What is our responsibility to those who serve in the military?
- For those who serve in war, it is likely that there lives are changed forever. Are we committed to helping them for the rest of their lives?
- Since the conseqences of war are so severe, should war always be a “last resort” ?
- Which is more “patriotic,”: a. to support the leadership of our country no matter what (My country right or wrong!); or b. to question our leadership to insure that our troops are not used incorrectly?
After 3 tours in Iraq, Appalachian Trail victim Ronnie Sanchez had set out to ‘find peace’ through nature
The physical injuries kept Ronnie Sanchez Jr. from moving as fast as he wanted on the Appalachian Trail, but it was the unseen wounds that almost made him quit.
After 16 years in the Army and three tours in Iraq as a combat engineer, it took the 43-year-old veteran years to emerge from a cloud of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that had kept him locked up in his house in Oklahoma City and avoiding other people.
But he did it, little by little, slow and determined, by rediscovering his love of the outdoors. He biked. He raced dragon boats. He learned how to ride horses. And in February, Sanchez decided to take on another challenge in a life full of them.
He would attempt a “thru-hike” of the Appalachian Trail — all 2,192 miles from Georgia to Maine — beginning the journey earlier than most because his pace would be slow. Of the 5,000 hikers who would register this season, Sanchez was No. 21 on the list. Partway in, problems with his knees and shoulders — the subject of repeated surgeries after years in the military — forced him off the trail for weeks. “We need a global, mobilized effort to understand where different species are and what’s happening with them.” Read More
“If you get discouraged, it’s hard to come back from that,” said hostel owner Colin Gooder, who persuaded Sanchez to take a break and work for him at his North Carolina shelter — a rest that gave Sanchez the strength to continue hiking.
Sanchez adopted the trail name “Stronghold.” And by early May, he had made it to southwestern Virginia — 545 miles into his odyssey.
Then, sometime early on the morning of May 11, a man who had frightened others along the trail with his erratic behavior allegedly invaded the camp that Sanchez and three others had set up in Wythe County. The man threatened to burn the hikers’ tents, and they decided to leave, the FBI said. But as they tried to leave the campsite, the man confronted the group with a long knife, and eventually stabbed two of them, killing Sanchez.
The suspect, James Louis Jordan, 30, of Yarmouth, Mass., was charged with murder and assault, and ordered held for a psychiatric evaluation. Sanchez’s family, friends and the hiking community were left mourning.
“His heart was really big,” said Sanchez’s ex-wife, Elizabeth Sanchez, who said she had remained good friends with him even after their separation. “He would help anybody. He was excited to get to Maine.
“It’s so devastating he died like this,” Sanchez said, “after all those deployments.”
Ronnie Sanchez Jr. (Courtesy of Colin Gooder)
Ronald Sanchez Jr. was born and raised in Garden Grove, Calif., near Anaheim, along with three brothers and one sister, his ex-wife said. He graduated from Santiago High School in 1994 and entered the Army in April 1995, Army records show. He deployed to Iraq in 2003, 2005 and 2007, the Army said, and left the service in 2011. In Iraq, he worked on bridges and construction projects and was also tasked with driving top commanders around the country, Elizabeth Sanchez said.
After he left the Army, he lived in Missouri and fell into a deep depression. His ex-wife said he spent his days sleeping and his nights watching television and playing video games. Sanchez told the Oklahoman last year that he rarely went outside and did so only late at night to avoid being around people. “I sat around and ate junk food,” he said.
But Veterans Affairs suggested that he should move to Oklahoma City, where VA administers many recreation programs for recovering vets. He began cycling, and he told the Oklahoman, “These programs at the VA just kind of opened it up for me.” He had just finished a 64-mile ride, and Elizabeth Sanchez said he also had become involved with dragon boats, in addition to the hiking he had always done with his family and his ex-wife.
Elizabeth Sanchez said that in addition to hiking the Appalachian Trail, “he really wanted to ride a bike across the U.S., to raise veteran awareness. It meant a lot to him to help veterans.”
Gooder, owner of the Gooder Grove Adventure Hostel, said he was surprised by the number of veterans he’d encounter on the trail.
“When I first started operating a hostel, there were a number of veterans that came through that were trying to heal wounds,” he said. “The trail helps them heal. Nature deserves all the credit for that.”
Sanchez was no exception. The pain was intense when he first came to the hostel, and he was not sure he could continue. But Gooder said he wouldn’t let Sanchez give up. He offered Sanchez a place to stay in exchange for helping him run the place for a few weeks.
The hostel had only three rules: “Be kind. Be kind of clean and just be,” he said.
Sanchez helped Gooder turn over rooms. He said Sanchez took meditative walks to test his legs as he recovered. Gooder taught him some tai chi techniques he had learned to help him align his knees correctly when he hiked. But there were other problems that required more time.
“He was looking to find peace because he had what we call the ‘monkey mind’ in tai chi,” Gooder said. “He couldn’t shut his brain off and the memories kept coming through.”
After a time fortifying his mind and body, Sanchez set out again.
They spoke for only a few minutes, but hiker Dawn Maxwell won’t soon forget her passing encounter with the veteran. It was Feb. 25, and Stronghold was pushing north. His build and gait signaled to Maxwell that he was ex-military. The braces on his knees told her he was suffering. And a soft smile beneath the black scruff of his mustache telegraphed the contentment of a man who had overcome.
The Appalachian Trail, near the scene of the fatal attack that happened on May 11, 2019. (Appalachian Trail Conservancy)
On that sunny, unseasonably warm winter day, he was the only person on the trail. Maxwell, a Chicago attorney known as Tinkerbell on the trail, was headed south. Sanchez was going in the other direction. When he saw her, the Army veteran moved to the side to let her pass and she stopped to talk.
“He was just a real gentleman,” Maxwell said. “I had a 15- to 20-minute conversation, and I just remember thinking it was a beautiful day and I was having the most pleasant conversation with this man.”
Sanchez confessed he was in pain. They talked about the terrain, the weather, what to expect next on the trail and shuttles he could catch to a hostel. It occurred to Maxwell to connect him to another hiker and soldier also suffering from PTSD.
“It happens all the time on the trail,” Maxwell said. “People really open up to other hikers. People get lonely out there. And I’m a real talker, and he was very open.”
Other hikers who met Sanchez along the trail were effusive in describing his compassion and kindness. They posted their remembrances on the Hiker Yearbook Facebook page, echoing memories of a man who they imagine tried to protect those around him when the group was ambushed.
“If God had asked for someone to raise their hand to volunteer and save everyone else on the trail from being hurt or killed, Ron would’ve been the guy to raise his hand,” Gooder said. “It almost makes sense that it was him. He was that selfless.”
Elizabeth Sanchez said her ex-husband was an experienced camper and calm in dangerous situations. During one trip in California, a bear wandered into their campsite, taking food and making eye contact with him. It then turned and walked away.
“He was really cautious,” she said, noting that he carried a knife but never a gun on the trail. “He felt safe out there.”
Elizabeth Sanchez said she believed the woman who was also stabbed during the incident, who survived, was a recent acquaintance who had just met Sanchez. Canadian media have described her as being from Nova Scotia.
“You can’t help but try to picture it,” she said. “I just picture him telling the guy, ‘Get out of here, just leave us alone.’ ”
The FBI said in an affidavit that Sanchez, an unidentified woman and another man and woman were in the process of packing up their campsite to escape the threatening hiker when he attacked. The man and woman fled into the woods, and the man chased them but did not catch them, the affidavit said. Then the man returned to the campsite and repeatedly stabbed Sanchez while the unidentified woman fled, the FBI alleged.
The attacker then tracked down the woman and stabbed her until she lay down and pretended to be dead, authorities said. She then fled into a neighboring county.
Local authorities said Sanchez had managed to send an SOS signal from his phone. But when sheriff’s deputies found him he was dead, with a 20-inch knife near his body. A short distance away, they found Jordan in bloody clothes.
The traumatized trail community — or the “AT tramily” — plans to gather this weekend to honor Stronghold in a vigil that will bring hundreds of hikers to Damascus, Va., for the annual Appalachian Trail Days Festival.
Matthew “Odie” Norman is a trail angel — someone who helps hikers along their way — who met the suspect in early May, gave him a ride and bought him a bus ticket to get him away from the trail. On May 15, Norman posted a black-and-white photo on his well-read “Hiker Yearbook” page of three pairs of feet he said belonged to the survivors of the attack: “They are all doing well, a little broken, but no where near defeated.”
When tragedy strikes the Appalachian Trail, it is tradition for fellow hikers to find ways to continue the journey for those who can no longer walk. Sometimes, they carry a photo of their comrade. Sometimes they take a piece of gear to the peak of a mountain as a memorial. But there is only one true way to honor an Appalachian Trail hiker, they say.
Finish the trail.
Climbing Hamburger Hill 50 years after the Vietnam War’s brutal, haunting battle
DONG AP BIA, Vietnam — We climbed the worn stairs heading steeply up the mountain into the heavy jungle. They looked like the way to some forgotten temple complex a thousand years old but had actually been built just 10 years ago to ease the ascent to Dong Ap Bia, the Crouching Beast, Hill 937 — Hamburger Hill.
It is one of the most famous battles of the long Vietnam War. It inspired a movie and congressional hearings, symbolizing for some the incredible bravery of the American infantry in Vietnam and for others the futility and waste of the war.
We weren’t climbing those stairs to settle that question, though we had others. Where exactly on this hill had the battle been fought all those years ago? On May 10, 1969, the U.S. Army’s most decorated unit, the 3rd Battalion of the 187th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, known as the Rakkasans, spent 10 days taking this hill against a deeply entrenched enemy. Every year the veterans mark the anniversary of the battle in Fort Campbell, Ky., and this year it’s the 50th.
The approach from the east side of the hill was the easy way up. This terrain didn’t play much of a role in the battle; instead, accounts of the war describe most of the 10 days of brutal combat taking place on ridges to the north and west of the hill.
The stairs were still pretty arduous, but my companion Jonas Thorsell and I had been living in the high altitudes of Ethiopia for the past few years and powered up the slope, leaving behind our guide, Van Vu, as he stopped to suck down local cigarettes.
Thorsell, a 49-year-old Swedish entrepreneur now in the electric scooter business, used to live in Vietnam and became fascinated by the old bases and battlefields of the war. He began blogging about them on his website, giving tips to those interested in returning to visit. His work has increasingly put him in touch with veterans seeking news of their former haunts, and for the 50th anniversary, he was producing a video for the Rakkasans showing the actual location of their assaults up the hill for the first time.
“It is a rediscovery, it is a journey to remember our friends who did not come home,” wrote Mike Smith, 70, who was a private first class with Delta Company’s 2nd Platoon. “No one has been able to provide the time and dedication to understand the scope and conditions of the battle in which it was waged, then find it, without Jonas.”
I’d grown up in a military family myself and was raised on such 1980s films as “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket” and, embarrassingly, “Rambo,” so I had long wanted to climb the hill myself.
For the past 20 years, veterans have been coming back to Vietnam to rediscover the places where they lived and fought so long ago. Our guide Vu has gained an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the many bases in this area between Hue and the Laotian border.
“For most of your vets, they are really emotional when revisiting the sites where they were stationed and operated,” he said, adding that some were still bitter about the war after all these years.
He said his country’s veterans are proud of their struggle and suffering, too, but that most young Vietnamese aren’t particularly interested in hearing about their sacrifices. “They are looking forward to the future and making money.”
For all his knowledge, though, Vu was also unfamiliar with the actual site of the fighting on the hill and followed our rough maps cobbled together from satellite images, veteran memories and after-action reports.
The triple canopy jungle above us was peaceful as we trudged up the stairs. The air was filled with the chirping of birds and crickets, and snakes slithered out of our way as we walked past — a far cry from the wall of sound described by the veterans of the battle.
Near the summit is a memorial in Vietnamese and English erected around the same time as the steps. In the heavy, propaganda-rich language of Vietnamese officialdom, it describes the battle as a victory for the North Vietnamese in “the resistance war against America” and how this place became an “obsession” for U.S. forces.
‘Fear and agony’
The battle for Hill 937 was kind of a high-water mark of U.S. operations in Vietnam. At the time, there were more than 500,000 U.S. troops on the ground, and this was a rare moment when the North Vietnamese forces stood and fought. By the end of the year, President Richard Nixon began his drawdown of troops, and there was a shift in emphasis to getting South Vietnamese troops ready to bear the brunt of the fighting.
In this operation, however, some 2,000 U.S. troops sought to remove the infiltration routes of enemy troops and materiel from Laos into South Vietnam around the key city of Hue and the massive air base of Danang farther south.
The Tet Offensive the year before had been particularly hard-fought around Hue, and the North Vietnamese had moved their forces from Laos into Vietnam through the A Shau Valley. The Hamburger Hill battle, part of Operation Apache Snow, was designed to wrest the valley back from the North Vietnamese, who had held it ever since a Special Forces camp in the valley was overrun in 1966.
Most people stop at the memorial, but we kept going up to the summit, where the tall trees were replaced by six-foot-high, razor-sharp elephant grass, and the temperature soared as the sun beat down on us without the protection of the tree canopy.
From there, we worked our way back down the mountain, trying to figure the paths of the American assault in reverse.
We discovered trails that led off the summit onto ridges that plunged down the hill. This was where it happened 50 years ago. These were the routes the American soldiers charged up into the teeth of an entrenched enemy protected by layers of mines and massive log bunkers that were impervious to airstrikes.
There’s little evidence left of that awful violence from half a century ago — a torn bit of fabric from an army poncho liner, holes dug around boulders that could have been fighting positions. Vu noted that in the lean years after the war, many Vietnamese dug through the old battle sites looking for scrap metal to sell. His toys growing up were old bits of war materiel.
In his granular recounting of the battle, a book titled “The Crouching Beast,” Lt. Frank Boccia, who commanded Bravo Company’s 1st Platoon, described how his company was sent up the hill on a routine reconnaissance patrol with a vague mission to look for supply dumps, then ran into an ambush in a clearing.
“Hollow booms — claymores: two dull, flat slams — RPG. AK-47, like a stabbing icicle, the sounds registered. And then a vicious, mind-freezing deep thumping, a pounding, crushing sound I’d never heard before but recognized instantly: .51 caliber machine gun. . . . Then the screaming started. Yells for help, or a medic, and inarticulate screams of fear and agony.”
The men of 4th Platoon were hit by the massed fire from several bunkers and cut to pieces. Meanwhile the men of Charlie and Delta companies, making their own way up the hill, also were thrown back — a strange moment for the Americans who weren’t used to the enemy standing and fighting.
“We began to wonder about what kind of place this was and why they were defending it,” recalled Dennis Helms, now 70, the radio man for Bravo Company’s 1st platoon. “Over the course of the battle, we made a number of assaults up the hill, and we would come back down each time because we had limited space to move in, and it seemed as if all their weapons were trained on the clearing, and we just couldn’t seem to get past that,” he said in an audio recording of his recollections.
“Every assault was a somewhat different scene but had the same outcome. It just depended on where they wanted to hit us when we first came in the clearing or got past the clearing,” Helms added. “The noise level was also so unbearable.”
Documents found on dead Vietnamese soldiers later revealed that the U.S. troops had stumbled upon North Vietnam’s 1,000-man 29th Regiment, known as the “Pride of Ho Chi Minh.”
For days they were sent back up that hill, each time thrown back — sometimes by the Vietnamese heavy machine guns, sometimes by the mines they sowed into the slopes and twice even by friendly fire, first when a fighter jet dropped a bomb too close and the second time after an attack helicopter accidentally rocketed their company headquarters.
“That broke our back that day,” Helms said. “The battle was bad enough, but having our own gunship fire us up was a hard pill to swallow — it was very demoralizing.”
Over the course of the fight, the U.S. troops faced counterattacks, called in airstrikes and tried to evacuate their wounded even as several of their helicopters were shot down. Through it all the enemy held their ground, even as nearly every bit of vegetation in the dense jungle on the summit was leveled.
Then on the 18th, yet another assault was defeated, this time by heavy rain.
“It rained hard, hard, hard. It was just a big mud bowl. You’d take a step forward and slide down four feet,” recalled Robert Harkins, now 75, then a captain and leader of Alpha Company. “There wasn’t a lot to grab on to. Most of the vegetation was gone by this time. We lost the support of all our helicopters because of the weather.”
On May 20, the much-mangled 3/187 Battalion, with help from other units, finally took the hill and mounted the summit, which by this time was a scene of near moon-like devastation.
About 70 U.S. soldiers died, and many more were wounded, with the 3/187 experiencing casualty rates of more than 50 percent in three of its four companies. Platoon leaders, the junior officers who charged into the fray with their men, were particularly hard hit. Only four out of a total of 14 made it through the battle relatively unscathed.
The U.S. troops didn’t stay long, and the hill was soon abandoned, an outcome that became the focus of congressional hearings featuring Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who called the battle “senseless and irresponsible.”
The 1987 film “Hamburger Hill,” in particular, struck an antiwar note that has long bothered the veterans, along with its historical inaccuracies.
“Had we faced the terrain shown in the movie, we’d have won the first day,” Boccia remarked bitterly once to Thorsell. “You’d think they’d have gotten something right by accident.”
“No girls, no hot tubs, no trucks. The movie was crap and did not relate to a real 3/187th soldier in the A Shau Valley that I experienced,” Smith agreed in an email.
For those who fought in it, the battle wasn’t about holding ground but about taking back control of a supply route that had been in the hands of the enemy for years.
“I believe we did what we were sent to do. We were to open up the valley; we opened up the valley. We were to kill the NVA; we killed as many of the NVA as we could. The hill had no tactical or strategic purpose other than the NVA were on the hill,” Harkins recalled. More than 600 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers are estimated to have died in the fight.
‘Unselfish acts of bravery’
The central valley remained clear of North Vietnamese for several months afterward, until the United States began drawing down its forces.
Smith, one of the veterans, said he recalls his time in Vietnam every day. For him, what made the battle such a definitive moment were “the unselfish acts of bravery exhibited by so many soldiers, not to earn any awards but to take care of each other, help each other survive, and still continue the battle. “
Thorsell, Vu and I finally made our way back up the steep trail to the summit that took the Rakkasans 10 days to seize, and then we slowly made our way back down those worn steps off the mountain, our legs rubbery from the long day of climbing.
As we stepped back into our car, a small party of Montagnard tribesmen, the indigenous people of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, came down the mountain behind us. They had probably been trapping small animals in the forest, Vu explained.
Fifty years after the battle, Hamburger Hill, now at peace, belongs to them.