August 11, 2013 Updated: August 11, 2013 at 8:07 pm
The week was supposed to be a relaxing one, full of hunting for him and pampering for her.
A charity had chosen Sgt. 1st Class Richard Sanchez and his wife to attend an all-expenses-paid getaway to Midland, Texas, for wounded warriors and their spouses. It was supposed to take their minds off living with an injury. Sanchez was recovering at Fort Carson’s Warrior Transition Battalion for ill and injured soldiers after being shot in the right arm by an Afghan soldier during a “green on blue incident” in Kandahar last year.
Instead, the Texas getaway would land Sanchez in the hospital yet again, with his stay at the Warrior Transition Battalion extended indefinitely.
Parade turns tragic
On Nov. 15, Sanchez, his wife and 22 other veterans and wives were riding on the back of a flatbed truck from their hotel in Midland to a nearby banquet the charity was hosting in their honor.
"The banquet is where they link you up with the ranchers you'll go hunting with, I guess. I never made it there," Sanchez said.
The citizens of Midland had lined the parade route and were waving to those on Sanchez's truck and another one ahead of it.
"We were waving back, and there were kids along the street," he said. "It was a really good feeling. It was nice to know there were that many people in one town to show that much support for veterans."
The truck ahead crossed a railroad track and was turning onto another street. The participants on the two floats were smiling and waving at each other when the warning signals at the railroad crossing went off. Sanchez doesn't remember much after that.
Someone seated behind him yelled, "Train!" A crossing arm lowered on his chest.
"That's when I told my wife to get off and gave her a shove," he said.
Then the train hit.
"I remember getting tossed," he said. The back of the truck hit him.
"After that, I went blank."
When Sanchez came to, his wife was at his side. He performed a quick self-assessment, a skill he'd picked up during Army training.
He could speak. He could breathe. He wasn't bleeding.
But his back was broken.
More than a dozen other parade participants were injured, and four others - all veterans - were dead.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that the truck entered the railroad crossing after the warning signals sounded, and that the signals gave the required 20-second warning. The driver did not face charges.
Recovery comes in stages
Sanchez was rushed into surgery at a nearby hospital.
When he awoke, he was numb from his waist down. He realized he may never walk again.
But after a two-week hospital stay, things were looking up.
"I woke up one morning, and I was able to flex my quad," he said. "I woke up another day and I was able to curl my left toe and slowly kick my foot."
Sanchez was transferred to Denver's Craig Hospital, which specializes in brain and spinal cord injuries. He stayed there for two months, determined to regain some sense of normalcy.
"I was going to continue doing what I was doing in a wheelchair, or I was going to walk again and continue doing what I was doing walking," he said.
When Sanchez was discharged, he was using a wheelchair. Soon after, he was walking with forearm crutches.
These days, Sanchez gets around in a wheelchair or by using the crutches, depending on the day's schedule.
He recently started physical therapy at Fort Carson five times a week. He hopes to soon progress to walking with a crutch.
He also recently resumed occupational therapy at Fort Carson for the arm injury he suffered in Afghanistan. He's waiting for surgery at the Air Force Academy this fall that might restore additional function to his arm.
His goal: get discharged from the Warrior Transition Battalion and reassigned to it as cadre so he can assist other soldiers in their road to recovery.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't get down at all," he said. "There are some times when I wonder how come I'm taking the brunt of stuff. But I have a lot of family and friends who don't let me stay there long. I have a great support system to help pull me back up."
Sanchez said his wife struggles with minor back and knee pain from the fall off the float. Her biggest issue, he said, is coming to grips with the dead and injured she saw on scene.
"Soldiers have issues when they come back from war after seeing stuff like that," he said. "It's never something you want your spouse to have to see as well."