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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 28, 2011
Mourned as a hero, Army Specialist Rafael A. Nieves Jr. is lauded as a brave soldier and loving family man
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND Rafael A. Nieves Jr. was both a fierce soldier and a loving family man. The common thread was loyalty.
So said those who knew him best. They gathered Friday evening to mourn the 22-year-old Army infantryman who was killed this month in combat in Afghanistan. Weaving together their memories during a service at the McKownville United Methodist Church, the mourners mixed tears with hugs and laughter.
“Your son was a hero,” said Private First Class Eric Peterson in a message that Nieves’s father, Rafael A. Nieves Sr., requested be shared with the mourners. Peterson was with Nieves on a mounted patrol in Paktika Province on July 10 when Nieves was killed by enemy fire.
“He died saving the lives of everyone in our convoy, including mine,” wrote Peterson. “We were going through hell on earth and he stayed calm and collected, returning fire at the enemy. He was the bravest man I have ever known and I will miss him very much.”
On a piano near the front of the church, seven medals earned by Nieves were displayed, including a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Nearby was the flag of his regiment, the 506th Infantry. Above its symbol, the spade, was emblazoned the regiment’s motto Currahee and below the spade was the translation from the Cherokee: Stands Alone.
An easel displayed a picture of his flag-draped coffin carried by soldiers the day before at a funeral Mass in New Jersey where his mother, Tina Roman, and stepfather, Thomas Priolo, live and where Nieves spent his early years before moving to Guilderland.
Ten minutes of Friday’s hour-long service were devoted to a video that illustrated Nieves’s gentle devotion as a father. Projected on a large screen near the front of the church, the film showed Specialist Nieves, wearing fatigues, reading Dr. Seuss books to his children this past March. First, he held his infant son, Rafael, in his arms as he read, “I am Sam. Sam I am.”
Mostly, the baby slept as Nieves carefully cradled him, sometimes adjusting his pacifier as he dutifully read the singsong rhymes.
“This book’s a lot longer than I remembered,” Nieves said as the mourners laughed through their tears.
Next in his lap was his toddler daughter, Emma, who looked serious as he read, “Hop on Pop.” When he kissed her cheek, she smiled.
Both children with their mother, Sarah, were at Friday’s service. Rafael Nieves Sr. of Guilderland dandled the baby Rafael in his lap, sometimes kissing the child on his forehead.
A hero’s tribute
Guilderland’s ceremony began with what organizer James Rodecker called “a firefighters’ memorial for a man who died in the line of duty.”
“For the young firemen, this was the first time they experienced this,” said Rodecker. “It’s all about camaraderie and respect.”
Rodecker, a volunteer with the Guilderland Fire Department, had gone to the home of Nieves’s father to ask how the firefighters could help honor his son.
“We had a long father-to-father talk,” said Rodecker who has eight children, two of whom served in the Gulf War. “Thank God they came out OK,” he said of his own two sons.
Nieves Sr. told Rodecker, “My son was a hero.” Rodecker recalled, “He said he’d be grateful for whatever we could do.”
About 60 volunteer firefighters from Guilderland, Westmere, McKownville, Altamont, and Fort Hunter were part of the tribute. They were joined by members of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Guilderland Police Explorers. Local Boy Scouts, in uniform, were on hand to direct traffic.
The uniformed volunteers who sat in the back of the church during the service about equaled the number of mourners.
“The only four words I heard all week were, ‘What do you need?’” said Rodecker.
The Bethlehem Fire Department lent a cooling tent, which was set up near the church so that anyone seeking relief in the record-breaking heat and humidity would have some respite.
The Troy Fire Department lent a 25-by35-foot American flag, which was suspended between the extended ladders from two fire trucks to frame the church with a patriotic arch.
As Nieves Sr. arrived at the church, said Rodecker, “He cried and hugged me when he saw the flag.”
The firemen in their dress blues, with brass buttons and white gloves, formed two long lines for the family members, each escorted by a firefighter, to walk between as they entered the church.
Nieves Sr., cradling in his arms a box with his son’s ashes, was escorted by Rodecker. Under his suit jacket he wore a T-shirt, as did some other family members, that said, “R.I.P. Little Rafy,” and the dates of his birth and death: July 23, 1988 and July 10, 2011. In between was a picture of his son, in combat gear, smiling.
Meaning beyond tragedy
Captain Curtis Cox with the Guilderland Police opened the service on behalf of Supervisor Kenneth Runion, saying that municipalities across the United States had mourned fallen soldiers. “Each time, we’re in awe of the outpouring,” he said. This time, the residents of Guilderland feel the loss.
Nieves spent some of his teenage years in Guilderland. After living with his mother in New Jersey, he moved when he was 14 to the Albany suburb to live with his father. He was a member of the youth group at the McKownville church where the service was held.
From January 2005 to September 2007, Nieves attended Guilderland High School where he had a close-knit group of friends. He married another Guilderland student, Sarah McKinney.
Nieves earned his General Education Diploma from the State Education Department and joined the Army in August 2009, fulfilling a long-held dream.
“Our sincerest sympathy and may God bless you,” Cox concluded.
The church’s pastor, Stephen Butler, then told the mourners, “Every week, here in this place, we pray for our armed service members…We pray for our friends and our enemies, for peace on Earth.”
After a prayer, Butler led the mourners in reciting the 23rd psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me….Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
“We come together to mourn but most of all to celebrate and give thanks for the life of Rafael Nieves Jr.,” said Jeffrey Matthews, the minister at Trinity United Methodist Church in Albany.
Clergy and soldiers have much in common, he said. “We’re both well acquainted with mortality…Life can, does, and must have meaning beyond any one moment.”
Beyond the moment of tragedy that took Nieves’s life, he said, “Rafael was all our son, brother, neighbor, friend.”
Peace, Matthews went on is “not a magic pill…not a blanket to pull over our heads.” Rather, it’s something of great value to hope for and fight for.” In the midst of tragedy, peace may seem a long way off, he said. “Our hearts are troubled.”
The gift of peace can be found in Rafael Nieves’s life, the pastor said. “This was one beloved, giving man,” he said. He knew the peace of family with bonds as a son, brother, husband, and father, said Matthews. And, the pastor went on, “He had the peace of purpose,” working for a cause in which he believed.
“He gave his life for the cause,” said Matthews. The best way to honor Nieves’s life, he said, was to seek and feel the peace he so cherished.
Speaking from the heart
After seeing the video, the mourners were invited to share their thoughts.
The first to speak was a woman who read a message from Nieves’s platoon “from the guys back in Afghanistan,” she said.
“Your son was our best friend…” they said. “He always had an answer for you, no matter the question.” They described Nieves as having “a heart of gold” and said, “We felt like we knew him our whole life.” With his death, they said, they felt like there was “a gaping hole in the platoon.”
From what Nieves told them of his past, they said, “He did a complete 360 with his life.”
“All he ever talked about was how much he wanted to go home and see his wife and children,” they said. “We may be on the other side of the world but please know we are grieving with you.”
Nieves’s younger brother, Matthew, and close friend Miguel Roldan hugged each other as they stood before the microphone, weeping.
“Like a big brother, he always defended us no matter what problems we had at school…I know he loved us. He showed it every day,” said Roldan. “I wish I could tell him how proud I am of him.”
“We had a rough childhood in the streets we grew up in,” said Matthew Nieves; Rafael helped and offered support.
“My brother was a great guy,” he went on. “His smile was something…” He thanked Rafael “for all the times he protected me.”
And, he concluded, although Rafael was “a bit of a knucklehead…he knew right from wrong.”
A young volunteer with the Westmere Fire Department said he went to high school with Nieves. He called Nieves “a great guy” with “quite the smile” that could always cheer him up. He went to the prom with Nieves and Sarah, whom he called “a great wife.” He said they were “the ideal couple.”
“It’s a shame we’ve all come together for such a terrible tragedy,’ he said.
“I come here as someone who went to war many years ago,” said Michael Breslin, the Albany County executive, who fought in Vietnam. “A lot of people don’t remember anything but numbers. But there are human beings that are left behind Sarah, Emma, and little Rafael.”
Breslin praised Nieves for standing up when he was not required to do so. “He did what he had to do,” said Breslin.
When most people discuss war, they talk of the generals, of those in charge, said Breslin. “But it all works because of individuals who come together to take care of one another, like Rafael.”
Breslin referred to a prayer of which Eleanor Roosevelt was fond: “Dear Lord, lest I continue in my complacent ways, help me to remember that someone died for me today. And, if there be war, help me to remember to ask and to answer, ‘Am I worth dying for?’”
“We’re saying, can we be like Rafael? Can he be our inspiration?” concluded Breslin. “I pray that he may be.”
Rev. Matthews then read Pfc. Peterson’s words: “I loved him as a brother…His presence was intense and his absence is devastating.”
Peterson described Nieves as someone who was “extremely funny and loud and yet could be gentle and soft spoken.”
“He helped me whenever I needed help,” he said.
Another young father, a friend of Nieves, spoke next. He said he has a son the same age as Nieves’s Rafael.
“He went over there to give me peace…” said Nieves’s friend. “He went over for all of us in this room.”
“The day you moved in next door to me was such a good day in my life,” said a young neighbor of the Nieveses, David Atwood. He was overcome with emotion as he said how grateful he was “that I was able to know you guys.”
Another friend said, “We brought our kids to Guilderland to raise them…They accepted our kids in Guilderland…It changed his life,” he said of Rafael Nieves.
Two women who work as hall monitors at Guilderland High School walked to the microphone next. “He turned out to be such a fine young man,” said Susan Warnke. Addressing Nieves’s wife, she said, “My heart aches, my sorrow is deep. I love you.”
“This has taught us all how important our family is,” said Maureen LaMountain. “It’s brought us together.” Talking to Nieves’s wife and children, she said, “You were the inspiration to make him the man he is…He is teaching us to be there for each other.”
Later, foreign-language teacher Daniella Barone De Luca said that when Nieves walked into her classroom in 2006 he made “everyone feel so special.”
She spoke through tears to say, “I’m so proud to call Ralphie my student, my friend, and my hero.”
“After the service, the family was too distraught to deal with the press,” said Rodecker. Since photographs weren’t allowed in the church, television cameramen had waited outside where a military liaison spoke to reporters.
“I didn’t want the family disturbed so I said we’d escort them out a back door,” said Rodecker. “A blue line of men made a barricade between the press and the family so they had privacy. No one told them to do that,” he said with pride.