There were moments when he was going through the rigors of basic training, and later as a tank gunner on the front lines in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm that Odessa’s John Alvarez admits wondering aloud, “what was I thinking when I enlisted in the (U.S.) Army?”

But there were never any doubts about Alvarez’s patriotism and commitment as a freedom fighter.

“I always knew I wanted to be part of something that was bigger than myself,” said Alvarez, who now serves as the City of Odessa’s Fire Chief. “I’m truly proud to be an American.

“Serving our great nation was an honor and privilege for me.”

Today, Alvarez, along with millions of other Americans will be celebrating Independence Day, which commemorates the passage of the Declaration of Independence of the United States on July 4, 1776.

“To me, the Fourth of July is a day that we recognize our fallen veterans who lost their lives fighting for our freedom – freedom that we all take for granted sometimes,” Alvarez said. “Patriotism still lives today, by what we know and have learned from our past.”

Alvarez, who was born and raised in the small town of Kermit, enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was only 17.

Alvarez’s first battle was convincing his mother and father to grant him permission.

“My parents didn’t have an education and couldn’t afford to send me to college,” said Alvarez, who graduated from high school in 1987. “I knew I wanted to do something, but I didn’t have any direction. I just knew that if I was going to accomplish anything I needed to get out of Kermit.

Odessa Fire Rescue Fire Chief John Alvarez poses for a photo Friday afternoon at OFR’s Central Station. (Eli Hartman|Odessa American)

“My dad understood my goal. I really had to talk my mom into it. She was hesitant, because I was the ‘baby’ in our family.”

After a lot persistence – and begging – Alvarez’s mother finally relented and granted her son permission to enlist.

He was among 60 recruits who were initially sent to Georgia for basic training and then assigned to Fort Riley in North Central Kansas. After that the entire group was deployed to West Germany before being sent to fight in Operation Desert Shield and Storm.

Alvarez’s group was the Army’s last “cohort unit,” which describes a group of soldiers who are kept together from basic training through combat. The practice has since been discontinued.

Alvarez and his unit were featured in the George C. Wilson-authored book Mud Soldiers, which chronicled the history of the cohort’s units.

The once indecisive, directionless Alvarez, quickly rose through the military ranks. After only 2 years he earned the rank of Sgt. E5 and became a squad leader.

During combat he served on the front line as a gunner on a Bradley fighter vehicle. His squad’s job was to clear a path for the second wave of fighters.

“It was the best experience of my life,” says Alvarez of his role as squad leader. As the leader, every decision he made affected the lives and welfare of his team.

“(Former U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell once said, ‘when you’re a leader and you’re hungry, never show it; if you’re tired, never show it; if you’re scared, never show it.

“That always stuck in my head. If you show those things, your troop will pick up on it and start having doubts. You have to lead by example.”

After serving in the military for 4 1/2 years, Alvarez re-entered the civilian world and snagged a job with Odessa Fire Rescue. Taking advantage of a G.I. Bill, over the years he’s managed to obtain an Associate’s Degree in Fire Technology, a Bachelors Degree in Emergency Fire Rescue and a Masters Degree in Public Administration.

During his military tenure he received numerous awards and commendations, including the National Service Medal, Liberation of Kuwait Medal and South West Asia Service Medal.

Alvarez is quick to point out that America is far from perfect – racism still flourishes, bi-partisan political bickering – still weighs this country down.

“It’s a country that’s gone through many trials and tribulations,” Alvarez said. “But veterans have helped make it possible to keep making America better.

“We live in a great nation, and in order to continue to be a great nation we need to be good persons and be more tolerant of each other.”