When Daniel Rodriguez talked to students at the Dorman Freshman Campus Wednesday afternoon about his time in uniform, he didn’t mean the helmet and shoulder pads he wears as a Clemson receiver.
Rodriguez, a veteran of the United States Army, was the school’s guest speaker for a pre-Veterans Day program called “Honoring Our Veterans.”
The 24-year-old told students — only 10 years his junior — that it felt like only yesterday he was a freshman in high school. But a decade of life-changing experiences suggested otherwise.
Rodriguez, a Virginia native, enlisted in the Army at 18 years old, shortly after the sudden death of his father. After basic training, he completed a 15-month deployment to Iraq. He later was deployed for another tour in Afghanistan.
Rodriguez told students about his role in the battle of Kamdesh on Oct. 3, 2009, when 300 Taliban members attacked an outpost of American troops. Eight Americans were killed in the battle, and 22, including Rodriguez, were injured.
Rodriguez, who achieved the rank of staff sergeant, told students about feeling the pangs of rocks on his ankles as they popped from ground as bullets fell. He spoke about watching his friends fall from injuries, just feet away from him.
Rodriguez was shot through the shoulder and had shrapnel in his neck.
“It’s crazy that I’m still living and here today,” he said.
For his service, Rodriguez earned a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Medal with valor device.
He told students that his service in the Army taught him the importance of fulfilling dreams and of chasing a passion. For him, that passion was becoming a better person when he returned home. It was going to college and playing football. Rodriguez said he feels that passion every time he runs down the hill at Clemson and onto the football field.
“I wanted there to be a reason for why I didn’t take that bullet,” Rodriguez said, referring to his comrades who lost their lives in battle. “... They would turn in their grave if I became nothing.”
He encouraged students to find something that drives them to be better and to stop at nothing to achieve it.
“Have a passion about you for what you want to do with your life and go out and get it,” he said.
Students gave Rodriguez a rousing standing ovation.
“He made his life into a positive,” said freshman and Clemson fan Skhye Rowe, 14. “He’s a good example for us.”
Principal Mark Smith reminded students that the sacrifices by Rodriguez and the other veterans seated in the school’s gymnasium shouldn’t be taken for granted. The day after Election Day, Smith encouraged students to think about the freedoms they enjoy as Americans.
“He really brought freedom and sacrifice home to our kids,” Smith said.