Five-year-old Aiden Saenz marches Lego soldiers across the dining table. The two action figures engage in warfare and explosions, accompanied by booms and crashes.
He momentarily ceases the sound effects and matter-of-factly points out the hat on one figure.
“This one’s my Bubba. He fights Iron Man – he gets on big cars and shoots villains. And they blow up,” he said. “I miss him when he fights Iron Man.”By “Bubba” the Carson Elementary kindergartener refers to his uncle, Jose Rodriguez. “Fighting Iron Man” alludes to the almost-24-year-old’s service in the U.S. Army.
And, if only temporarily, the void of his Bubba’s absence was filled during a 12-day visit over the holidays marked by trips to McDonald’s, video games and sleepovers – things the two enjoyed daily before Bubba’s military commitment.“I’m paying my duty for them so they won’t have to,” the 2007 Decatur High School graduate said about Aiden and his other two nephews – Xavier and Tre, both 2. “If they want to do it, I’m not going to be against it. But hopefully they’re able to do something else – go to college or a trade school or something.”
Although he doesn’t regret his decision two years ago to enlist in the military, Rodriguez explained that he hopes fear and uncertainty don’t deter his nephews from pursuing their goals and dreams.
“When I was in school, I had some scholarships, but I didn’t use them,” he said. “I started working in the oilfields, and yeah, it was good money. But it was not the job for me.
“I always wanted to join the Army,” he continued. “Straight out of high school, I was a little scared. One day I was sitting around; I wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing so I decided I might as well give (the Army) a shot.”
Three years after his high school graduation, he did. Rodriguez signed his contract in April 2010 and was sworn in that September before being shipped off for nine weeks of “the hell of getting up early and getting into the mode” of basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C.
“It was my first time being away from home, so, yeah; it was hard,” Rodriguez said. “But I just thought if I quit now, everybody back home will say, ‘Look, he tried it, and he couldn’t do it.’ I’m not like that. If I start something, I’m going to finish it.”
So Rodriguez pushed through and after completing basic, underwent four months of AIT (Advanced Individual Training) to be a diesel mechanic.
“I was open to whatever,” he said. “But I wanted something so that if I do ever get out, I have the trade. I can use it; I have the knowledge. Before this, I never worked on cars or trucks or anything. I’d always just take my truck up to James Wood. So I learned something new.”
In his first assignment, Rodriguez took his acquired skills overseas to Waegwan, South Korea, for a year, beginning March 2011.
“We’re there to protect it from North Korea and make the U.S. presence known so that (North Korea) doesn’t overtake,” Rodriguez explained. “There is a cease-fire treaty but no peace treaty; the war’s still going on, but there’s just no fighting. We could deploy on 24 hours’ notice.
“Some people liked us, some didn’t,” he continued. “We’d get the ugly stares, sometimes they’d yell at us. But you just keep walking.”
At the end of his one-year assignment, Rodriguez returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he remains for a few months at most. Earlier this year, he re-enlisted, extending a contract that was to expire in 2014 through 2017, and he expects to deploy on a three-year order to Germany in May.
“When I did the first contract, I based it on giving it a shot to see how I liked it and going from there,” Rodriguez said. “I liked Korea. I liked getting to explore something different. When I reenlisted, I had the choice of duty. I’ve always wanted to go there, so why not?
“It was either that or come back to Texas, back to Fort Hood,” he continued. “But I’d already done the hard part – leaving – once before. If I have the chance to see something else, I’m going to take it And if I like being away for three years, I’ll do another four years and look at going somewhere else I’ve never been.”
Rodriguez added that he did plan to eventually return home to Decatur and his family.
“The hardest thing is being away from my nephews and not being right there to watch them grow up,” he said. “When I came home, Tre and Xavier didn’t recognize me. They were scared of me, and it sucked because I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Fortunately, the two warmed up to him – almost too much, making their split on Thursday an even bigger challenge.
“Xavier cried so bad when we dropped (Jose) off at the airport,” Rodriguez’s 22-year-old sister, Lisa, said. “The hardest, I believe, is him not being here for the boys all of the time, like birthdays and such. (Thursday was) Xavier’s birthday, and we bought him a cake. But (Jose) isn’t here to celebrate with us.”
But the family – including Lisa, Jose’s 20-year-old sister, Yanet, and their parents Jesus and Maria Rodriguez, all of Decatur – pride themselves in their Bubba’s willpower and determination for self-betterment.
“[My parents] always said, ‘Don’t be like us. Don’t work and break your back. Do something for yourself.’ I wanted them to be proud,” Jose said. “Being away from them sucks, but it’s also good because I’ve been here forever. If I would’ve stayed here, I wouldn’t have learned all that I’ve learned and seen all that I’ve seen. I’d probably still be at James Wood, probably be married and have kids.
“Not a lot of people can say they’ve been to Korea or Germany,” he continued. “It’s a steady job; it’s fun. It has its ups and downs
“It’s basically a 9-to-5 job, only I wear this,” he said as pointed at his fatigues. “I can go and protect people back home on a moment’s notice I still don’t feel like I’ve done anything for our country. But I can if I had to.”
Meanwhile his family, especially Aiden, will find solace in a greater hope.
“He’s fighting bad people,” Aiden says. “He’ll be back.”