Sgt. Edwin Rivera died May 27, 2010 at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., of wounds he received in a firefight in Laghman Province on May 20.
Last summer, six months before he was deployed to Afghanistan for the second time, infantry Sgt. Edwin Rivera sat in his car in the driveway of his parents' house in Waterford and explained to his mother why he was returning to war.
It was the sad faces of the children he had seen in Afghanistan during his first tour there in 2006, he said, faces that still reminded him of why American soldiers were there.
"When the U.S. soldiers drive by," Rivera told his mother, Gladys, that night, "the children will scramble like mad in the dust just to get thrown a simple pencil from us. They don't even have pencils. I was born for this. It's my duty to protect those families over there."
Now there is chilling immediacy to her memories, for Rivera has paid a high price for returning to those Afghan faces.
Rivera died Tuesday night at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., of wounds he received in a firefight in Laghman Province on May 20.
Rivera, a 2000 graduate of Waterford High School, left for Afghanistan in early January with the 1st Battalion of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, a Connecticut National Guard unit based in New Haven. Many of the soldiers, like Rivera, were on their second and third deployments to Afghanistan or Iraq. Rivera's 700-member deployment group, which included the 250th Engineer Company of New London, was the largest deployment of the Connecticut Guard since the Korean War.
Rivera's family lives on a winding street of modest, meticulously kept houses about a mile from the New London line. His parents are hard-working Puerto Ricans who moved here in the 1970s, raised a family and were proud to have their only son assert his identity as an American soldier, even after they faced the hardship of his first deployment in 2006 being extended from a promised 12 months to 15 months.
Rivera, his mother said, returned from that long posting in Afghanistan personally subdued and doubtful about the progress American troops were making there. But he gradually recovered his old cheer and, after returning to his job as an evening shift security guard at the Millstone nuclear power plant, dove back into family routines.
Rivera's wife, Yesenia, usually leaves home early for her job in a dental office, so Rivera dressed and fed their two sons, saw them off to the school bus and picked them up after school before reporting for his shift at the nuclear plant. After he learned he would be deployed a second time, Rivera bought a webcam for his computer at home so he and Yesenia could see each other on his occasional calls home.
Those routines changed after Rivera left in January. His children got off the bus at their grandmother's. On weekends, his father, Ceferino, performed all the chores and mowed the lawn at Rivera's house.
"The center of the family shifts back to my house when Edwin is gone," Gladys Rivera said. "I take the boys after school and, of course am overjoyed to have them. But it's also a daily reminder that Edwin is gone, so far away in a hard country."
And now, of course, there are the faces and lives of other children to consider - two American children.
Last November, while Rivera was preparing for deployment to Afghanistan at a training base in Indiana, Gladys found his son, Lorenzo, lying on the couch in her living room, staring at a photograph of his father in his Army uniform. Lorenzo was 4.
When his grandmother asked him what he was doing, Lorenzo said, "I'm just looking at Daddy. I miss him already."