SALT LAKE CITY — On cold nights when he awakened in the desert and wondered, “What am I doing here?” Reza Kavoosi took comfort in the small mementos he carried in his backpack.

There were snapshots of his wife, Britney, and infant son, Ayden; a colorful beaded bracelet given to him by a streetwise Afghan boy who spoke perfect English, and a carefully folded American flag that he’d unfurled on the most remote mountaintops of Afghanistan.

“When I couldn’t sleep, I thought a lot about that flag and how much I owed the United States of America,” says Kavoosi, 24. “When things got tough, I was reminded that it was my duty to give back and follow in the footsteps of the soldiers who came before me. I knew that I owed it to them to do a good job and fight for my flag and my country.”

Now among his most treasured possessions, Kavoosi’s flag commands center attention on his bookshelf at home, along with the bracelet, snapshots and several war medals.

After three years in the Army, he is now occupied with political science studies at the University of Utah and the trials and joys of fatherhood (a second son, Harry, was born six months ago). But his war experiences are never far from his thoughts, and neither are dreams of peace in another country close to his heart: Iran.

Born and raised in an industrial Iranian province, Kavoosi was told often by his parents that if he wanted a quality education, he needed to attend college in the United States.

“America was my dream — it represented freedom and the chance to do something important with my life,” he says over a Free Lunch of grilled salmon at Al Forno’s restaurant in honor of Veterans Day on Friday. “My parents always told me there was no other country like it in the world.”

At age 15, his mother got him a passport and sent him to school in Budapest, where he experienced cultural shock, watching people dance in the streets, kiss in public and speak freely. “You couldn’t do any of that in Iran,” he says. “It took a while for me to adjust to my freedom. But once I had this new lifestyle, I knew I couldn’t go back.”

In 2006, Kavoosi was accepted as an international student at Brigham Young University, his boyhood dream of an American education finally realized. There was another surprise as well: Shortly after settling into his apartment, he met a pretty young woman while out on a walk, fell in love over the movie, “Shrek,” and got married.

A year later, when he told Britney, his wife, that he wanted to repay the United States for his good fortune by enlisting in the military for three years, she was concerned but supportive.

“I told her, ‘This country gave me the greatest gift — the gift of freedom,’ ” he says. “It was hard to leave her and my new baby son. But I felt this overwhelming need to pay something back.”

Deployed to Afghanistan with the Army’s special operations force as a Ranger and interpreter, Kavoosi worked jointly with a team of Navy Seals to help root out suspected terrorists. Numerous firefights and dangerous nights in the desert left him in a cold sweat at times, “knowing that a single bullet could take my life away and all that I loved.”

Concerned for his parents’ safety in Iran, he didn’t tell them about his military service until after he’d returned to the States and served for two more years as an Army trainer. “If anybody in Iran had known, they could have been killed,” he says. “So it was my secret.”

Now a U.S. citizen, he plans to honor all war veterans tomorrow, young and old, by flying his flag and reflecting on those who served before him.

“So many people gave their all for this country,” he says. “We should never forget the first African-American man to serve in the military, or the first woman, or the first Iranian-American. They all went through much hardship to get there. It’s because of them that I now wake up every morning to a wonderful new life.”

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to