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Some people go to offices and work in cubicles. They punch the clock at 9 a.m. and then punch out at 5 p.m. Their efforts reward them with plaques or certificates of appreciation.
New Mexico National Guardsman Master Sgt. Jason Riley has done things a little differently.
Riley, a 1988 graduate of Los Alamos High School, has spent his entire career in the military. He served the first four years in the U.S. Army and for the last 15 years, he has been active in the New Mexico National Guard.
Rather than heading to a cubicle, Riley’s work took him overseas to Afghanistan, down south to the Mexican border and even to Los Alamos. He has been stationed in South Korea, Germany, Panama, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Japan.
And for his efforts, specifically for his service in Afghanistan, which was from December 2007 through October 2008, the U.S. government presented him with an Army Commendation Medal with Valor and the Bronze Star Medal. He received this recognition Feb. 6 at the National Guard Armory in Albuquerque.
“I was definitely honored,” Riley said.
In Afghanistan, Riley served as a team leader and combat advisor to the Afghanistan National Light Infantry Battalion.
“It was a very rewarding experience,” he said.
In sworn statements, other soldiers describe a particular battle that earned Riley the Army Commendation Medal.
Capt. Joseph Minning wrote, “We were conducting a joint-coalition mounted combat patrol to the Village of Tez Nawa in the Baghdis Province on April 28, 2008. Our patrol consisted of U.S., Norwegian and Latvian soldiers.”
They entered the village, he continued, to conduct a key leader engagement with the village elders.
“We had received reports the previous day t hat there were up to 200 Taliban within Tez Nawa and the surrounding villages,” Minning wrote.
When an attempt was made to contact the village elders, the patrol was hit with a barrage of fire.
“We were pinned down,” Minning reported, “and caught in a well-planned ambush.”
Riley, exposed and open to fire, swung into action.
In another sworn statement, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Herbst wrote that he and a group of soldiers that he had gathered were returning fire. After moving to a small stone wall, the only cover on the battlefield, he noticed a machine gun to his left that was firing at them.
He also noticed “MSG (Master Sgt.) Riley leave the safety of his covered position and run across a hundred meters of open ground under direct enemy observation and fire, jump up on the hood of (an) F11 and jump into the turret to work on its malfunction M-240 machinegun. He then exited the turret, grabbed our interpreter and another squad of (Afghanistan National Army) ANA soldiers and ran out in the open direct fire ... to reinforce my position.”
Herbst added, “At that time we knew if we wanted to get out of this alive, we were going to have assault the hill top that the majority of fire was coming from.”
In a third statement, Maj. Michael Ake, said, “MSG Riley and SSG Herbst squads linked up to coordinate their counter attack. Capt. Manning was able to provide … a position on an enemy location near the cemetery where the Taliban tried to pin down MSG Riley and SSG Herbst squads. (They) ran through open group and uphill to take a key hilltop position.”
Ake said Riley requested water and more ammunition and he directed fellow soldiers to do so and called for an air strike.
It didn’t stop the assault, but all the accounts of this battle reveal Riley was also never defeated.
“He was truly the definition of cool, calm and collected during the entire five hour gun battle,” Herbst said. “There is no doubt in my mind that because of MSG Riley’s leadership and courage, both of which inspired me personally, many (Afghan National Security Forces) ANSF and Coalition lives were saved.”
Despite the battles Riley faced in Afghanistan, he describes the Afghan people with warmth.
He said they were very friendly and appreciative of the support they were receiving.
“Basically, (they are) tired of war and they want peace and they want prosperity.”
This is just one profound moment in Riley’s long military history. “I’ve been in the military since I was 18 years old,” he said. “So it’s been my whole life. It’s been a great opportunity to travel around the world and help people.”
He counts his work in Afghanistan as one of his most significant experiences. Others include assisting with the Cerro Grande Fire in Los Alamos in 2000, responding to the invasion of Panama and working with New Mexico law enforcement to combat narcotics.
Even though Riley has traveled the planet and done amazing things, he still treasures his home state and hometown.
“I’ve greatly enjoyed traveling the planet,” he said, “but New Mexico and Los Alamos are always my home and there is nothing better than that.”
Riley lived in Los Alamos from the late ’70s through 1988. “I like Los Alamos because it has that Mayberry feel to it … I just like the sense of community up here,” he said.
Which is why returning to Los Alamos during the Cerro Grande Fire was so significant for Riley.
“I wasn’t helping a stranger,” he said, “we were struggling to save homes and lives in Los Alamos, my home town, so it was very personal to me.”
His efforts awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal in September 2000.
It’s been a very successful career, but Riley is planning his retirement from the National Guard in one to three years.
Like everyone, there is more to Riley than his job; he has two kids, Colin, 6, and Kaitlyn, 5. He joked that he likes long walks and small animals and more seriously said he enjoys hiking, fishing and camping.
Riley praises the National Guard, saying the entity offers a lot of great opportunities, not just for travel but also for education such as assisting with tuition and awarding scholarships.
He offers special praise to the New Mexico National Guard, which he said is the most respected and cutting edged guard in the country.
“I’ve had a fulfilling (career),” Riley said, “I’ve enjoy my career immensely. I credit any success I’ve had to the superb leadership and training I’ve received in the Army and the National Guard.”