BAGHDAD, IRAQ (BP)–Most Americans would agree there’s enough negative news about the Iraq war. But then there’s SPC Victor Rosario Rivera -– Puerto Rican, American soldier in Iraq, Christian, Southern Baptist.
For the last year, Rosario, 37, has served as an information system maintainer/operator with the 1-89 Cavalry, 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division at Camp Stryker in Baghdad. English is his second language.
While Iraqi insurgent sniper bullets zip by and IED’s explode on the streets of Baghdad, Rosario focuses on keeping U.S. Army computers, networks and Internet satellite services up and humming. When he’s not doing that, he’s sharing Christ, the Bible and his faith with his Spanish-speaking buddies.
Rosario came to the attention of the North American Mission board staff in Alpharetta, Ga., recently when he e-mailed NAMB requesting permission to use a logo for the fliers he prints and distributes to promote his Bible study for fellow Hispanic servicemen in Iraq. Permission granted.
In a response to a NAMB staff member, Rosario wrote, “I am just doing my duties as a Christian. Nothing more, nothing less, sir.”
A Southern Baptist in his native Puerto Rico since 2001, Rosario says he “met Jesus when I was 21. From that time on, I’ve been his follower, disciple and friend. I live my life loving Jesus and resting in His grace.” His SBC home church in Juana Diaz, P.R., is Iglesia Bautista El Mesias, pastored by Victor Morales Marques.
But for an ironic twist of timing -– perhaps God’s timing — Rosario would not even be in the Army today, much less be stationed in one of the most dangerous places on earth.
“For three years I had been the manager of a Christian radio station in Puerto Rico,” he recounted. “But after 9/11, I lost my job and spent 10 months looking for a new one.”
The oldest of three children from a strong Puerto Rican middle-class family -– his father is retired from the U.S. Postal Service and his mom is a homemaker -– he became rebellious. Frustrated and angry over his failed job search, he joined the U.S. Army at 32. Only one week after joining the Army, a “very good” job offer came Victor’s way, but seven days too late. He was in the Army now.
“God used this experience to teach me a lot more about Him, about His timing, the way He works and about His plans for me,” Rosario reflected.
Since August 2006, Rosario has been one of the 162,000 of America’s bravest in Iraq. He shares a small 10-by-10-foot room with two other soldiers. On a typical day at “Camp Stryker” –- located near the Baghdad International Airport -– he wakes at 0900 (9 a.m.). But that’s because his “workday” stretches from 1 p.m. until midnight or longer.
Rosario doesn’t complain because most of his friends on combat duty are sleeping outside Camp Stryker –- “outside the wire” as he calls it — inside buildings without air conditioning or inside vehicles, and chowing down on MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat). “They may go two weeks without using a real bathroom or taking a real shower,” Rosario said.
Summer days in Baghdad brought temperatures as high as 137 degrees. Describing the airport area as hot and dry without much summer rain yet oddly full of green vegetation, Rosaria said walking outside is like the breath-taking heat felt when the door of a kitchen oven is opened.
“It’s not humid like summer there in the States, but it’s not pleasant. You can drink one gallon of water and after an hour outside, you need more. You can never drink enough water. When you’re on a mission, the only way to get a shower is to use two or three quarts of water. But because everything is so hot, including the water, you don’t have the refreshing sensation of a shower.”
Rosario and his pals always must be on the lookout for snakes and scorpions, but they aren’t nearly as fearsome as insurgent snipers and “IED” roadside bombs.
With his servant-heart, Rosario spends his spare time repairing fellow soldiers’ personal computers.
“We have public phones here but most of the guys rely on their computers to keep in touch with their families and friends back home,” Rosario said. “It’s easier and cheaper to call back to the U.S. using a computer than using public phones. If their families have the same program back home, a soldier can call for free from computer to computer or call a land line or cell phone for only three cents a minute.”
Ever humble, Rosario said starting the Bible studies “was not my decision … but it was God working in my heart. I am a soldier but also I am a missionary paid by the U.S. I didn’t leave my Christian life back in the United States.
“If we don’t have a mission, we meet every Thursday. We have as many as seven in the study at any time, from privates to captains. We’re all Hispanics from different countries -– from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Peru and Puerto Rico. Most of the time, it’s all men but I have had a couple of women.”
So far, Rosario has covered Ephesians and Philippians. “I also talk to them a little about Islam because there are always a lot of questions about Islam among the soldiers…. [T]hey want to know what in Islam makes the enemy do what he does.”
Advertising the Bible study with fliers he posts all over Camp Stryker, Rosario said, “I leave the decision of how many I reach to God. I am thankful to reach one at a time.
“I’ve seen soldiers decide to return to Jesus and live by His direction” as a result of the Bible studies. “I’ve seen soldiers recognize that they are lost without Jesus. It feels great to win them and if there is rejoicing in heaven when a person comes to Jesus, then why should we feel any less (joy) here on earth?”
Nevertheless, Rosario said, it is difficult to be a Christian and a soldier simultaneously in Iraq.
“It’s not impossible but it is hard. The peer pressure and the amount of time the Army requires have an impact on the Christian life here. Some people say it is easy to be a Christian in the military because everyone is going to respect your beliefs and at the same time, you’re going to respect their beliefs. I disagree. Sometimes we as Christians make some people uncomfortable and that can be good. But for a lot of soldiers, Jesus is only a lucky charm, not Savior and Lord.”
Rosario has seen some of his friends killed and wounded, some seriously.
“A few of them are not with us anymore. One of my friends was wounded during an attack to his vehicle, and he was burned over 37 percent of his body. Three passengers in the same vehicle were killed during the attack.
“I consider my friends to be very brave but sometimes I can see the fear in their eyes,” Rosario said. “I have seen the bravest men have panic or fear of an attack.”
One of Rosario’s close friends recently came into the office where he worked one day and said, “Victor, let me see your boss.”
“I told him my boss was not there,” Rosario recounted. “Before he left, he turned to me and said, ‘Keep up the good work.’ Then 15 minutes later, the soldier took his own life.
“I know I can’t reach all of them but at least I’m going to try to do my best. If I told you I am never scared, that would be a lie. But even in the moment I fear the most, I feel that I am loved by God and no matter what happens to me, I feel comforted by His presence and His Word which tells me, ‘Fear not, I am with you.'”
Rosario hopes to return to Fort Drum in New York this fall and in December to return to Puerto Rico to marry his fiancée, Elena Maldonado, a college graduate with a master’s degree in psychology. The couple will live near Fort Drum in Watertown, N.Y., until his hitch in the Army ends.
“I love to work with computers but it is not my passion or vocation,” Rosario said. “My heart burns to live and serve the Lord. So in the United States or Puerto Rico I am going to serve Him in anything He gives me the opportunity to do.”
If there’s any doubt about Rosario’s servant-heart, his personal e-mail address begins with “doulousofjesus” -– “doulous” is Greek for “servant” or “slave.”
“I am a free slave who serves his Master by love,” he said. “What else can I do? Jesus gave me the most precious gift a man or woman can receive. He saved me. I am not lost, forgotten or cursed. I have a name written in heaven and am in the palms of His hands. Death is not a fear. The future is not uncertain. The past has been forgiven.”
Mickey Noah is a writer with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. For information about Baptist Men On Mission material, visit www.bmen.net.