Specialist Rafael A. Nieves Jr. of Guilderland died a hero, defending his country and doing what he loved to do best, said family members and a fellow soldier.
“Joining the military was a passion of his since he was a kid,” said his father, Rafael A. Nieves Sr., speaking to news media from his home Tuesday night. “He was finally able to get his wish. He loved his country, he wanted to defend his country.”
Nieves Jr. joined the Army for an eight-year hitch in 2009 and was on his first deployment overseas with the elite 101st Airborne Division when he was killed. Nieves, 22, of 3591 E. Lydius St., died Sunday after enemy forces shot up his vehicle. He was on a mounted patrol in Paktika province, eastern Afghanistan.
His father said he was due to return to the United States in 2 1⁄2 weeks and was expected to remain stationed at the Fort Campbell in Kentucky with his wife of less than three years, Sarah, and their children, Emma Grace, 2, and Rafael A. III, a newborn, until his next deployment.
Nieves Jr. would have celebrated his 23rd birthday on July 23. He is the eldest of Nieves Sr.’s three sons. The others are Matt, 20, who lives with his mother in New Jersey, and Life, 8, who lives with the father in Guilderland.
Nieves Sr. said Rafael, who obtained his GED from Guilderland High School, had some rough spots in his youth but straightened out when he had his first child with Sarah, whom he meet at Guilderland High School.
“Becoming a father made him turn around and get his life in order. I got him when he turned 14 and he stayed with me until he joined the service,” his father said.
Nieves Jr. wanted to fly with the Air Force or Navy. He volunteered for both the Army and Marines. The Army took him first and he became a paratrooper.
“I never wanted him to enter the service. Who wants their child to join the Army and go out there?” asked Nieves Sr. “I did not want him to do it because there is the possibility you will not come back, and he didn’t. But that was his dream since Day One. That’s all he talked about. He always wanted to be a pilot.”
Nieves Sr. said his son did not “die for nothing. He died loving what he wanted to do.”
Nieves Sr. shared a text message he received from PFC Eric Peterson, who wrote after Rafael was killed. In it, Peterson said Rafael “died saving the lives of everyone in our convoy, including mine. He stayed calm and collected, returning fire of the enemy. He was the bravest man I have ever known.”
Friends Alissa Carl, Kristie Panella and Kayla Sacco, who knew Nieves Jr. in high school, said he was the life of the party who told corny jokes — a big brother who looked after them.
They were drawn to him because of his “Colgate smile,” which he flashed all the time, Panella said. “He was always optimistic about everything,” she said.
Carl said Nieves Jr.’s smile drew her to him. “He was always smiling,” she said. She presented his father with a book containing pictures of a smiling Rafael with family and friends. Nieves Sr. broke down and cried when he saw it.
Sacco said she was honored to have known the soldier. “He was my hero,” she said.
Cousin Alexandra Cardona said he “always wanted to do good. He was always helping out people. He was like an older brother.”
The family has not made funeral arrangements, as the Army has yet to release the body. Nieves Sr. said his son will be buried in New Jersey and the family expects to hold a memorial service in Guilderland.
Nieves Jr.’s military awards and decorations include the Army Commendation Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Bronze Service Star, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the Army Service Ribbon. All soldiers who are killed in combat are awarded the Purple Heart.