By REID TUCKER
The story of Joe Rios’ life reads like a movie script, except it’s real; it really happened just like he said it did.
He has the scars to prove it.
Rios, 54, who served in the Army Special Forces from 1975 to 1988, shrugs off his combat duty in the jungles of Nicaragua and El Salvador with a dismissive smirk. He said he “had to dodge some lead a couple times,” though he is quick to point out that sometimes he “didn’t dodge so well.”
When a parachute malfunction sent him plummeting to earth, crushing three vertebrae and leaving him paralyzed for 18 months, Rios said it was a “good opportunity to do some reading.” He’s had multiple corrective surgeries over the years, including reconstructive shoulder surgery just five weeks prior to sitting down for the interview that led to this article.
Even growing up was a struggle for Rios. He spent his childhood in Jersey City, N.J., surviving the rages of his physically abusive father. The only thing he’ll say about it was that it was “challenging experience” that made him hate bullying more than just about anything else.
Rios said it was his introduction to the martial arts at a young age that helped him through the tough times, with the self-reliance and self-discipline learned during his days in the karate dojo helped him channel his anger into a positive direction. The mental fortitude and physical skills instilled by his training even saved his life on more than one occasion during his career in the Army. Rios also established his own martial style as the culmination of 45 years of dedication to perfecting the art.
Now, thanks to outreach from an old friend and pupil, Walton Academy Principal Steve Ruder, Rios is going to share his knowledge with at-risk students in DeFuniak Springs. It’s all part of what he said is his life’s mission: paying it forward.
As I progressed in the martial arts and experienced things in the military it really launched a whole different attitude in me,” Rios said. “I began to think about what my purpose really was. It’s all about paying it forward and staying positive. I’m not about to embrace negativity or dignify ignorance, never mind crying the blues about whatever issues you may have in your life. You’ve got to move forward.”
The two men met when Ruder was a university student living in Scranton, Pa. They at first bonded over martial arts, as Ruder himself had just begun studying kempo karate, but it was the life lessons about perseverance and respect imparted by Rios after training sessions that would ultimately stick with Ruder for years to come. After eventually going their separate ways, Ruder was unable to locate Rios for nearly 20 years before eventually tracked him down to Tucson, Ariz., via Facebook in 2009. Since then, the two have been brainstorming over the phone and online about ways to impact at-risk teens that attend Walton Academy.
Finally, thanks to a grant from the Tobacco Prevention Coalition, their plans have begun to come to fruition. Rios’ plan involves the construction of a smaller (and obviously less-dangerous) version of a Special Forces obstacle course on the Academy’s campus as part of what he calls the “Team SPARTAN Initiative….”
Read the full story in the Aug. 9, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.