Life changing experiences often transform a person to the core, infusing new character values and building greater appreciations.
Such was the case with former Payson High School football and wrestling star Bryce River during his recent one-year tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.
“Yes it changed me, changed me a lot,” he said. “I saw some things and did some things I once thought would never happen.”
As an E-4 Specialist in the U.S. Army and a member of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, River witnessed first hand the horrors of war during his tour of duty fighting the Taliban in one of the hot spots of the conflict - the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Among his most vivid memories, and one he’s sure will never be wiped away, was a 36-hour firefight during the harrowing time his unit was escorting a convoy from Forward Operating Base (FOB) Sharana to FOB Tillman.
River’s orders were to man a 50-caliber machine gun atop a heavily armored personnel carrier that was an escorting a supply convoy from Sharana, located high in the Hindu Kush Mountains near the border, to Tillman, an FOB where former Arizona Cardinals football player Pat Tillman was stationed when he was killed.
“Our job was security and support,” said River.
The soldiers assigned to the escort knew early on the trip would eventually turn hazardous since intelligence reports showed cross border movements of insurgents between Pakistan and Tillman.
Reports also indicated Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) were being placed on supply routes near Tillman, the same roads the convoy would be traveling.
Just as all had anticipated, the journey turned into the mother of all firefights when the enemy attacked from well hidden locations that only those native to the country could know about.
“That was a hellva’ trip,” River said. “When I look back, it was just unbelievable – all our lives were in danger.”
River, a PHS graduate with the class of 2003, remembers mortar rounds exploding all around his vehicle, fireballs rising up from the desert floor and small arms gun fire lighting up the horizon.
“We really couldn’t see (the enemy), but we were spraying the hills (with machine guns) hoping to have enough cover to get (the convoy) through,” said River. “It wasn’t the most pleasant place to be.”
While the journey from Sharana to Tillman was a test in courage and valor, River was involved in other firefights during this tour of duty that made him wonder if he would ever return to the friendly confines of his hometown.
“A lot of things go through your mind over there,” said River.
The Payson man’s time oversees seemed to him to crawl along ever so slowly, but his tour eventually ended in mid-January allowing him to catch a Jan. 26 flight home.
“I was one of the first in my unit to fly out,” he said. “I’m tickled pink to be back.”
Upon his arrival in the U.S., he was assigned to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, a post he was stationed at in 2009 just before leaving for the war. He has been joined at Ft. Campbell by his wife Whitney, who he married in 2007.
Looking back at his time in Afghanistan, he calls the Taliban “very corrupt and brutal” and believes the only successful way to defeat the insurgents is “root them out one by one.”
Another strategy, he says, is “to efficiently train the Afgan military to take over, but that is going to take some time.”
With his tour of duty in Afghanistan now in the rear view mirror, River anticipates returning to Payson about March 10 for what he hopes will be a few months visiting with family and friends. He’s scheduled to report in July to his next duty post near Fairbanks, Alaska.
“There, I’m going to try to get in some schools for more training and skills,” he said.
Tours of duty to the war in Afghanistan, however, might not be at an end.
“Right now, the Army is sending us over there for a year, then bringing us out for a year, and then going back for a year,” he said. “So, I could be going over again.”
While the thought of returning to the war ravaged country is not one he savors, River is ready to fulfill his military obligation, “It’s my duty, and if I’m ordered, I will go back.”
If he’s ordered to return to Afghanistan, River anticipates his wife will return to her home town of Farmington, N. M. where she will await his safe return.
Rim Country roots
At Payson High School, River was a four-year member of the wrestling team, who, as a senior, finished third at state with a 35-3 record in the 189-pound class.
He was also an Arizona Coaches Association All-Star alternate.
In football, River traveled in 2003 to Australia as a member of the Arizona All-Star team that represented the state in the Down Under Bowl.
Today, River lauds his former wrestling coaches, Dennis Pirch, Don Heizer and Dave Lamotte for instilling in him the attitude of “never do anything less that your best.”
He says, “That was a great mindset they put me in a long time ago.”
River also appreciates life’s lessons taught to him by his older brother Blair, and his father, Robert, who died in 2008 at 52 years of age.
“They taught me what it's like to make sacrifices to support your family,” he said.
After graduating form PHS and prior to joining the Army in 2009, River served a mission for the LDS Church.
After joining the military, River took his basic training at Ft. Jackson, S.C. and advanced training at Ft. Bliss near San Antonio, Texas.
Although River has no immediate plans to leave the Army, his eventual goal is to return to Payson and possibly pursue a career in law enforcement.
He is the son of Kathy River, a longtime Payson Elementary School teacher.