Rivera started at Drexel University in Philadelphia in 2001 on an Air Force officer training scholarship. Riding the train in his cadet uniform in the weeks after the September 11 attacks, passengers constantly thanked him for serving. But I haven’t done anything yet, he thought. If this was to be his generation’s war, he didn’t want to spend it sitting in a classroom, so he quit school, joined the Army, and trained as an infantryman.
I wasn’t thinking about service and duty when I joined; I was drawn by the physical and mental challenges of military training and a long-standing curiosity about an American subculture about which I knew little. But our different paths brought us to the same place. Rivera and I arrived at Fort Drum at the end of 2002, and prepared for war. By early April, we were patrolling the streets of Mosul in northern Iraq, where we steeled ourselves for attacks that never came. Troops pushing up from the south had the hard fight, the real war. We were shot at just a few times, and roadside bombs hadn’t yet become the insurgent weapon du jour.
We were deployed to Iraq again in 2004, for another year, and that was more like the war we’d seen on the news, with bombings and shootings and the very real possibility of death. Rivera spent several months of that deployment as a guard at the interrogation facility where suspected insurgents were questioned before they were released or sent to Abu Ghraib prison. He watched over men accused of killing his comrades and became familiar with the thunderous crack and concussive punch of rockets landing nearby.
After leaving the Army in 2005, Rivera returned home to southern California and joined a Riverside National Guard unit, which was deployed to Iraq for a year in 2008. This time he was doing convoy security, protecting the trucks that shuttled vital supplies between the sprawling bases and small outposts. Though major combat had ended in the cities, Iraq was still dangerous, particularly the roads, where insurgents often planted improvised explosive devices. Rivera earned three commendation medals during the deployment, one for each of the roadside bombs he spotted before they could explode. Several bombs did hit his truck and others, and his company suffered a few injuries.
But it was the monotony and boredom, not the danger, that took a toll. “We had nothing to do,” Rivera told me. “We were only on missions half the week, and on those missions, more often than not, nothing happened. You sit in the truck for 12 hours, on the radio, repeating the same commands over and over, calling the same people and giving them the same information you gave them last time.”
Along with the oppressive tedium, Rivera felt a growing sense of futility. On one mission, after transporting pallets of bottled water to another base, Rivera spray-painted an X on a few pallets, on a hunch that some of the missions were just busy work. Several days later, while escorting trucks from that base back to the first, he found the pallets and water bottles with his mark. In that moment, he said, he felt like a character in Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s satirical novel about the absurdities and contradictions in war.
During those endless miles crisscrossing Iraq, Rivera hatched a plan for the thru-hike. He first heard about the trail in 2006 while working at the Mataguay Boy Scout Ranch outside San Diego, where he was the shooting sports director. He met two other counselors who had thru-hiked the PCT, which ran through areas he backpacked as a Boy Scout. They sent him a card with the PCT map while he was in Iraq, and this planted the seed. Planning the hike gave him purpose and something to look forward to once he returned home, but Rivera didn’t yet understand that the trail would help him in ways far more important than staving off boredom in Iraq.
“I used to be such a happy-go-lucky person,” he said. But after the last deployment, “I was bitter, and easily annoyed. I would get short-tempered over stuff. I’d get pissed if people didn’t pay attention to the fact that there were wars going on.” And he felt disconnected and behind. While he was away at war, his friends were starting their careers or finishing graduate school. He worried that he’d lost prime years of his life.