Image courtesy: Pfc. David Hauk, U.S. Army. Kandahar, Afghanistan, November 12, 2009

Monday, May 3, 2010

Iron man

Images courtesy: Rivers family

As Lance Cpl. Thomas Rivers Jr. patrolled Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province, he knew God had his back. The Marine often carried a Bible, but even on days he didn't have room for anything but essential combat gear, Rivers felt protected by Psalm 91:1, which was tattooed on his back.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

Faith guided Lance Cpl. Rivers from youth into manhood. In an essay the future Marine handed into his ninth grade teacher on November 12, 2003, Rivers explained why he had been yearning to serve his country since age ten.

"I think if I put my mind to it, and with God's help, I could make it in the Marines," Rivers wrote. "I believe that joining the Marines would be a good experience for me because it will teach me to rely on God to make it through."

For Rivers, joining the Marine Corps would not be as simple as signing a piece of paper. The Marine's father, Dr. Thomas Rivers Sr., told The Unknown Soldiers that dyslexia made classroom work very difficult for his son, who also faced some early physical limitations that made success in sports equally elusive.

"He was my hero before he joined the Marines," Dr. Rivers said. "He overcame so many obstacles to transform from a thin child into a ripped warrior."

Dr. Rivers credits the Marines for giving his son extra motivation to hit the books, as well as the gym, with an unbreakable vigor.

"He was the iron man," Dr. Rivers said with pride. "He struggled in high school until one of the Marine recruiters told him he needed a diploma to enlist. We never heard a word about low grades after that."

While basic training and deployments change almost everyone, Rivers stuck to his strong values in the unforgiving humidity of South Carolina's Parris Island and raw desert heat of the new Iraq. He returned from his first overseas tour in February 2009 to his proud parents, friends, and relatives in Birmingham, Alabama. During his Iraq deployment, the Marine's loving mother, Charon, often whispered her son's favorite Psalm verse during frequent prayers for his safety.

Word soon came that Lance Cpl. Rivers and the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force were needed in Afghanistan. The young Marine, now 22, already had a combat tour under his belt and prepared for another deployment with the same focus, faith, and strength that guided him through Iraq. Both of his grandfathers had served in the military, and protecting America in the years following the 9/11 attacks was a duty Rivers believed fell to him.

"He was never a conformist," Dr. Rivers explained. "Thomas always knew he was a warrior."

During a six-week period in Afghanistan, Rivers had started a Bible study with one of his best friends, Lance Cpl. Matthew Proctor. With weapons in their laps but their Bibles open, the Marines would search for answers on how people could love one another, even in the war-ravaged mountains of the war on terror's central front. Before a Wednesday mission that Rivers volunteered for after a fellow Marine suffered severe exhaustion, he prayed with Proctor before leaving together on patrol.

According to the Pentagon, Lance Cpl. Rivers was killed on April 28 in Afghanistan's Helmand province. Three military messengers arrived at the Rivers household in Birmingham just hours later to deliver the solemn news, and his devastated parents, who are still "numb," according to Dr. Rivers, hoped to get more details on their son's final moments. As friends, family, fellow churchgoers, and the Birmingham community sprung into action to support Dr. and Mrs. Rivers, a phone call came from Afghanistan from someone also in deep mourning. It was Lance Cpl. Proctor.

"He told us that after Thomas stepped on the IED, three of his best friends in the Marine Corps, including Matthew, kneeled down beside him," Dr. Rivers recounted the day after receiving the phone call. "Matthew held his hand, and they said the Bible verse tattooed on Thomas' back."

After the grieving father thanked Lance Cpl. Matthew Proctor and his family for their selfless service and extraordinary support, Dr. Rivers said something, through a father's tears, that moved me deeply.

"It is comforting to know that Thomas was with three people who loved him when he died."

In the final hours before Lance Cpl. Rivers deployed to Afghanistan, he also held hands with his mom and prayed, as the precious below photograph, graciously provided by the Rivers family, shows us. Six weeks later and half a world away, he would hold hands and pray with three beloved fellow volunteer warriors in his last moments on earth. Today, I believe this brave Marine is holding hands with his two grandfathers, praying for the loving family and grieving nation he left behind.

Lance Cpl. Thomas Rivers Jr. stood for overcoming obstacles, finding common ground, and offering love, even amid uncertainty and violence. To truly honor his sacrifice, we can learn from how he lived, and another Psalm verse, 91:4, that deeply struck his passionate heart.

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

Note: Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Rivers are creating a Memorial Fund in their son's name. More information about how to contribute will be posted here when the foundation is established.


  1. To the Thomas family, my heart and soul are with you at this time. My only son is with the 1/2 in afghanistan he is with Charlie Co. out of camp lejuene N.C. Doc Helton is what he goes by becasue he is there medic, He too was deployed in Iraq, and it seems like it was a cake walk in comparison to what we are all living through now. These are our children we are losing,and i am on a mission to bring awareness to our soiders in my own home town of gainesville ga. Becasue there doesnt seem to be any. I dont want them honered when they are gone i want them honered everyday. May you feel gods comfort during this time. I live with the tormenting anxiety everyday it could be my son.

    kaye taylor
    doc heltons mom

  2. Dr. and Mrs. Rivers,
    Sunday, May 2nd our church prayed specifically for your family as you walk this path. I want to say personally how much your son meant to me as a defender of freedom for America and the Afghans. Matthew Proctor is the grandson of a couple in our church, we thank God for his willingness and availability to be by Thomas' side when he needed his friend the most. Thank you for raising a young man willing to fight for us. He will not be forgotten!
    Pastor Jay Lewis

  3. Amazing profile of a fine American and Marine. To his family I thank you for your son's sacrifice. May God bless you and keep close to Him through the tough times ahead.

  4. May God bless you as you go through this terrible time. I know your son is in Gods hands now. May the wings of a thousand angels wrap their wings around you now as you suffer the loss of your wonderful son. I am a very close friend of Tammy Coggins and she notified me of your loss. You will be in my prayers for many weeks to come. In Christian love,

    Jerry L. Reeves
    Lt. Col. USAR, Retired

  5. I'm moved to tears of sadness for the loss of the Lance Cpl, I'm grateful for his service and joyful for his reunion in God's glory with family. Blessings and peace to this family and all who are blessed to hear of this remarkable service to both God and country.

  6. Our son sent us this memorial to your son, as he had told us of your deep loss and knew our hearts would be with you in love, sympathy and prayers. It sounds as though Tom went to God on eagles' wings. Please know that the deep hole in your heart will eventually and gradually fill with wonderful memories as Tom lives in your hearts forever.

    God Bless You,
    Dick & Phyllis Swanson
    Dave's parents
    Dick & Phyllis Swanson

  7. Although my son is in the Army and not the Marines, he has been stationed in Afghanistan, in Helmand and Arghandab River Valley provinces. My heart aches for your pain and loss; I, too, rely on the Lord to get us our son through this experience. I thank you and your son for his ultimate sacrifice; and I truly wish no family had to suffer through the loss of their child to this war. RIP Lance Corporal Rivers. Your family will be in my prayers for peace, courage to face the coming days, and wonderful memories. May God Bless You and All of Our Military, Sherie Martin, Florence, AL

  8. A very touching article. Thank you for a glimpse into the remarkable life of a true American hero. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends. To the Rivers family, thank you for rearing an incredible young man. His story has touched a lot of lives. Thank you for your son's service to our country and for yours. Military families all sacrifice so much to protect the priceless freedoms we enjoy, and we know you gave of yourselves in order that he may serve. May God richly bless you and all our troops, our veterans and our military families.

    Kathy Johnson, Prattville, AL

  9. What an incredible son and what a sacrifice he made for his country. I pray that the Lord Himself will comfort your hearts and that your memories will be sweeter and more precious than you can ever imagine.

    The Powells

  10. Tom, thank you for your compassionate drive to tell the world the important stories that MUST be told of the warriors that lay down their lives for their country. Your stories are laced with testimonies of courage and bravery that no news outlet I know of focuses on. THank you for the work that you do.

    And to Tom, Charon, & Rachel will be with us always, as we have a connection that time will not separate. We are bound together by the love that our sons shared ad brothers in the USMC and brothers in Christ. We love you all.

    Thomas's legacy will live on. His valor and heroism is a beacon of light for our country to rise to the level that Thomas has,and that he shared with his grandfathers, and the forefathers that founded this great country. God Bless you and keep you.

  11. Thank you for your sons service. Such a wonderful article on his faith. My son will be serving in Afghanistan later this year. My prayers are with your family at this time. May God be so very close to you all.

  12. Your son is a true hero. I thank him for his service. I pray that God leads your family through these tough times. Bless your family!

  13. Tom & Charon, several months have already passed since Thomas gave his life and changed yours forever. I have had you in my thoughts and prayers quite a lot, but have not written. Tom, I recall your telling me, of Thomas' commitment to serve our country several years ago when I last saw you. I pray that as each week and month passes, your faith will increase and you will taste and see that the Lord is good, in the midst of your grief.

  14. Hi,

    I am from Bombay, India. The write up moved me and brought tears welling in my eyes.... God has a plan for each of us... and he chose your son to deliver his friends to pray so that they would continue to bring more souls to him... many of us feel they can survive ... but there's always an emptyness inside our hearts.... in truth God is trying to tell us... that he is there... ask and you shall receive... 'NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE IF YOU PUT YOUR TRUST IN GOD'



    FEB 2012