After 10 years or so of performing reconnaissance missions in the Marines, Roger D. Sparks told his wife that he wanted to do something a little more family friendly, a job that would allow him to be home more.
So Sparks switched from the Marines to the Air Force with plans on joining an elite group of pararescue jumpers, or PJs, the Air Force equivalent to Navy SEALS.
“He knew he wanted to join the PJs,” said his wife, Jennifer Sparks. “He said it would be safer, coming in after the action.”
“Safer,” Jennifer acknowledges, was not the case in November 2010 when her husband got caught up in a firefight during a rescue mission in Afghanistan’s Watapur Valley. Four men died but Sparks and Capt. Koaalii Bailey were able to continue the fight against the enemy and save four men. For his actions, Sparks was recently awarded a Silver Star at a ceremony at Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
“I thought we had three seconds to live,” Sparks said in an interview after the ceremony, describing their 40-foot descent from the helicopter.
Sparks and Bailey took over command of the fight for “six intense hours,” Air Guard Maj. Conroy, commander of the Alaska Air National Guard 212th Rescue Squadron, told the audience at the ceremony.
Sparks’ citation reads: “Despite continued enemy fire and with no concern for his personal safety, Sergeant Sparks immediately performed lifesaving measures for nine wounded soldiers. He feverishly triaged chest wounds, punctured lungs, shattered hips, fist-sized blast holes, eviscerated stomachs and arterial bleeders with limited medical supplies and only the light of the moon.”
Jennifer and their two boys attended the ceremony as did Sparks’ parents, Roger and Ann Sparks of Watauga.
“It was a great honor,” said Ann Sparks. “We’ve always been so proud of him and this lets everyone else know why.”
Sparks, 40, was born in Fort Worth and grew up in Watauga, attending Watauga Elementary, Watauga Middle and Haltom High schools.
“He always liked to challenge himself,” his mother, Ann Sparks said.
He didn’t get involved in team sports, she said, opting instead to participate in BMX racing — “we’ve got a box full of trophies in the garage” — and on occasion raced mini-bikes.
“He was competitive; he won a mini-bike race with a bike with a flat tire,” Ann Sparks said.
During the late 1980s, he and his buddies spent a lot of his time hanging out at Kyle’s Bike & Mower Shop in Haltom City.
“Yeah, he and the other kids in the neighborhood rode their bikes back behind here,” said Joe Kyle, who opened his shop in 1983. “They built all sorts of jumps back there.”
He remembers Sparks as a “tall and skinny kid, who was polite as can be and very determined.”
Kyle said if Sparks got banged or scratched up riding — and falling off — his bike, “he was still always out there.”
“I’m real proud of the kid,” Kyle said. “Real excited for him.”
‘College wasn‘t in the picture’
During his senior year at Haltom High, Sparks met Jennifer Layman.
“They went to prom together and graduated together,” said Ann Sparks.
After graduating in 1992, he joined the Marines, because Ann said, “financially, college wasn’t in the picture.”
During basic training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Jennifer said she and Roger kept in touch, writing letters.
“That was before cellphones or Skype,” she said.
After he completed boot camp he had to do some additional training and the young couple decided to get married.
After getting his orders, he came home, got married “and we moved to Hawaii,” Jennifer said.
Jennifer said they lived mostly in Hawaii and California in those early years and her husband was gone a lot doing recon missions. One night when he was home he picked out the name of their first child, Orion.
“He was outside and pointed to Orion’s Belt and said ‘I think this is a great name,’ ” Jennifer recalled. “I’m not going to be around a lot and I can look up at the belt and think of him.”
Jennifer said her sister came across the name of their second child, Ozric, which means “fair and just ruler.”
“And I can tell you he rules our house,” Jennifer said.
‘He’s a great guy’
Ozric has cerebral palsy, a disorder that developed when he was four months old.
The family had just moved to Fort Walton Beach, Fla., where Sparks was stationed after joining the Air Force, when Ozric was found in his crib by his grandfather, who also goes by Roger Sparks.
He was not breathing as the elder Sparks carried the infant downstairs.
Because they didn’t yet have a phone, Jennifer ran next door to call 911.
Sparks, who had recently finished paramedic training as part of his new job as a PJ, immediately began performing CPR. Because he had gone so long without oxygen, Ozric suffered brain damage.
“We’re not sure what happened, but the doctor told us if we hadn’t found him that he would have been labeled a SID,” Jennifer said.
The Sparks now live in Eagle River, just outside of Anchorage, a place that Jennifer describes as the kind of town “that Keller used to be.”
They plan to stay in Alaska for at least two more years so Orion can finish high school. After that, “we’ll see what happens.”
“And Ozric, he’s a great guy, an active little guy,” Jennifer said.
Her husband deployed earlier this week to Africa, and Jennifer is hopeful that his two months away pass quickly — and safely.
She recalled when he called her after the mission for which he received the Silver Star.
“He called me as soon as he could and he’s always been really good about that,” Jennifer said. “But nobody wants to get that phone call. It was really hard to hear some of the things he went through.”
A little while later, while looking at the jacket her husband was wearing during the mission, she said she was struck at just how close of a call he endured.
“I’m looking at these bullet holes and saying, how did these bullet holes go through your jacket and not you?”
The four years since have not always been easy, but the ceremony was a great way to honor her husband and those who died or were injured during what is known as Operation Bulldog Bite.
“We waited for awhile,” she said on the honor.
“But it was great to see because his mom and dad were able to come and it was special because the boys got to be a part of it. This is a once-in-a lifetime thing.”