As a homeless kid, Idaho Army National Guard Capt. Adam Rios broke into an abandoned building in Utica, New York, where he found an old cigar box. Inside the box were various small bars with different colored stripes on one side and pin clasps on the other. One particular pin caught his eye. It had two adjacent bars like railroad tracks. Thinking it was cool, Rios affixed the pin to his hat, which he wore for a while after.
“Years later, I was already in the military, walking down a hall and came across that same looking pin on an Army poster,” said Rios. “The pin was a captain’s rank. In that box I had found someone’s old military awards and rank and thought ‘wow, that’s what I was wearing 10 years ago and now it’s come back to me full circle.’”
Rios grew up on the streets where he was in trouble with the law, ate what he could steal and slept where he could find shelter. At that time he could not imagine making it to his 20th birthday, let alone one day serving in the military.
Today, Rios is a 39-year-old captain in the Idaho Army National Guard where he serves as the commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team. He works fulltime as a security officer for the Idaho National Laboratory’s Naval Reactors Facility and lives in Shelley, Idaho, with his wife and four children.
The path to get there was not always easy, however, Rios credits each of his experiences to the man he has become.
“The military was the smartest thing I could have done,” said Rios. “It changed me from a little hoodlum, to someone who could take charge of my life, pay my own bills and go to school.”
In the beginning
Before he was homeless and joined the military, Rios was a troubled kid from a poor family. His addict father was abusive and his mother was depressed. When his parents divorced, Rios stayed in Utica with his father while his two sisters went to live with their mom in Pocatello, Idaho.
When his father abandoned him, Rios tried to survive as an eleven-year-old alone on the dangerous streets of New York. From a large Puerto Rican family, he sometimes had a warm couch of a distant family member to sleep on.
Eventually, one of his aunts called the state’s protective services and Rios was put into foster care. His foster parents taught him about life and being honest, he said. It was the first time he had a positive parental influence.
“They loved me, took care of me and provided me with the information I needed to become a good person,” said Rios. “It didn’t set in right away and I wasn’t a perfect kid overnight, but everything they taught me had some impact on my life later down the road.”
Within a few years he moved back with his father who had cleaned up, yet Rios could not escape his own familiar past. Continuing to get into trouble, he finally decided to leave New York and all its negative influences.
At 19 years old, Rios went to visit his mother and sisters who were still living in Idaho. He never left. The next year he enlisted into the Idaho Army National Guard as a 82C field artillery surveyor, now called a 13T.
However, he did not join for the service to his country or even the money, he said, but instead because his step-father told him only strong people could handle such a challenge. The challenge was more difficult than Rios predicted and he barely made it through his first year in the military.
“I thought I was the man,” said Rios. “I had a huge attitude and felt entitled. Nobody could tell me nothing. I thought I knew everything and they knew nothing. Basic training was a horrible experience, along with my first years in the military.”
It was not until he deployed to Iraq with the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team in 2004 that his life and perspective changed. There Rios found himself surrounded by fellow Soldiers who were scared to death, he said, because they had never been deployed before.
A defining moment
“I grew up in hell,” said Rios. “In a place where my life was already threatened so I was not at all intimidated by the deployment like many others seemed to be.”
There to train the Kurdish Army, he felt comfort working alongside the people who he identified with because of their similar misfortune and poverty he suffered while growing up.
One day while disposing of food waste at a local dump site consisting of holes dug out of the sand, his team saw a mother and two young children emerge from one of the holes. As they began scavenging the garbage for food scraps, he thought how fortunate he was in comparison.
“I thought then that I hadn’t gone through anything,” said Rios. “As horrible as my upbringing was, I am not living in a hole in a dump. That deployment shaped my life and that’s when I knew I wanted to help people and be in the military forever.”
Rios reevaluated his life upon returning home from deployment and considered how fortunate he was to have the benefits and opportunities the military provides him.
Rios decided he could help people by becoming a counselor. He enrolled at the Idaho State University where he earned a bachelor’s in sociology and later worked as the program director for Tueller Counseling agency until taking his job at the Idaho National Laboratory.
“Although I didn’t join originally for the right reasons, I came to appreciate my choice later in life,” said Rios. “The military paid for my schooling, provided my with the VA loan I used for the house I live in and is preparing me for my future retirement.”
With college complete, Rios turned in his staff sergeant rank and commissioned as second lieutenant through the Idaho Army National Guard’s accelerated Officer Candidate School program in 2009. A year later he completed Basic Officer Leaders Course as a 13A field artillery officer.
A changed man
“I wanted to lead and do the best good I could,” said Rios.
In 2010, he deployed again with the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team, however, this time as a first lieutenant responsible for the safety of his Soldiers.
“I had to take care of myself since the age of nine,” said Rios. “But, that was nothing compared to the pressure I felt as a brand new lieutenant responsible to bring everyone home alive.”
During the deployment he gained leadership experience as a new officer and commander of a security detail responsible for escorting VIPs throughout Iraq. It was a steep learning curve, he said, sometimes learning lessons the hard way but in the end his unit returned home without a single fatality.
“The lessons I experienced early in my officer career shaped what kind of leader I wanted to be,” said Rios. “My command today and desire to see Soldiers succeed is a direct result of that deployment.”
Rios took command of HHC, 1-116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team in April 2018 and has since worked diligently to improve unit readiness and the morale of its Soldiers. He has done so by implementing programs such as “Return 2 Readiness” that focuses on Soldier fitness and health through counseling and training.
“My background helps me understand we all have lots of experiences that make us who we are,” said Rios. “Sometimes people need a chance to make the right choices. My foster parents took the time on me when I really wasn’t deserving and it turned out positive. I try to emulate that and lead from an honest place, hopefully imparting something on my Soldiers that will help them succeed.”
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