"It feels wonderful being back in the States. I've been away from my family for quite some time," said Staff Sergeant (SSG) Samuel Rodrigues, an Electromagnetic Warfare Specialist with the United States Army, currently stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany. "I'm ecstatic to give them a surprise that, without the help of the American Red Cross, wouldn't have happened otherwise."
As is tradition at the Armed Forces Bowl, the American Red Cross again partnered with ESPN and American Airlines to bring a soldier home from overseas to reunite and surprise their family on the field during the game. His First Sergeant nominated SSG Rodrigues for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to surprise his wife, Marisol, and two daughters, Zofia (8) and Laila (5), at a nationally televised bowl game, honoring veterans and service members like him.
SSG Rodrigues had a difficult time maintaining the surprise for his wife, having to change the subject every time she brought up the game in the weeks leading up to his homecoming. After 16 years together, she knows when something is up. He told her he won tickets for his family to attend the game from a raffle drawing.
"My wife loves true crime; if anything seems out of the ordinary, she's completely skeptical," said SSG Rodrigues of his investigative wife. "My wife will be excited, and my girls will be happy. The oldest will be crying."
As Marisol, Zofia, and Laila watched a recorded greeting from their soldier filmed in Germany, SSG Rodrigues approached them from the other side of the field. Then the clip turned to him walking toward his family on the field wearing his uniform. The three turned in surprise, and the two young girls began sprinting towards their dad, wrapping him in the biggest hugs their small arms could manage.
"It was great to see the surprise on the kids' faces. I'm so happy," said Marisol. "We get to spend the holidays together—they'll love it. It was great to share this moment with our close friends. It was great to see everybody scream in excitement."
Dedicating a Career to Service
"I've been in Germany for about a year and a half now. I'm staying over there full-time, and my wife is back here in Texas keeping the girls rooted," said SSG Rodrigues. "It's a drawback of the military, but also a privilege that you get to move around and see many places, but it's really hard on a family."
Throughout his oldest daughter's eight years, SSG Rodrigues has lived away from his family for four cumulative years. At 36 years old, he has already logged an inspiring 19 years of service to his country.
"I joined when I was 17 with the National Guard in California in 2004. I deployed to Iraq in 2008 and extended my tour while I was there," said SSG of the start of his impressive military career, including several deployments around the world. "I went on active duty in 2011. I don't know how it happened, but every time my wife was pregnant, I got sent to Korea."
Staying in Touch with Family Back Home
While his wife, Marisol Rodrigues, holds everything down back home, SSG Rodrigues keeps up with the family through daily video calls and WhatsApp.
"I try to see the girls on video chat at least once or twice a day if I can. Since there's a seven-hour time difference, I have to stay up late so I can talk to them or try to catch them during my lunchtime while they are getting ready for school. Trying to get kids out the door for school is always hectic."
A Legacy of Service
"My dad was a Pearl Harbor survivor. I always looked up to my father and wanted to be like him, and he wasn't the only one," said SSG Rodrigues, the youngest of eight siblings. "My brother, Raymond, served in Vietnam and would tell me about his time on the tanks. I looked up to these role models and wanted to be like them – that's why I joined the military."
SSG Rodrigues recalls his father and brother's war stories and credits their bravery for inspiring his career path, both present and future.
Calling on the Red Cross for Emergency Communications
"When my brother, Joe, was having open heart surgery, he didn't pull through and had to be put on life-support. At the time, I was at Fort Irwin in California at the National Training Center preparing for my deployment to Afghanistan," said SSG Rodrigues. "As I came out of what we call 'The Box,' I got my cell phone back and opened a voicemail from sister telling my brother didn't make it, and he was being put on life-support."
SSG Rodrigues walked his family through how to initiate an emergency communications message through the Red Cross.
"I finished my work that day before the Red Cross message came in late that evening. They were able to give me a ride from Fort Irwin to St Bernadine's Hospital—about two hours away," said SSG Rodrigues. "I got to spend his final hours with him and help bury him a week later."
SSG Rodrigues' lost his mother at age 10, his father at age 11, and some years later, two of his brothers. After witnessing the death of four loved ones who all died of various diseases impacting the heart and lungs, SSG Rodrigues decided he wanted to pursue his second career in healthcare once he retires from the military. He is currently taking classes online for a bachelor's degree in natural science with an emphasis in biology from American Military University.
"I always wanted to be in the medical field. First, I wanted to be a heart surgeon so I could stop the trauma that I had from happening to others," said SSG Rodrigues. "Then I learned about perfusion—a perfusionist operates the heart and lung machines in operating rooms. I want to study at Texas Heart Institute as my ultimate goal."
SSG Rodrigues will take some time off from his military responsibilities and studies for the next couple of weeks just to be a dad and husband.
"I'm just really happy that he's home! He can deal with all the issues at the house – he has all the honey-do list to do," said Marisol. "I'm excited he's home and to spend time with the girls especially. They miss him a lot."