MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Army 1st Lt. Chris Roberto walked into the Mahopac firehouse Friday evening thinking he was just going to pay a visit to some of his fellow volunteer firefighters.
But, suddenly, the lights came on and cheers erupted: “Welcome home!”
Roberto was greeted by about 100 friends and family members at a surprise party welcoming him back after a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.
Roberto, 25, has public service in his DNA. The Mahopac High Class of 2010 and West Point graduate is not just a member of the U.S. Army, he has been a member of the Mahopac Volunteer Fire Department since high school. Firematics runs in his family. His grandfather joined the fire department in 1962; his dad, Vinnie (who also served in the armed forces), joined in ’65; his Uncle Charlie is with the FDNY.
And while firefighting is certainly in his blood, right now Roberto’s fidelity is with the Army where he is part of the 101st Airborne Division (the Screaming Eagles) and stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky.
“I always knew I wanted to be in the Army,” Roberto said. “But my dad said if I was going to do it, go in as an officer. What better way to do it [than by going to West Point]?”
Roberto described his time in Afghanistan as “definitely different.”
“I had never left the country before,” he said. “But being surrounded by my soldiers every day was an amazing experience. We accomplished a lot of things.”
At the party, well-wishers queued up as if in a wedding reception line to greet Roberto and wish him well before his leave ends and he must return to Fort Campbell. One of the biggest surprises for Roberto was the appearance of Austin Welch, his best friend and roommate of two years at West Point.
Welch remembers a time while they were roommates when he got his first indication that Roberto had the heart of a serviceman.
“We were sitting in our room on the fifth floor when we heard a loud crash,” he recalled. “A guy had gone over the handlebars of his bike and was seriously injured. Chris was gone in an instant and down the five flights of stairs before I could even move. I was just sitting there and he was already doing first aid. The guy had a really traumatic injury and who knows what would have happened if Chris hadn’t been there. And he’s incredibly humble; he wanted no credit for that.”
“I made him a hockey fan,” his dad said. “I took him to his first Rangers game when he was about 9 years old. He was so excited he couldn’t eat. But I made him eat something and then on the way home he threw up in the car.
“But he’s very competitive,” he added. “He has no quit in him. If you went in the backyard to play catch with him, he would want to do it all day long.”
Clarissa Zamora, Roberto’s girlfriend of four-and-a-half years, put the party together with the help of some friends. The two met while they were in high school and became fast friends even though Roberto was a jock and Zamora a self-described “nerd.”
“We were both in the fire department together and that brought us closer together,” Zamora said.
She described Roberto as being “kind, patient and generous.”
“He is always willing to teach and he’s not quick to judge or reprimand,” she said.
Mahopac Fire Chief Bill Bahr has known Roberto for 15 years and said he’s been a dedicated fire department volunteer, even while serving in the Army.
“I met him when his dad would bring him around the firehouse as a kid,” Bahr said. “He’s been a great fireman. Any break from the Army, he’d be here. His gear is always on the rack and whenever he’d come home he would respond to calls. He will make a great leader here if he wants once his [Army] career is over.”
Roberto’s mother, Bernadette, said that just like any mom, she was terrified during her son’s deployment to Afghanistan.
“It was awful; beyond awful,” she said.
But now that he’s back home, she said, the pressure has been lifted.
“Now, I’m beyond proud,” she said with a laugh.
She described her son as being “very funny with a wonderful personality.”
“I can’t really say a bad thing about him,” she said. “If he wants to have a career in the military, I’m fine with that. Whatever is meant to be is meant to be.”
Roberto, who has about two-and-half years left in his Army commitment, said re-upping is a possibility but at this point, he has not made up his mind.
“It’s too soon to tell,” he said. “I have really enjoyed my time there and I’m trained to be ready for whatever comes my way.”
When the time comes, if he does decide to leave the Army and find work in the civilian world, Roberto says he has some options.
“Maybe I’ll have a career in firefighting,” he said with a grin.