Felix, Navy Dad

posted Dec 23, 2020, 10:36 AM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Dec 23, 2020, 10:37 AM ]

Felix Rivera’s family on his father’s side was from Bueno Aires, Argentina. His grandparents on his mother’s side were born in Bogota, Colombia. His parents met in Miami then moved to Vista, California, where Diego Rivera was offered the opportunity to open and manage a restaurant called Asado West. (Asado is a way of cooking as well as a social event. It also happens to be Argentina’s national dish. It combines delicious meat with fire and a grill. Popular meats for asado include pork, chicken, sausages, and churrasco, a beef sirloin).

The restaurant was a big success and three years later, Felix Rivera was born, the first of three children to Diego and Marisa Rivera. He was blond-haired and blue eyed, obviously inheriting the European characteristics from his ancestors who migrated to South America from Central Europe. Felix worked through school at the restaurant with his sisters, Martina and Zoe.

He was 14 years old and busing tables. At a large corner booth were a group of Marines and sailors celebrating the promotion of one their own. After the completion of their meal, Felix approached the service personnel.

“Excuse me sirs, would it be alright to ask you a couple of questions?”

One of the Marines quickly replied, “Absolutely!”

One of the sailors pulled out a chair, “Join us.”

Felix sat down and said, “I’ve been thinking about joining the military when I get old enough.”

Over the next 20 minutes, the patient Marines and sailors answered every one of the young boy’s questions. Felix found out that the sailors were SEALs and the Marines were Recon and had just gotten back from a particularly dangerous deployment, where they lost several of their brothers-in-arms.

*  *  *

Four years passed, but Felix never forgot what those American warriors told him. It made such a lasting impression on him that he joined the Navy when he turned 18, becoming a master-at-arms. The MA rating, responsible for law enforcement and force protection, is equivalent to the United States Army Police, Marine Corps military police, Air Force security forces, and the Coast Guard maritime law enforcement division. It’s one of the oldest ratings in the United States Navy.

After two years in the military, Felix applied for a transfer to the Navy SEALs. There are five individual specialty training schools for operatives who finish Basic Underwater Demolition SEALs Training. Those are: Scout Sniper, Advanced Close Quarter Combat/Breacher, Surreptitious Entry Mechanical and Electronic Bypass Specialist, Special Operations Combat Medic, and Special Warfare Combat Fighter. Felix became an Advanced Close Quarter Combat/Breacher and was assigned to SEAL Team Seven. His unit was stationed at Naval Warfare Group I in San Diego.

Three years after joining the team, he went up the coast to Carlsbad with some of his buddies, to participate in the Red Bull Triathlon. While standing in a group of 743 competitors at Tamarack State Beach, Felix saw a beautiful woman.

She was tall and athletic. The Southern California sun glistened off her blonde hair. She had emerald green eyes and a smile that was as gentle as the summer breeze drifting across the sand. The Navy SEAL was so captivated that when the horn sounded to start the race, he just stood there motionless and was knocked over by the thundering herd, rushing into the surf. Rejoining the race, Felix still finished third in the amateur division behind two of his teammates.

While making conversation with his buddies, Felix saw the girl who’d caught his eye at the beginning of the race. He knew he had to take the chance. He told them, “I’ll be back in a minute.”

When he came up to her, Felix took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but my heart will never forgive me if I don’t do this.”

The young woman replied, “Do what?”

“Hear the sound of your voice.” Felix began to walk away.

“That’s all?” the woman said.

Felix turned around. “Excuse me?”

“You can’t say that to a woman and walk away.”

“What else am I supposed to do?”

“Let’s start with your name.”

“Felix Rivera.”

“I won’t ask you your rank.” The woman smiled.

“How’d you know I was in the military?”

“The same way that I know that water is wet and the sun is bright. It’s self-evident.”

Three of Felix’s buddies walked up to them. One said, “We’re heading out.”

The woman said quickly, “Let me see your phone.”

Felix handed his phone to the young woman and she typed the following: Diane Regan, 760- 555-1212, then handed it back.

Felix looked at the screen and smiled. As he walked off, one of his buddies quipped, “You’re in over your head with that one.”

Felix looked back at the beautiful woman and said, “And out of my league. I’m probably going to crash and burn…so what’s your point?”

“No point, just making conversation.”

*  *  *

Diane Regan was an emergency room nurse at Scripps Hospital in Encinitas. She worked three 12-hour shifts, Sunday through Tuesday, 7 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.

When Felix called, they decided to meet at King’s Fish House on Paseo Del Norte in Carlsbad on Saturday afternoon. During lunch, Felix told Diane that he was in the Navy and stationed in San Diego but didn’t elaborate beyond that. Diane volunteered that she was a registered nurse but excluded where she worked. They were moving cautiously, using the philosophy that trust is earned, not given. Eventually their conversation drifted to growing up in North County and settled in on their mutual interests in triathlons and their training methods. When it came time to pay the bill, Diane picked up the check and said, “You’ve got the next one.”

Diane liked the way Felix handled himself. He didn’t try to build himself up or get too inquisitive about her life. He was comfortable with spells of silence that other men felt compelled to fill with useless banter. On their fourth date, as they ran along South Ponto Beach, Diane sprinted ahead and disappeared behind a lifeguard stand. Felix ran to catch up. When he did, she grabbed him and kissed him, then sprinted off again. This was her signal that their relationship had reached the next level.

Things moved naturally for the young couple, falling into place without too much effort from either one of them. Felix told Diane he was a Navy SEAL, the risks involved in his profession, and that he would understand if she didn’t want to continue seeing him. Diane replied without hesitation.

“I’ll stay around…if you don’t have any objections?”

“No objections at all,” Felix responded happily.

*  *  *

Another two years passed. Felix had a half dozen assignments that took him away from California for extended periods of time: four to the South China Sea, one to Honduras, and another to San Salvador. Each time he returned, Felix almost expected Diane to have changed her mind about seeing him. She was beautiful, intelligent, strong, and could have her choice of almost any man. Why would she want anything to do with a door-kicker that was gone as much as he was? To his continued surprise and even greater pleasure, the relationship just kept getting better.

Diane was at work at the hospital when Felix stopped by her parents’ Bressi Ranch home in Carlsbad. After exchanging pleasantries with Robert and Eleanor Regan, Felix asked her father,” May I you speak to you in private, sir.”

“Sure,” Robert Regan said. “Let’s go into the den.”

Felix followed Robert, closing the door behind them. Felix did not hesitate to say what was on his mind

“I’d like to ask your permission to marry Diane.”

“Have you spoken to her about this?”

“I came to you first.”

Robert hesitated, then chose his words carefully. “I thank you for your service to our country. Would you want your daughter to marry someone in a profession like yours?”

“No sir, I would not. But then again, it wouldn’t be my decision.”

“May I be direct with you?”

“I’d prefer it.”

“I don’t doubt you love my daughter and I can tell how deeply she cares about you. I don’t know what she would do if you were killed in the line of duty. She’s an extremely loyal person and she might think she had to spend the rest of her life alone to honor your memory.”

Felix turned to leave, then said in parting, “You make some valid points, sir.”

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention our conversation to Diane.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Two weeks later, Diane and Felix were watching the 1935 classic movie, The Little Colonel. Diane loved the old Shirley Temple movies. Actually, Felix wasn’t really watching it but seemed pre-occupied. Diane paused the movie.

“If you don’t want to watch this, we’ve got all three of the John Wick movies.”

“I’m sorry, did you say something?”

“Do you love me?”

“Very much.”

“Do you want to marry me?”

“I do.”

“Will you marry me?”

Felix immediately became defensive. “Where is this coming from?”

“Simple question; answer it!”

“I can’t.”

“You don’t have to. You want to marry me but can’t. I understand completely.” Diane started the movie again and focused her attention on it.

*  *  *

The following week, Diane invited her parents to join her and Felix for dinner at Giaola Italian Kitchen in Carlsbad.

“I have an announcement to make. I’ve asked Felix to marry me.”

Diane saw the look Felix and her father exchanged. She knew her suspicions were right on target.

“He didn’t say anything, dad.”

Robert Regan began to speak, but Diane stopped him. “Don’t lie to me… that will be a hard thing for me to forgive if you do”

Eleanor intervened. “Tell her the truth.”

“Felix came to me and asked my permission to marry you. I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea.”

“Let me guess. Felix respected your wishes and promised not to tell me about your conversation…right?”

Robert nodded.

“I’d like your blessing, but we’re going to get married…regardless.” Diane’s tone of voice was strong and unbending. She nudged Felix. “Go for it.”

“Sir, I love your daughter and would greatly appreciate your permission to marry her.”

Robert hesitated, then his wife punched him in the arm. “Say it or I will.”

Robert smiled in good-hearted defeat. “You have my blessing. I should have figured I wasn’t going to win this one.”

*  *  *

It was going to be a small wedding with 46 guests. The Rivera and Regan families, Felix’s SEAL team members and Diane’s closest friends would all attend. The event would be held at the Morgan Run Resort and Club in Rancho Santa Fe. After the rehearsal dinner, Robert Regan approached Felix.

“I’d like you to do me a favor.”

Felix responded, “Sure, if I can.”

“I’ve got some interests in businesses and real estate around the area. During the first phase of residential construction in Bressi Ranch, I bought five houses including the one I live in. It’s been a good investment and they’ve appreciated significantly in value. One of the rentals is right next door to us. I’d like you and Diane to move in there. She’ll be close when you’re away and that will make her mother and I feel a lot better.”

“Isn’t it occupied right now?”

“Yes. They are good tenants, but I told them the situation and offered them six months free rent and to pay for their moving expenses if they relocated to one of my other houses.”

“How much is the rent? Bressi Ranch is not an inexpensive place to live. Remember, I’m just an enlisted man.”

“I looked it up. As an E-6, Petty Officer First Class, your Basic Allowance for Housing with one dependent is $3,114. You cover the utilities and the rent would be free.”

“That is much too generous, sir. I can’t accept that.”

“I told you it was a favor to me. This is my daughter and nothing is too generous for her. I don’t need the rent so it’s not that big a deal to me. The property is in a real estate trust and it’s already a good write-off. I’ll compromise as to not offend you. Five hundred dollars a month then…happy now? Do not make me go higher. I’m a tough negotiator.”

“If it’s alright with Diane, then I guess it’s alright with me.”

“I asked her first and she said OK if it was alright with you.” Robert smiled mischievously, then added sternly, “Take care of my daughter…that is all I ask.”

“It will be my duty, honor and privilege to comply with that order, sir.” Felix snapped to attention.

Diane Regan and Felix Rivera were married the next day; Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2013. Their daughter was born on April, 23, 2015, the same date as Shirley Temple’s birthday in 1928. The name on her birth certificate was Temple Elena Rivera. She had her mother’s beauty and her father’s adventurous spirit and athletic ability.

From almost the first time she opened her eyes, she was a daddy’s girl. Every time Felix was around, Temple would smile and giggle. As she got older, Felix would put Temple in a stroller and go for a run or take her down to the beach, putting her in a small plastic boat. He would tie one end of a rope to the boat and the other around his waist, then go for a long swim. By the time Temple was two years-old, she was riding on the same surfboard as her father. She was advanced for her age and could speak in coherent sentences by the time she was two and a half.

When most girls were getting into dolls and other similar endeavors, Temple became interested in anything that had to do with her father and the Navy. They would sit together in the living room and watch old war movies, commenting to each other about the action, while laughing and joking with each other.

On this particular evening, Diane was in the dining room with her mother-in-law, Maria. They watched Felix and Temple with great interest until Maria said, “They definitely have a bond.”

“They are inseparable when Felix is home,” Diane added.

Temple loved to wear Navy attire and Felix never missed an opportunity to bring her something whenever he returned from a mission. It got to the point that Temple was nicknamed “Little Admiral,” a take-off on the 1935 Shirley Temple movie Little Colonel.

*  *  *

It was December 19, 2019. Diane and Temple drove to Coronado to pick up Felix after a three month deployment. The young girl was dressed in her specially tailored white Navy uniform. As soon as the team exited the bus, Temple rushed to meet her father. One of the other team members called out, “Make room for the Little Admiral!”

On the way back to Carlsbad, Temple asked her father, “If you’re not too tired, do you think that we could drive through the village to see the Christmas lights before we go home. If you’re not too tired of course.”

Felix turned around to face his daughter in the backseat. “I’m not tired at all. I slept on the plane and I’m just getting my second wind. We’ll get some hot chocolate with marshmallows too!”

While driving down Carlsbad Village Drive and looking at the festive decorations, Temple called out, “Felix the Navy Dad!”

When Felix and Diane saw what Temple was looking at, they couldn’t help but laugh. It was a bright red and green sign with the words “Feliz Navidad.”

It was a great Christmas because Felix’s team stayed local. Over the coming months the Rivera family appreciated their time together, knowing that at any time Felix could be called away.

On April 23, 2020, they were celebrating Temple’s fifth birthday. Both sides of the families as well as a dozen of Temple’s friends were in the backyard of their Bressi Ranch home. There was a barbecue with hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, and all the fixings. A three-layer cake had raspberry and strawberry filling. The children were playing games while the adults socialized.

When Felix’s special phone rang, everybody in the family knew what that meant. The area immediately grew quiet as the Navy SEAL answered. “Rivera here…confirmed…on my way.” Felix disconnected the call and turned to his family. “Sorry. Got to go.”

Diane volunteered, “I’ll give you a ride.”

Temple chimed in. “I’m going too!”

Felix turned to his daughter. “This is your party. You can’t go.”

Temple turned to her guests and called out, “Thank you all for coming and thank you for your gifts. Enjoy the food and stay as long as you want. I’m going with my daddy.”

Diane looked at Felix. They knew it was a waste of time to argue with their daughter.

*  *  *

A missionary couple had been taken hostage by MS-13 gang members in El Salvador. They were working in the dangerous area of Soyaupango in the capital city of San Salvador, which borders gang-infested districts five and six. SEAL Team Seven was assigned to effect a rescue. This was not a search and destroy assignment, but an extraction, followed by escape and evasion. Chief Petty Officer Rivera and Chief Petty Officer John Joseph Ashby would do the extraction, while the rest of the team provided cover. The mission would have to be quick and precise. MS-13 gang members were well-armed and the SEAL Team was outnumbered. Any delays or missteps would be fatal for the American warriors.

Because of his natural ability to scale buildings and other vertical objects, Felix’s call sign was “Cat” and Chief Petty Officer Ashby was simply called “J.J.” The team entered the danger zone and took their assigned positions. Felix used special equipment to climb to the roof of the four-story building, then threw a rope over the side and pulled J.J. up.

Using their specially equipped HK 416 carbines with noise suppressors and laser sights, Cat and J.J. moved down the stairs, taking out bad actors as they went. When they found the missionaries, Felix assured them. “Just follow my instructions and we’ll be home soon.”

Felix radioed to his team. “We’re coming out.”

His team leader, Master Chief Ray Lamar replied, “Hold your position, we have a problem.”

“Roger that.”

Five minutes later, Master Chief Lamar radioed, “We’ve been compromised. Wait until zero six hundred hour, then make your way to the open field behind you. Our plan is to be in position by then. That will be our new extraction point.”

“Confirmed, zero six hundred…standfast until then.”

At daylight, Felix and J.J. made their way to the open field. Things didn’t go quite according to plan. Felix, J.J., and the two hostages came under heavy fire from MS-13 soldiers. A rocket-propelled grenade landed near them as they ran across the field. J.J. sustained a serious chest wound and Felix was blinded by the blast. The two hostages led the SEALs to a ravine. A barely conscious J.J. directed fire to a blind Felix as MS-13 soldiers charged their position. J.J. used the clock to guide his teammate; “1100 fire! 1400 fire!”

For 30 long minutes, Felix and J.J. held off a superior force while protecting the missionaries, until the rest of their team could fight their way to their position. A helicopter landed minutes later, then lifted the injured SEALs and rescued hostages out. Soon afterwards, a larger helicopter landed and the rest of the SEAL team boarded. The door gunners sprayed the area with deadly suppressive fire, killing most of the attackers.

Felix and J.J. were medically evacuated to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. J.J. was rushed into surgery and was saved. After being thoroughly examined by the Navy’s top ophthalmologist, Felix was assigned a hospital room. Diane was notified that her husband was a patient and she immediately drove down from Carlsbad with her daughter. They were in the hospital room when the physician entered and introduced himself.

“I’m Doctor Baker.”

“I am Diane Regan and this is our daughter, Temple.”

“Hello Doctor Baker. Are you taking care of my daddy?”

“I am.”

“I need you to bring your ‘A’ game because I’ll be watching you,” Temple warned.

“I’ll do my best.”

“Cut him some slack, Temple,” Felix said.

“After careful examination and looking at your CAT scan, I’ve come to the conclusion that you have Optic Neuritis. That is when swelling or inflammation damages the optic nerve. Actually it is more than just one nerve. It’s a bundle of nerve fibers that transmits visual information from the eye to the brain.

“What is the treatment, doctor?” Diane asked.

“There is none. In your husband’s case, the inflammation is quite severe and it is intertwined between and around the fibers.”

“What are you going to do then?” Temple asked.

“I’m going to send him home tomorrow and we’ll have to wait for the swelling to subside.” Doctor Baker tapped Felix on the leg. “I’ll give you the name of a therapist at Camp Pendleton who specializes in temporary blindness cases. Contact her and she’ll set up a program for you.”

Diane was angry that the doctor was so matter of fact. “That’s it …just send him home!”

“Would you prefer that he stayed here? You sprain an ankle, you stay off it. You catch the flu, you stay in bed. The optic nerve is swollen, you have to wait for the swelling to go down. Get some rest Petty Officer and I’ll see you in the morning.”

Diane was sleeping in the chair in the corner of the room and Temple was lying in the hospital bed with her father when Master Chief Lamar entered and tapped Felix on the leg. Temple looked up at him and the Master Chief smiled. “How you doing, Little Admiral?”

“Good.”

“I recognize that voice!” Felix said.

“How you doing?” Master Chief Lamar asked.

“A little dark, but I’m hanging in there. How’s J.J. doing?”

“He’s in recovery, the doctor said he’s going to make it. You get some rest. I’ll be in touch.” As Master Chief Lamar turned to leave, he bent over and whispered to Diane, “If you need anything—anything—you call me.”

“Thanks Master Chief.”

*  *  *

Felix met with the therapist at the Wounded Warrior Barracks on Camp Pendleton. She gave him a list of things to do, like counting the steps to various locations in the house and learning to do things by feel and memory. Felix didn’t want his wife and daughter to feel bad, so he tried to keep the situation light. Whenever he tripped, he would joke, “I don’t remember being this clumsy before.”

Diane and Temple tried to keep the same routine, to maintain some sense of normalcy in their lives. The days turned into weeks and Felix was still living in darkness. Temple sat next to her father on the couch and asked, “What is like not to see?”

“My other senses are a lot sharper and I definitely have a better memory for things I never paid much attention to. My heart still has perfect vision, though.”

“What does that mean?”

“That means I see you and your mother clearly every minute of every day inside my heart and you are more beautiful and wonderful as time passes.” Felix gave his daughter a big hug.

Fourth of July came and Temple described the fireworks to her father as they sat on the beach. Felix was notified in August that he was put in for the Navy Cross. J.J. was a regular visitor to the Rivera house, since he was still on light duty and recovering from his wound. The two Navy SEALs were sitting quietly in the backyard when Temple brought them cold beers. “Thanks Admiral,” J.J. said

“Thanks honey,” Felix added.

After Temple walked off, J.J. said, “Just between you and me, how are you hanging in there?”

“I’ve got my good days and I’ve got my bad ones, but I get to the gym and to the beach on a regular basis. We both know that exhaustion is the best medicine for depression. What really gets me over the hump is my wife and daughter.”

Every two weeks, Diane and Temple accompanied Felix to Balboa Hospital for his routine examination. Each time Doctor Baker told him that there was no change. Felix was beginning to believe he would be blind for the rest of his life.

On Christmas Eve, 2020, the entire Rivera and Regan families were together for a festive dinner and gift exchange. Temple brought her father’s gifts over to him from under the tree and told him who they were from, then watched him open them. “What about your gifts, aren’t you going to open ‘em?” asked Felix.

“I’ll get mine later.”

After everyone left the living room for the kitchen where the buffet table was set up, Temple lingered behind and walked over to the front window and looked out. She saw a shooting star flash across the clear sky and made a heartfelt wish. “Please God, don’t forget about my daddy.”

What Temple didn’t see was that the North Star increased dramatically in brightness to acknowledge that her wish had been granted.

At sunrise on Christmas, Temple woke up to the scent of pancakes. She put on her new sweatshirt and went downstairs to the kitchen. Her father was there, with his back turned, pouring batter on the griddle. Temple voiced her concern. “You alright to do that?”

“Never better!” He put three pancakes on a plate, turned around, and handed the plate to Temple. He stared at her powder blue sweatshirt for ten seconds, then read the writing on it aloud. “Felix Navidad, Felix the Navy Dad.”

Temple was absolutely dumbfounded. “You can see!”

Then looking up, with tears in her eyes, she said “Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, God! This is my best Christmas ever!”

“If you can believe this, I can see even better than before.” Then Felix lifted his daughter up in his arms and danced around the kitchen.

“Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad, my own special Little Admiral!”

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