Sitting in a foxhole late at night in Afghanistan in 2003, U.S. Army Sgt. Mike Gonzales found himself feeling lonely and depressed. While his foxhole buddy kept an eye out for danger, Gonzales decided to write a letter to someone he didn’t know, just to let him know how much he meant to him.
“I wrote Gregg Popovich,” said Gonzales, taking a pause from temporary duty as a server during a fundraising dinner benefiting Wish for Our Heroes, an organization dedicated to assisting military members.
“The letter stated, ‘I want to thank you for being the best example of an NBA team,’” Gonzales said. “Little did I know that in three weeks I would receive a letter from him personally. It said, ‘Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me that you are thanking us for playing basketball? We’re thanking you for serving our nation; for serving our country.’”
The Spurs head coach closed his letter to Gonzales with an invitation.
“Underneath,” Gonzales said, “it read: ‘When you get back to the States, give me a call,’ with a number for his secretary. ‘We’re going to show you a heck of a time.’ And boy, did he. I got to meet him at center court with my family.”
When they finally met, Popovich couldn’t resist having a little fun. “He did poke at me and said, ‘Any holes in you?’” Gonzales said.
Popovich and Gonzales renewed their acquaintance at Wednesday’s event at The Grill at Leon Springs. As maître’d, Popovich greeted patrons who paid handsomely to partake of Chef Thierry Burkle’s cuisine and bid on auction items to support Wish for Our Heroes. Former Spurs player Matt Bonner, now a studio analyst for local telecasts of Spurs games, also participated in the event, as did fellow broadcaster Andrew Monaco.
The Wish for Our Heroes event is significant for Popovich, who often reminds reporters and fans that no matter how deeply anyone is invested in the team’s success, in the end “it’s just basketball.”
“We all have jobs, but beyond our jobs it’s all about life,” Popovich said before Wednesday’s dinner was served. “All of us feel better when we’re doing something about what’s going on in the world. The organization here at The Grill tonight, Wish for Our Heroes, is one of those wonderful organizations that figures out a way to collect money for people who need it, in this case, military people who otherwise couldn’t find the funds to do what they need to do.
“Whether it’s [needing] a car or a refrigerator, or fixing the sink, your loved one is off in another country protecting our interests, and we all have a responsibility. We’re not over there doing what they’re doing. So to be able to be with all these people here and figure out how we can support the families of those who are overseas is wonderfully special and a lot more meaningful than pick-and-roll and post defense.”
A 1970 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy who served five years on active duty, Popovich always has been there for military heroes. Retired Army Sgt. Javier Rivera learned that firsthand during 18 months of treatment at San Antonio Military Medical Center (SAMMC) after nearly losing his life in Afghanistan.
At 6-foot-5 and a rock-solid 260 pounds, Rivera had the physique of an NBA power forward when he deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade early in 2007.
“I was all muscle,” said Rivera, still 6-5, but a few dozen pounds lighter as he donned a “Heroes At The Grill” apron for Wednesday’s event.
On Nov. 12, 2007, the car Rivera was driving was blown up by an improvised explosive device. Two passengers, comrades in the 173rd, were killed.
“It was the first fatal accident in my troop,” he said.
Rivera survived, but just barely. Badly burned over 42% of his body, he was treated in the field for burns on his torso, arms, head, face, and one leg. His chances of survival depended on eventual airlift evacuation to the facility best suited to treat such injuries: SAMMC.
“I got here, to SAMMC, on Nov. 15, 2007,” Rivera said. “I’ve been here in San Antonio ever since. I’m a Texan now. I met [Popovich] there on several occasions. He does all kinds of stuff with the soldiers. It speaks to the kind of person that he is.”
And with that, Rivera smiled broadly, a physical impossibility after he was airlifted to SAMMC. Surgeons there had to reconstruct his mouth, which he said was “the size of a penny” when he arrived. Restoring that part of his body alone required 25 surgical procedures.
Amazingly, Rivera endured the treatment – he stopped counting the number of surgeries at 55 – with a positive spirit fully intact.
“I have a great attitude,” he said. “I’ve always had a great attitude. That’s what I think has kept me going. Also, my mother was here. And I met my wife after the accident. So that shows you not everybody sees beauty as the outside beauty.
“But it was really tough at first. I was like a baby. I couldn’t even brush my teeth. I couldn’t hold a toothbrush to brush my teeth.”
Rivera emerged from SAMMC with special needs related to his injuries. After undergoing multiple skin grafts, he can’t regulate his body temperature and needs a cool environment. His wife reminds him when he needs to drink water or wear a hat.
“Sometimes, I don’t even know if I’m getting burned,” he said. “Like, if the stove is on I can put my hand [on it] and I have no sensitivity. For me, it’s really a hardship, and when I cannot do the stuff I normally do, then my wife’s got to pick up everything. It’s simple things we’re not able to do.”
In order to keep their home cool enough during hot South Texas summers, the Riveras face enormous power bills. Wish for Our Heroes has stepped in to help with the expense.
“It’s awesome that they support military families – the great heart that they have,” Rivera said. “They know we don’t get paid a lot of money, so when we get out [of military service] we have a lot of needs that are not met, with the growing families and the salaries as they are.”
Wish for Our Heroes is dedicated to providing resources to military members, helping their families with basic needs during deployments and granting special wishes such as trips to sporting events or vacations.
Wednesday’s event helped the local chapter of the organization raise $105,000, and Gonzales believes the importance of Popovich’s presence can’t be overstated.
“To have Coach Pop involved is like having a general on the ground,” Gonzales said. “It’s extremely important. To see him caring for these soldiers is overwhelming. It’s beautiful.”
Popovich insists it is he who has gained the most from his association with the soldiers he has gotten to meet and know.
“You hear their personal stories, and they are certainly heartfelt and amazing to all of us who have not sacrificed like they have,” he said. “But what really intrigues and amazes me is the openness and the honesty that they want. They don’t want sympathy. They don’t want to hear, ‘We’ll never forget you’ and all that kind of baloney that everybody talks about, all the politicians.
“They want to talk to you. Like, ‘I was in that vehicle. I was here. That damn thing blew up and such and such. They will tell you exactly what happened, and that’s when it becomes real. You imagine yourself in that situation and you can’t … you can’t.”