Los Lunas native injured in Texas parade

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A Los Lunas native and Afghanistan war veteran is recovering in a Midland, Texas, hospital this week, after the parade float he and his wife were riding on was struck by a train — reported to be traveling at more than 60 mph — last Thursday.

Courtesy of Richard and Heather Sanchez: Los Lunas natives Richard and Heather Sanchez are seen here at a Denver Broncos football game in September. Last Thursday, a float the couple was riding on was struck by a train in Midland, Texas. Richard pushed Heather to safety, but suffered a broken back and possible paralysis.

During a phone interview on Tuesday morning, Heather Sanchez, 29, said her husband, U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Richard Sanchez, was in better spirits, despite a broken back and the fact that he may end up paralyzed.

A picture taken by Heather on Monday shows Richard, 31, in a hospital gown and white plastic brace, sitting up with assistance in a hospital bed, smiling.

Heather said they are waiting to hear from doctors if Richard will regain full use of his legs. The break in his back is at the lumbar No. 5 vertebrae, Heather said, and the bone is about two inches “out of alignment.”

She said there is a possibility that Richard may be transported to the University of Denver Hospital for treatment, but they are still waiting to hear from the facility.

“This has been the worst year of our life,” said the mother of three.

On May 11, Richard, a 13-year veteran, was shot in the arm while in Afghanistan on his third tour of duty overseas. The arm had to be rebuilt, and Richard was awarded a Purple Heart.

His best friend was also shot in the same incident, and Heather says Richard had to watch him die on the battle field.

Then in September, Richard’s mother died.

“And now this,” Heather said. “It’s a lot.”

Richard and Heather were on the second of two floats that were transporting veterans and their spouses for a weekend event called “Show of Support Hunt for Heroes.” They were the second couple from the front of the flat bed trailer, Heather said.

“We didn’t know anything, until we looked to the right,” she said. “We saw the train coming, and the (railroad) guards (arms) coming down hit Richard. He told me to jump and pushed me out of the way.”

Heather says other passengers on the float were screaming, telling the driver he needed to move.

On the ground, Heather looked back, expecting to see her husband of almost 10 years right behind her.

Instead, he was several feet away, crumpled and still.

“I actually thought he was dead,” Heather said. “He was crumpled up, not responding.”

Richard finally responded to the sound of her voice and as he gained awareness, all his military training kicked in, Heather said.

“He knew he was hurt and told us not to move him — he knew his back might be broken,” she said. “He was trying to calm me down.”

All told, the crash killed four veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and injured 16 other people, both veterans and their spouses.

Heather said the show of support from the Midland community has been “so gracious and kind. The organizers of Show of Support, we don’t blame them what so ever. They have been going above and beyond to help.”

And while the good folks in Texas are doing everything they can, people here in Valencia County are also stepping up and lending a helping hand.

Four former classmates of Richard’s have created a Facebook page, “Let’s help an LL soldier and classmate Richard Sanchez,” to give periodic updates on Richard’s condition and to let the public know about fundraising efforts.

One of the creators and fellow member of the Los Lunas High School Class of 1999, Crystal Romero-Carter, said after the crash, classmates and friends immediately began asking what could be done to help Richard and Heather, a 2001 LLHS grad.

“We decided the easiest way would be to set up an account at a nationwide bank so people could donate, and his sister could transfer the money to them immediately,” Romero-Carter said.

Anyone wishing to help can visit any Wells Fargo and ask for the “Valerie Sanchez for Richard Sanchez Recovery” account and make a deposit.

Romero-Carter said several people are trying to coordinate other fundraising activities, such as a dinner and dance or a garage sale, to continue raising money for the couple’s expenses.

“This is a tri-state effort,” she said. “They are in Texas, they live in Colorado and their kids are here in New Mexico with family. I’m sure there’s going to have to be a lot of traveling and just day-to-day bills to be paid.”

Richard and Heather live in Fort Carson, Colo., and have three children, Caleb, 10; Alexa, 8, and Ava, 5.

Romero-Carter said she remembers Richard as a genuinely nice, friendly guy in high school.

“He talked to everyone,” she said. “And I always picture him in his football jersey.”

Richard played football and wrestled for the Tigers.

His sister, Valerie, said Richard could walk into a room full of strangers “and come out with 50 friends and their life stories.”

Richard joined the Army right out of high school, Valerie said, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

It was when he was home for a weekend a few years into his service that he met Heather, who was a friend and classmate of Valerie’s.

“I was a senior and went to a party of Valerie’s,” Heather remembered. “Richard and I started talking, and it was love at first sight.”

After the trauma of having her older brother shot in Afghanistan and then losing their mother, Valerie said the weekend excursion to Texas seemed very ordinary.

“This was something you just don’t expect. When people go to Iraq or Afghanistan, you know something can happen. They can be hurt or not come back at all,” she said. “When Heather called, this was something you never expect. It was just very surreal.”

When Heather heard about the fundraising and support coming from her and Richard’s hometown, she said it was a “little overwhelming. I didn’t realize people cared that much about us. This is what a small town is all about — caring.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.