On October 22, 2011, United States Marine Sgt. Jose Luis Sanchez stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) while out on patrol with allied forces in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The blast destroyed his left leg, which was amputated below the knee, and left his right leg permanently injured.
Sanchez was shipped stateside to recover at the Brooke Army Medical Center’s Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Texas, the sergeant’s hometown. Four and a half years later, he’s going to run the 120th Boston Marathon. The para-athlete, who ran his first marathon just last October at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., will be running with Team Semper Fi for the Semper Fi Fund — an organization whose sole purpose is to “provide immediate financial assistance and lifetime support to post-9/11 wounded, critically ill and injured members of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, and their families.”
Sanchez doesn’t expect Monday’s marathon to be easy, but he knows the struggle will be worth it. After all, he’s just a kid who joined the Marines straight out of high school on a whim. Now he gets to show the people of Boston, and the world, how we can make ourselves whole again after tragedy.
You joined the U.S. Marine Corps right after graduating?
Yeah, it was a last-minute decision. I was a pretty good athlete in high school. My senior year, I was aiming for 1,000 rushing yards, but then I hurt my foot. Then I thought, “Fuck no one’s gonna want me.” That was my thing, to rush 1,000 yards and go from there. So I decided to get out, especially since staying in that area, all we did was drink and do drugs. I couldn’t stay there. I ended up joining the Marines. It took three or four months, and then I was shipped off to basic training in San Diego.
You said it was last-minute. What’d your parents think?
It came out of nowhere. It was May, and we were graduating in three weeks. I went and talked to the recruiter, took the tests and signed up, but my parents didn’t even know it. So when I told them I’d signed up, they were stunned. “What?” They didn’t know what to say. My mom started crying and my dad was just quiet, but they supported me. Before that I’d always been the troublemaker, but when I actually graduated I saw how proud they were of my accomplishments — getting my diploma, becoming a Marine.
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Does your family have a history of military enrollment?
No, sir. I’m the first. I’m also the first person in my family ever to go to college. My mom immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, though she’s originally from Guatemala. She couldn’t speak English and didn’t have a high school education when she came over, but she worked day in and day out for us. She did everything she could to support us while I was going to school. And at the end of the day, she earned her American citizenship. As for the Marines, I just joined up because of my own shit. Putting it all together, it’s easy to see that we did what we had to do to survive. But I definitely get my strength from her, too.
Tell me about Afghanistan 2011.
This was my second war. My first war was Iraq, Ramadi in 2006. That was the “wild west.” Everyday, no shit things were going off. Small arms fire, suicide vehicles, RPGs (rocket-propelled grenade), mortars, IEDs, getting shot at — everyday was tough. It wasn’t like, “Hey, man. You’re gonna die!” But it was just a matter of time before you got it. It was the roll of the dice, and something that we all had to suppress in order to go out and do our jobs. Once I was gone on a convoy, and the next group on the same convoy got hit with RPGs and lost a couple of the vehicles and a few personnel. People died, and I was like, “Fuck I was just on that thing!” It was crazy.
In 2011, I went to Afghanistan to work with the British. We went to different AOs, or areas of operation, looking for fights. The U.S. Marines and the Brits also teamed up with the ANA, the Afghan National Army, to lead them on patrols and show them the ropes. If anything were to happen, we were able to give them the ground and air support they needed. It was so different from Iraq in that way, because we had to go looking for the fights. And when I got injured, it was about two weeks before I was scheduled to return home…
Yeah, it was a routine patrol with the ANA. They didn’t want to go out, so we went out to show them that it was necessary even though everyone was fucking scared. We led by example and went out on patrol that day. And it was that roll of the dice, and I got hit. I stepped on that IED. It blindsided my like a linebacker coming out of nowhere. I heard ringing, saw nothing but smoke and fog, and picked up my M4 thinking, “Oh shit I got hit! Something happened!” Then I thought we were under attack, which meant there’d be small arms fire and a followup. I remembered everything I’d experienced in Iraq and tried to assess the situation. Figure out where the fire is coming from, check whether or not everyone else around me was good, and so on.
When the smoke cleared, no one was around. There was no followup, no small arms fire, no other IEDs. I looked down and saw that I was covered in blood. I thought, “Fuck, man. I got hit!” I was so disappointed. It was like losing a game you’d put everything into, your best, and still lost at the end. I felt like I’d let my Marines down. That I hadn’t trained hard enough. Just feeling bad.
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It’s telling that your first reaction was to make sure everyone was okay and to assess the situation. And when you realized what had happened, you felt like you’d let everyone down.
When you get hit, you still gotta fight. If you’re able to move and you can still function, you still gotta fight. So after the smoke cleared, my first reaction was anger. I was angry because it felt like I’d let my Marines down. I’m supposed to be lead by example, but how was this going to be an example for them? I just felt bad. I kept replaying that moment when the IED hit me, wondering if I could have avoided it with more training or more of something else. I obsessed more and more about it, hoping I could go back in time to alter my future.
Once your were recovering stateside, did these feelings motivate you to start training?
Well, I’ve always been a physical guy. I always tried to motivate others, like my Marines. I’d push them as much as I could, encouraging them to always go after it. Even after a long patrol in Afghanistan, I was the guy who’d say, “Let’s go workout. Let’s do push-ups. Let’s do squats.” I was always that type of guy. Going to the gym, taking groups on long runs, doing PT. When I got hurt, those were the things I wanted to do. I was optimistic because when I was injured, I could still move one leg and the other was still there. And even after I lost the leg, I just wanted to start training again.
What I didn’t expect was all the mental and spiritual shit that hit me. All these feelings were flooding my mind and my heart, feelings I’d never known before. Anger, depression, sadness, and anxiety all at once. I didn’t understand it. I refused to eat — except for gummy bear candies. I just wasn’t hungry. I felt distant, I didn’t want to do anything. It was so foreign to me, these feelings, and that’s when the real internal battle began. I started pushing people away and shutting everything down. My right leg was weak. I could barely walk. I couldn’t even stand up longer than a few seconds. All of this made me feel so weak, and the anger bubbled over like a pot of hot water. So I used it all, all the energy from these feelings, to push myself out of the wheelchair and train so that I could walk again.
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You’ve posted several before-and-after photos and videos on social media, demonstrating the transformation you’ve undergone since 2011. It’s an amazing thing to see.
It wasn’t until 2015 that I really started pushing myself. I felt like I needed to give back. It was therapeutic for me, but it also felt like a way I could give back. But it was a slow process, because I was afraid of my injuries and what people would think about them when they saw them. My leg, my prosthetic — I always wore sweat pants when I worked out. The first thing I did online was a video in which I mentioned I was a wounded veteran. That was it. Mentioning it was the first step. The second step was rolling up my pant leg and revealing it to everyone. I was afraid people were going to be assholes, but I knew with social media that I could just turn that all off. But people were positive and supportive, and one thing led to another. It’s been one year since I published that first post.
Here I am today, just doing my thing. Except now I’m sharing my journey. In the past, I did it for myself just to prove that I could do it, but now I’m trying to prove it to others. To push through those boundaries and show them how hard and painful it is, but that persistence will still come out on top. I feel like that’s how I’m able to give back.
That, and doing these races. You’re doing the Boston Marathon, but you did the Marine Corps Marathon this past October. What was that experience like?
It was my first marathon ever. I was just so motivated by everyone else’s love and support. My mind was like, “Yeah, man. You can fucking do it! Fucking push it! Fuck yeah, just do it.” I went in knee-deep and did it. I’d never done a Marine Corps Marathon before, and the only thing that got me through it was the energy of everyone there, especially the people who helped me finish. That thing broke me. I had a fracture in my leg and busted my knee. I was out for two months and had to revert to the wheelchair. But the biggest thing was the fear, the fear that brings lots of people down who think they just can’t do it. I just wanted to do it to prove a point. That everyone’s afraid and that’s okay. So I did it, and I thought I’d never do a marathon again. Yet here I am going to Boston. It hit me in January or February, and I just felt that I had to run the Boston Marathon. I wanted to run the race and support the bombing survivors, to show them that life goes on and all you have to do is just push through it.
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So it was the Boston Marathon bombings that motivated you to run this year’s race?
We go out there to fight for everyone back home, and then something like that happened back home. It sucks. So I just want to show everyone that those kinds of things can’t beat us. They just make us stronger. But I’m not a role model, man. I’m just trying to show how much the human spirit can endure and how far you can push your body if you put your mind to it.
Well whether you want it or not, a lot of people are about to cheer you on as a role model on Monday.
That’s the only thing that’s going to get me through this run. You can’t do this alone. You need that love and support to get you through everything. When I was first recovering after Afghanistan, I had people who were there for me, but I pushed them away. But I knew they were still there for me, and a little bit goes a long way. I remember that. So I went back to everybody and apologized for pushing them away. That helped me get through it then, and now I know I need everyone else’s help to do something like this. You can only go so far alone.
What do your parents think about your running the Boston Marathon?
They’re old school. They’re older parents. They don’t really watch a lot of television. As for the things I’m doing now, they tell me, “That’s good! Be positive. We’re glad to hear that.” They know, but they don’t know. They just want me to be safe and come home safe.