled" Rivers said.
A typical day included physical training before breakfast, the daily task, and an evening meal. In most cases, daily missions went on regardless of weather, Rivers said. Company cooks work from mobile kitchen trailers and put incredible effort into most meal preparations, Rivers said.
"Food is one of the things for morale and the cooks really try to whip up some good stuff, with what they have available," he said. "They do a pretty good job, too, you'd be surprised."
Berkshires Cuisine Can't Be Beat
As good as the food could be, Rivers admitted craving specific products that could not be duplicated by the best military cooks.
"Jack's hot dogs, Angelina's, and Village Pizza, I talked about that to all the guys," he said. "And when I got back to the States, I said the first place I'm going is one of those three. I bragged to everybody about how nice it is here and I've actually got guys who want to come here just to try Jack's, Angelina's and Village Pizza."
Support from U.S. citizens is a huge morale boost, Rivers said, and he emphasized that supporting a war isn't necessary to support the troops.
"When we get care packages, that really is good for morale," he said. "A couple private contractors made a good point while I was over there. They said that for every one soldier in Afghanistan, there are probably 20 people standing behind them in support, and it's the same for the troops in Iraq. That means a lot. When it comes to people who don't agree with the war, when it comes to protestors, do what you gotta do. It's because of my brothers and sisters that you can do that. So do it, but show us some respect. Respect the job we are doing. Whether you support President Bush or not, we are doing a job."
The Afghanistan terrain is extremely rugged and that does add to troop risks, Rivers said. Mail may be held up for weeks and the transportation of needed items, such as vehicle parts, is often delayed because of the country's geography.
"And there are weather extremes. One day it can be 51 degrees and the next day it can be 10 below [zero]."
There were a few opportunities to relax and socialize, Rivers said.
"People Make Sacrifices All The Time"
"And some of our guys are very, very musically talented," he said.
"One of the guys would break out a guitar and we'd make up songs. We'd sit around and sing and talk, we'd joke; we'd all look at pictures we'd seen about a million times. It was all 'hey, look at my kid' or 'hey, look at when I played this gig,' and everybody takes a look. Even if guys aren't real friendly at first, the camaraderie is fostered. You gotta think, our personal space was about two feet apart, so eventually, someone next to you is going to break down and cry with you or joke and laugh with you. It has to happen."
Rivers emphasized that when he enlisted in 2003, he was not under any delusions of cushy assignments.
Rivers began basic training on Oct. 29, 2003 and then went on to complete airborne training.
"Of course my family was worried [when he was deployed to Afghanistan] and of course I am happy to be back," he said. "But, you know, everybody makes sacrifices. Firefighters make sacrifices, families make sacrifices, people make sacrifices all the time. The guys and girls in the military miss out on a lot of anniversaries, birthdays, but everybody in the military volunteered to do this. There is no draft. People have volunteered and yes, there are sacrifices but I believe it is for a good cause."
"For me, the most important thing is that people support us. My wife and I knew exactly what was going on when I volunteered. My wife is a very strong supporter. In a relationship it has to be 50/50, no, it has to be 100/100 and she supports me all the time. My mother [Sandy Carson Rivers, who is deceased], my brother [Michael Rivers] and my wife always, always said that you can do whatever you want to do, just do it. And I did."
Service For The People Here
"When I first got to Afghanistan, it was 'Wow!'," he said. "For me, personally, I can say that being in the [Clarksburg] fire department helped me grow up a lot, having my son helped me grow up a lot, being in the military helped me grow up a lot. Being in Afghanistan made me realize just exactly how much we Americans take for granted, and it's a lot."
After he is discharged from the military, Rivers said he plans to live in the North Adams area. His goal is to bring his experiences, skills and desire to serve community to a job as a paid firefighter.
"I have learned so many things and I understand the value of community service, of being a contributor," he said. "And I would love to bring all that to the city and do what I can for the people here."
And while the traditional family unit is separated during a soldier's tour of overseas duty, a military family does evolve and those ties are very, very strong, Rivers said.
"They say that there isn't anything like the love between a mother and child," Rivers said. "For us, Uncle Sam is our mother and we are the children who protect."