Photo by Jeff Thompson.
Hoover family reaching out to soldiers serving overseas
Charon Rivers, pictured with her daughter, Rachel, holds a picture of her son, Thomas, who died while serving in Afghanistan in 2010.
Support Our Soldiers Memorial Banquet
May 22 • 7 p.m. • Briarwood Presbyterian
One evening in spring 2010, Hoover residents Tom and Charon Rivers looked out their window to see two Marines approaching their doorway.
Their hearts sank as they were told their son, Thomas, had died while serving in Afghanistan.
“After that, our lives were just devastated,” said Charon. “We didn’t know what to do.”
The Rivers chose to give back. In their grief, they assembled care packages for those who had been with Thomas. By February 2011, the Rivers created S.O.S., Support Our Soldiers, with the tagline, “Supporting those who are serving, who have served, and honoring those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.”
To date, the Rivers have sent out more than 1,500 boxes to soldiers. They are getting ready to host their annual Memorial Banquet on May 22 at 7 p.m. at Briarwood Presbyterian Church and are expecting a large crowd.
Thomas Rivers gave high school football his all. The same went for his academics. Despite his dyslexia and the fact that what came easily to many did not for Thomas, he tried his best. It was just his way.
Later in his high school career, Thomas began laying groundwork to fulfill a dream he’d held since he was 10 years old.
“He wanted to be a Marine,” said Charon. “He really wanted to excel, and knew they were known to be the best of the best.”
In 2007, when her son returned from boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina, Charon Rivers said the boy who’d left that summer came home a young man.
While stationed out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Thomas befriended a fellow soldier named Matthew Proctor. The two quickly bonded over their common backgrounds. Both were from the South, both from families of faith, and both in the military out of earnest desire rather than a lack of options.
In August 2008, Thomas took his first deployment, an uneventful tour in Iraq.
“I wasn’t too worried about it,” said Charon. “Things were settling down in Iraq at that time.” Indeed, that following March, her son returned stateside, where he remained at Camp Lejeune until March 8, 2010.
At that time both Thomas and Proctor left for Afghanistan, where a very different environment awaited them.
Prior to their deployment, Proctor had invited their entire company to participate in a Bible study. Thomas was the only one who showed up. Even in combat, the friends maintained their two-man Bible study. On the morning of April 28, both young men went out on patrol, with Thomas as first team leader, and Proctor as second.
Thomas Rivers and his team went to stand watch over a shelled out building. When they arrived, Thomas assigned a young Marine to go stand watch for the Taliban at a particular spot. After the young man complained, saying he was tired, Thomas told him to rest and said he would go instead. As he approached the spot, Thomas stepped on an improvised explosive device.
After hearing the explosion, Proctor told them he secured the area and then rushed to Thomas’ aid. Though Proctor had never before taken his pocket Bible out on patrol, he’d done so that morning.
Looking his friend in the eyes and realizing Thomas would not survive, Proctor asked him if he’d like to have the Bible read to him.
His friend perked up a bit by the question, prompting Proctor to read what Thomas had described as his “life verse,” Psalm 91:1: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”
The Rivers began to assemble care packages for those who had been with Thomas on his deployment. Recipients of the boxes, which included basic toiletries, baby wipes, socks and snack foods, expressed their gratitude, leading the Rivers to send more.
“They loved getting stuff from home,” she said, noting the soldiers were in a rural area with no stores. “When that original group came home in September 2010, we just decided to keep sending them.”
They were sending about 10 or 15 per month when their daughter, Rachel, began participating in Miss Alabama pageants.
“She needed a platform, so we thought what better platform is there than for her to take what we were already doing and turn it into a nonprofit,” said Charon.
By February 2011, the Rivers created S.O.S. Each box includes a booklet about the story of Lance Cpl. Thomas E. Rivers, Jr.
“This little endeavor has turned into something so much bigger,” said Charon, a former nurse who has transitioned to work with the charity full time. “Particularly while I was in those early stages of grieving, it helped me focus on doing something that would help somebody else, not just myself.”
In addition to the boxes, S.O.S. works regularly with veterans group Three Hots and a Cot, with locations in Birmingham and Center Point. They also work with other local civic groups, including the City Salesman’s Club.
In a joint effort between the club and S.O.S., a local, deserving veteran will be selected to receive an all-terrain Action TrackChair. The chair is being ordered in May with the recipient to be announced by the end of summer.
This time of year is especially bittersweet for them, as they reflect on the anniversary of their son’s death, and as the rest of the country moves toward Memorial Day.
“It’s not just a holiday about the pool opening up,” said Charon, who will begin her day with a memorial service at the Alabama National Cemetery in Montevallo. Her son was the first person buried there who was killed in the line of duty. “For us, it is a time of focus and reflection.”
For more, visit supportoursoldiersalabama.org.