Jasper E. Rivera says his early days in Colorado on the family's ranch taught him how to be self-sufficient, a quality that has served him well over his long life.
"We had our own equipment and we raised all of our own food and we shared with our neighbors and other people in our church during the Great Depression," he said.
Rivera's family history also inspired him to cherish freedom. His ancestors were from Spain and were persecuted hundreds of years ago because they were Jews, he said. In time, they left Spain and eventually ended up in the American west. At some point, he says they converted to Christianity, but Rivera remains proud of his Jewish ancestry.
Patriotism also runs deep in the Rivera family.
In the early part of the 20th century, Rivera's father, Manuel, served as the bugler and a personal body guard for Army Brigadier Gen. John J. Pershing when he unsuccessfully sought to capture or kill the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.
But with World War I intensifying in Europe and controversy increasing over Pershing's forces having crossed into Mexico, the pursuit of Villa was dropped.
"My father stayed with Pershing when we entered World War I and he saw action in France," Rivera said.
Jasper E. Rivera, 96
Hometown: La Veta, Colo.
Rank: staff sergeant
War zone: World War II, European Theater
Years of service: 1941 - 1945
Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Combat Infantry Badge, Presidential Unit Citation, European Theater Medal
WWI ended in 1918 and was hailed as "the war to end all wars." But that was not meant to be. In the days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, marking America's entry into World War II, Rivera was drafted.
The Army took note of his versatility.
He was not only capable in the kitchen, from skills his mother had taught him, but his father had trained him in the tasks of running the ranch, whether it be harvesting crops or butchering the sheep they raised.
"I was already a staff sergeant when I arrived in northern Africa and put in charge of a mess hall," he said of his duties in Algeria.
By 1943, he was delivering chow and ammo to soldiers on the front lines in Italy.
"We were constantly under fire as we drove the supplies to the soldiers. Fortunately, I was never wounded," he said.
Rivera eventually ended up in northern Italy where he got a close-up view of the executed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, whose corpse was put on display in a public square.
"By that time, we didn't really think much of it," Rivera said, explaining that he was eager to return to America after chasing the Germans from Italy.
The independent Rivera had left the family ranch before the war to find his own way and had landed a job in Buffalo as a switchman for the DL&W Railroad.
But he had an even better reason to want to get back home.
"I was already married to the most beautiful girl in the world, a Polish girl from Sloan," said Rivera, who with the former Alice Wegrnowski went on to raise six children.
In 1983, Rivera retired from Conrail as a conductor, but the young rancher in him was not ready to stop working. So for years he continued as a swimming instructor and lifeguard at the downtown Buffalo Athletic Club. He also worked as a lifeguard at the Buffalo Christian Center, the Grand Island Holiday Inn and the William-Emslie YMCA.
"I was in good physical shape. I never drank or smoked and I wanted to stay active," said Rivera, who worked well into his 80s.
At 96, Rivera says he is writing his autobiography, which will include his military service.
And whenever he needs some inspiration, he only has to look up on the wall in his den at a case displaying his WWII medals.
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