Retired Ranger challenges local students to become heroes for a day

The Western News | November 13, 2020 7:00 AM

When he joined the Army, retired Lt. Colonel Dr. Robert Sanchez found that many people misconstrued his reasons for signing up.

Raised by a single mother in a family of four, Sanchez said those who met him assumed he took his commission because he had no other options.

“There’s a perception … and I call it a misperception, that if you can’t do anything else, you can always join the service,” said Sanchez. “I think absolutely the opposite is true.”

After completing Army ROTC at Boise State University, Sanchez said he signed up largely for patriotic reasons.

Throughout his 24-year career, Sanchez served as an intelligence officer, a commanding officer and an Army Ranger in deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. While speaking at a Veterans Day event broadcast by Troy Public Schools on Nov. 11, he regaled students, teachers and locals with stories of his time in the military.

During his first tour in Iraq in March of 2003, Sanchez parachuted into the northern region of the country with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. About 1,000 paratroopers jumped from 19 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft as part of an operation to divert Iraqi troops from Baghdad and open up a second front.

After accomplishing this mission, Sanchez took part in an assault on Kirkuk, Iraq. Several years later, he returned for a second tour to train Iraqi Army personnel and law officers.

The first time Sanchez came under fire, however, he was still years out from his first deployment. During a morning training exercise at Fort Bragg, N.C. in October 1995, a lone gunman, Sgt. William J. Kreutzer, opened fire on a field full of 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers. At the time, Sanchez was a captain in the 1st Battalion, 325th Infantry Regiment.

“As those gunshots rang out… guys on the left and right of me were getting shot and they fell down,” he said. “In that moment, …. in a fraction of a second, you make a decision.”

Acting on instinct, Sanchez began dragging his wounded comrades behind cover. During the chaos, he came across Maj. Stephen Badger, who was kneeling and suffering from a head injury. After checking on Badger’s condition, Sanchez said he tried to rush Kreutzer with a group of paratroopers.

“When figured out we weren’t going to get close to this guy, I went back to [Badger], and [Badger] was dead,” Sanchez said. “When we think about moments like that, even an Army Ranger, you’re not sure how you’re going to respond.”

Throughout his tours of duty, Sanchez said the significance of leading his troops — or “America’s sons and daughters” as he referred to them — was never lost on him.

“For every soldier in my command, I knew there was a family attached to them, that there was a mother or father that was praying every day for the safety and welfare of their son or daughter,” he said.

Sanchez said the most challenging task he had to undertake during his career was serving as an escort officer for his fallen soldiers.

Despite his years of service, Sanchez said he does not consider himself a hero.

“In the military, we didn’t think of ourselves as heroes,” he said. “We used words like duty and selfless service and courage and honor because those were all central to the job that we did.”

Providing an example of who is considered to be a hero, Sanchez told the story of an 11-year-old girl he met at a refugee camp in Afghanistan.

Following a Taliban attack on her village, in which the rest of her family was killed, she walked for nearly three days to reach the camp. After arriving, she recognized some of the insurgents involved in the attack hiding among the refugees and warned Sanchez and other American troops stationed in the area.

During one of the coldest winters on record in the camp, Sanchez remembers her giving up her coat, blankets and what little food and water she had left to her fellow refugees. On one occasion she led Sanchez and a group of soldiers to a village over mine-laden terrain.

“Her actions reminded me that being a hero doesn’t depend on a physical stature or how tall you are or how smart you are,” he said. “It depends on how giving you are.”

After the Rangers left the camp, Sanchez said Taliban fighters executed the girl.

Recalling her heroism, he asked students to draw inspiration from her story. Everyday acts of kindness, like community volunteer work, raking the yard of a neighbor sicken with COVID-19 or showing appreciation of firefighters and police officers could be considered heroic, he said.

“People are hurting right now, veterans are hurting,” Sanchez said. “We all need each other right now and I challenge you to find a way to be a hero today.”