|From The Times Union timesunion.com
A soldier, a father, a son, a big brother
Guilderland High graduate killed fighting in Afghanistan
By BRYAN FITZGERALD Special to the Times Union
Updated 09:59 a.m., Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Those who loved Rafael A. Nieves Jr. and knew him best said they'll remember the 22-year-old father of two as a gracious, charming big brother who was passionate about serving his country.
Nieves was killed Sunday in Afghanistan, shot in the chest as he manned the top of a tank. The Guilderland High School graduate, who had been stationed overseas as an Army infantryman since November 2010, was scheduled to come home for the first time since deployment in less than two weeks.
He would have been 23 on July 23.
"His smile," said Ashleymarie Santiago, one of Nieves' two younger sisters. "That's what I'll always remember. He had the biggest smile."
A specialist assigned to 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell, Ky., Nieves joined the Army shortly after graduating in 2008 from Guilderland High. It was there that he met his wife, Sarah McKinney. She was living in Kentucky with their 3-year-old daughter, Emma, and 5-month-old son, Rafael, while she awaited her husband's return.
Sarah Nieves and her husband's parents, Rafael Nieves Sr. and Tina Roman, were at Andrews Air Force Base Monday, waiting for Nieves' body to be brought back from overseas. Funeral services have not yet been planned, but will likely be in New Jersey, said his father-in-law, Thomas Priolo.
Nieves was reared in New Jersey with his mother until he was 14, at which time he moved to Guilderland. Along with his two sisters, he had three younger brothers.
"Growing up, he was the bully in the house," joked Priolo. "Everyone looked up to him. He was always a respectable guy, always willing to help a friend."
Santiago said that while her big brother was never big on sports, he liked video games, books and movies. "Harry Potter and Twilight," she said with a giggle. "Those were two of his favorites."
Friends said he went through tough times but was focused on enlisting in the military upon graduation. He was a dedicated member of the Guilderland ROTC program.
"He always talked about joining the Army, always," Priolo said. "He wanted to better himself, his country and his life."
The flag at Guilderland High School was lowered to half-staff Sunday. It remained there Monday afternoon, softly whipping in the light summer breeze.
The Department of Defense said Nieves was killed when enemies attacked his vehicle with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades in the Paktika province, a notoriously volatile remote region in southeast Afghanistan along the country's border with Pakistan.
Three American troops were killed in Paktika province on July 5, according to the Department of Defense. More than 1,500 American troops have died in Afghanistan since December 2001.
In June, President Barack Obama announced there would be a drawdown in the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, saying that all 33,000 U.S. troops would be out of the war-torn country by fall of 2012. Five thousand troops were immediately withdrawn and another 5,000 were to be withdrawn at the end of the year.
Priolo and Santiago said that while Nieves was growing up he loved reading war stories, but the birth of his daughter was what really convinced Nieves to join the Army, Priolo said. "He wanted to better himself, his country and his family."