By Kayla Clark
Red, white and blue bunting adorned the backs of the chairs as the Vietnam War veterans and the spouses of deceased Vietnam War veterans spouses walked in and took their seats. The room was filled with active-duty service members in uniform and community members from the Navy base, who listened to the powerful stories of those who have served. Each veteran was presented with a certificate of honor, lapel pin and genuine words of appreciation, thanking them for their service on behalf of a grateful nation.
This beautiful scene comes from the recent Vietnam Veterans Commemoration hosted by Naval Station Rota, Spain, in partnership with the Retired Activities Office, the base Chapel, Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) and the USO. And the driving force behind it – behind the immense undertaking of honoring and connecting local veterans with the current active-duty community – was Mrs. Patricia “Pat” Rios.
Pat grew up as a military brat, and service is all she’s ever known. She was the first of six children, a daughter of a Naval officer and pilot. Throughout her young adult years, Pat obtained multiple academic degrees and went on to teach third grade in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It was there, in a city with a strong military community, that Pat felt called to officially join the military and serve herself.
In 1974, Pat officially joined the Navy by pursuing Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Newport, Rhode Island. She attended the very first combined class of men and women at the school as the Navy prepared to integrate women into non-traditional areas of service. This was an incredible and memorable feat in both her career and in military history.
After joining the Navy, Pat’s first duty station was Naval Station Rota, Spain, which forever held a piece of her heart. She spent the next twenty years of her Navy career in a variety of different functions to include protocol, human resources, instruction, housing, curriculum development, fuel and port visit support to the Sixth Fleet. Through it all, she always knew she’d make it back to Spain and to the special community that held such a special place in her heart.
Pat retired from the Naval District in Washington, DC, and immediately felt compelled to move back to Spain with her family. And so, in 2012, Pat and her family returned to Rota, and she has dedicated her life to helping the local military community there ever since.
Not only does Pat serve as the president of the Retired Activities Office on Naval Station Rota, acting as both ombudsman and liaison for the local retirees with the base command and other government agencies, but she has also continued to volunteer for other key base organizations and programs. This has included everything from knitting blankets for babies through the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society to ultimately assisting with the conception of the USO Rota center.
Since the opening of the center back in November 2017, Pat has been a key USO volunteer, helping to forge a partnership between the Retired Activities Office and the USO and linking the retiree community with active-duty service members and their families. Some of the most notable programs include the annual Vietnam Veterans Commemoration, as well as the Memorial Day Ceremony and 24-Hour Remembrance Walk. In addition, Pat, along with former USO Center Manager DeAnna Pazdyk, conceived the idea behind Operation Cookie Drop, baking and delivering over 2,000 cookies each year to service members on duty on Christmas Eve and Day.
Because of Pat’s selfless commitment to giving back and taking care of our military, over 3,000 service members received warm holiday wishes and a delivery of baked goods from the USO during the holidays.
“I volunteer to participate in Operation Cookie Drop because I too have been a watch stander over the Christmas holidays several times during my Navy career,” Pat said. “I can empathize with the sentiments of those who have been assigned the duty on the key days of Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. It can be lonely. It can make you sad. It can make you feel far from home. But having watch is important, too.”
“I participate in Operation Cookie Drop each year because I feel that having someone like the USO Elves drop by unexpectedly with some cheerful music, home baked goodies and happy Christmas wishes might bring a smile or two and brighten someone’s day.”
It’s clear to everyone at Naval Station Rota that Pat is one of the true driving forces behind service, sacrifice and community. She has a heart of gold and a graceful, yet commanding, presence. Pat is always seeking out new ways to honor military retirees, connecting them with the Rota community, as well as find ways to educate the military youth. She’s creative, well-spoken and emanates an air of authenticity, professionalism and kindness.
Not only is Pat a huge asset to the Rota community, but she is also an invaluable asset to USO Rota. It is because of her that some of the most impactful key annual USO programs exist, and as active-duty USO staff and volunteers filter in and out of Rota on their tours overseas, Pat remains a constant force behind continuing that legacy of service.
When asked why she chooses to continue giving back and serving as a volunteer with the USO, her answer was simple and full of the joy she brings to the military community around her:
“I found the USO to be a fully encompassing venue of support because it is vibrant, active, fun, compassionate and involved,” Pat said. “And its volunteers have touched every unit at Rota in some way to boost morale and inspire happiness for service members and their families.”
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