Local veteran continues his fight to walk

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An injured Los Lunas veteran is working tirelessly to literally get his feet back under him.

Submitted photo: U.S. Army Sgt. Richard Sanchez is hooked up to a machine doctors at use at the Craig Hospital to measure which muscles are working. Today, Sanchez can walk short distances using forearm crutches.

After a train hit the float he and his wife were riding on last November, U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Richard Sanchez, a 1999 graduate of Los Lunas High School, found himself lying in a crumpled heap on the ground, unable to move his legs.

One of the vertebrae in his lower back was broken in the crash — a collision between the flatbed trailer the couple was on and a Union Pacific train in Midland, Texas, last fall.

Sanchez and his wife of nearly 10 years, Heather, were on the second of two floats that were transporting veterans and their spouses for a weekend event called the Show of Support Hunt for Heroes. They were the second couple from the front of the flatbed trailer, Heather said.

“We didn’t know anything, until we looked to the right,” Heather said. “We saw the train coming and the guards 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 right behind her. Instead, he was several feet away, crumpled and still.

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

Not dead, but seriously injured, Sanchez was eventually transported to the Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., in November to undergo intensive rehabilitation treatments.

Now, eight months after the accident, Sanchez says he spends most of his time in a wheelchair, but is working to change that.

“I’ve advanced to being able to walk with forearm crutches for a short distance, short a time,” Sanchez said.

He will go to Craig hospital for the last time this week, then continue therapy at Ft. Carson, Colo., where the couple makes their home.

“I will continue walking with two crutches,” he said. “The goal is to get to one crutch, then to a cane and then hopefully out of the wheelchair. What they also look at is trying to minimize the pain in my back.”

For most people, walking probably seems like a fairly simple activity — one foot in front of the other. But for Sanchez, he has to learn to shift his weight from one leg to the other and build up muscle endurance so he can lift his legs.

“And I have to work on bracing my legs properly, so I don’t mess myself up in the long term,” he said.

Because of a previous gunshot wound to his arm, Sanchez said he and his physical therapist had to work out how to use the crutches to avoid body alignment problems.

The train crash in Midland occurred six months to the day after Sanchez was shot in the arm while in Afghanistan on his third tour of duty. The arm had to be rebuilt, and Sanchez was awarded a Purple Heart.

In that same incident, Sanchez’s watched his best friend die on the battlefield.

As for his future career with the Army, Sanchez is determined to serve out his last six years. He has gone before a medical board and been found medically unfit for duty.

While he has begun his out-processing, Sanchez also has filed for a continuation to remain on active duty.

“They can look at keeping a service member on special duty, some kind of non-deployable position,” he said. “I am working with injured soldiers now and I’m pushing to continue doing that.

“It’s a slow transition back to civilian life and I can make sure they have proper medical care, help get them into school. It’s still a leadership role. Somebody has to do it and I wouldn’t mind it being me.”

While he waits to hear if he will be assigned to special duty, Sanchez said he continues working on his recovery and raising his children with Heather.

“We’re just keeping family life normal,” he said.

Richard and Heather have three children, Caleb, 10; Alexa, 8, and Ava, 5.

The crash that injured Sanchez killed four veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and injured 16 other people, both veterans and their spouses.

After the crash, the Sanchezes and several other families hired Manhattan, Kan., attorney Bob Pottroff.

There is no doubt in his mine, Pottroff says, the crash in Midland could have been prevented.

“Over a decade-and-a-half ago, what we should have learned is that a 20-second warning time is not adequate for big vehicles. That’s why the standards for the industry increased to 30 seconds,” Pottroff said. “For some reason, on that day in Texas, the time had slid back to 20 seconds.”

The lawsuit is moving forward, but Sanchez said he is “ready for it to be over.”


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