Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Gregory Rivera-Santiago laid to rest

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gregory Rivera-Santiago, a Puerto Rican native, was buried Thursday in St. Croix 10 days after he died near Baghdad when his vehicle overturned.

The 26-year-old soldier was buried at Kingshill Cemetery with full military honors.

"This is a fitting tribute to a young Virgin Islander who gave his life in service to protect the rights and freedoms we enjoy each day," said Virgin Islands Gov. John de Jongh in a statement.

Rivera-Santiago was born in Puerto Rico but moved to St. Croix with his family as an infant.

He constantly read books about the military, said his wife, Brooke Rivera.

"That's all he ever talked about," she said.

Rivera-Santiago was trained in personal security and worked as a guard at the BET Awards in Atlanta last year.

"He was on the red carpet with all the celebrities," Rivera said. "We saw him on TV."

Rivera-Santiago was on his third tour with the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He had earned a Bronze Star during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The father of three was scheduled to come home in November.

From the Times Union

ST. CROIX - Family, friends and comrades gathered to pay tribute to Army Staff Sgt. Gregory Rivera-Santiago on Thursday and bid an emotional and heartfelt farewell to a once shy and quiet boy, whom they called "Pito," and honored him with tears, prayers and songs during his funeral at St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

Rivera-Santiago, 26, was one of seven paratroopers who died in a vehicle crash in Baghdad, Iraq, on Sept. 10. He was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team. According to military officials, the crash victims were traveling in an armored 5-ton truck that blew a tire, rolled off an overpass and fell more than 30 feet to the road below.

The wreck wounded 10 other paratroopers. The circumstances surrounding the crash are under investigation, military officials said.

Rivera-Santiago is the seventh Virgin Islander to die while serving in the U.S. military as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

During the eulogy, a close friend, Moses Gordon, said Rivera-Santiago was a good father, a devoted son and brother, and a great military leader who will be greatly missed.

He said when they were younger, Rivera-Santiago would tell a joke and as everyone else laughed, he would still have a serious look on his face. Gordon said his friend was also well-known for the way he dressed.

"If you were to put his shirt on the ground it would stand straight up, and his pants were stiff as cardboard," Gordon said. "He would spend hours ironing his clothes."

Gordon said Rivera-Santiago was intelligent, dedicated to the military and adored his family. He and his wife, Brooke Rivera, were married in June 2004 and the couple had three children: Ayani, 4; Gregory IV, 2; and 7-month-old Xiomara.

On the way to the funeral home this week, Gordon said the couple's daughter Ayani asked, "How are we going to find another daddy like him?"

"The answer is, we never will," Gordon said. "He will live on in our hearts and in the faces of his children."

Rivera-Santiago was born on Feb. 9, 1981, in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. The family moved to St. Croix when Rivera-Santiago was about a year old and lived at Louis E. Brown Villas in Estate Paradise.

He attended Evelyn Williams Elementary and John Woodson Junior High schools. During high school, he worked at Plaza Extra in Sion Farm as a grocery bagger.

Rivera-Santiago graduated with honors from St. Croix Educational Complex in 1999 and enlisted in the Army soon after.

Since the war began, Rivera-Santiago had been deployed three times: to Iraq in 2003 and February of this year and to Afghanistan in 2005.

The Rev. Louis Kemayou said in his homily that Rivera-Santiago gave his life for the love of his country and for the world. He said Rivera-Santiago was a martyr for peace, freedom and security.
"He shed his blood for us," Kemayou said. "He agreed to be a soldier of God because he stood up for what he believed. He believed in peace."

Kemayou urged those in attendance to pray for military personnel in Iraq and other parts of the world.

A host of government officials, Puerto Rico dignitaries and military officials and comrades with the 82nd Airborne Division were present at the funeral.

Among those who attended the service were Gov. John deJongh Jr.; Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis; Samuel Ebbesen, civilian aide to the Army secretary; St. Croix administrator Pedro Encarnacion; Complex principal Kurt Vialet; V.I. National Guard members; and American Legion Post 85.

Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, a Special Operations commander at Fort Bragg, made the trip to St. Croix for Rivera-Santiago's funeral, along with about 20 members of the 82nd Airborne Division Honor Guard who served as pallbearers and rifle squad.

"The soldier, Staff Sgt. Rivera-Santiago, obviously reflected the beautiful land you have here and the kindness of the people," Cleveland said. "He was a soldier and a proud son of the Virgin Islands. He represented his people very well."

After the service, the funeral procession made its way to Kingshill Cemetery. There, the 82nd Airborne Division Honor Guard carried Rivera-Santiago's casket to the grave. Leading the procession to the grave site was V.I. National Guard Adjutant General Renaldo Rivera and the National Guard Color Guard.

His family sat near the grave beneath a large mahogany tree.

After a 21-gun salute and the playing of taps, Cleveland presented Rivera-Santiago's mother, Carmen Santiago, with the American flag that had covered his coffin. She clutched it close to her chest and wept openly. American flags were also given to his wife, Brooke Rivera, and his father, Gregorio Rivera, who lives in Puerto Rico.

During the graveside ceremony, Kemayou invited Rivera-Santiago's parents and wife to sprinkle holy water on the coffin and to say their final good-byes.

After Rivera-Santiago's father did so, he stood shaking his head as tears streamed down his face. Other relatives and friends placed yellow roses on the casket.

A woman began singing a hymn in Spanish as the casket was lowered slowly into the tomb and sealed. Many who had held back tears during the funeral cried openly.

Rivera-Santiago also is survived by his step-father, Rafael Colon; his brother, Ommi Rivera; and his sisters, Jeannette and Inia Rivera.

Earlier, Rivera-Santiago's wife and parents were presented with the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal, which were awarded posthumously to Rivera-Santiago.

From the Virgin Islands Daily News

Related Link:
Gregory Rivera-Santiago dies 'of injuries suffered from a non-combat related vehicle rollover'