Seven years later, memories linger

kjahner@newsobserver.comJuly 29, 2013 

On a night in early June, Pat Ayscue visited the Garner Veterans Memorial, as she does weekly. Suddenly, she heard a guitar playing a familiar song. A man, 20-something, was playing “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones as a friend listened.

As the solemn Ayscue approached, the man stopped and apologized. “No, it’s exactly what it’s here for,” Ayscue told him of the quiet, peaceful memorial. They got to talking, and she told them it was one of her grandson’s favorite songs. She also pointed out her grandson’s name, chiseled into one of the slabs honoring Garner residents killed at war.

Saturday marked the seventh anniversary of the death of Henry Sanchez, but the first anniversary after construction of the Garner Veterans Memorial for which he served as the catalyst, began.

Sanchez, 21 when he died, was on his second tour of Iraq when an explosive device killed him in Anbar province in Iraq on July 27, 2006. A month before, he displayed courage under fire that would eventually earn him a posthumous Bronze Star.

Sanchez had wanted to be a Marine from age 11, and often ran at Lake Benson Park to train for his calling. He achieved his dream, and told people that if he died, serving was his choice, and he knew the risks. From an early age he idolized the virtue of duty, sacrifice and service.

“He said he didn’t understand why Garner didn’t have a memorial. Everywhere he went he would want to visit memorials and pay honor to the ones who had fallen,” Ayscue said. “Now, you have it; unfortunately, he’s on it.”

The story of the dedicated, well-liked young man who always looked out for others absolutely floored the audience at the All-America City competition.

Courage Under Fire

As Iraq slid into a complex combination of civil war and insurgency in 2006, Henry Sanchez served as part of the U.S. force attempting to keep order in Ramadi. A front group for Al Qaeda in Iraq, The Islamic State of Iraq, had deemed the city its capital years before, and it became central to the insurgency. U.S. troops engaged in Operation Together Forward in early June, an attempt to curb sectarian killings in the city of nearly a half-million.

Sanchez’ Marine unit was part of that campaign. In late June he was patrolling the area when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his Humvee, which burst into flames as the fuel tank ignited. Enemy fire trapped his team in the vehicle.

Sanchez exposed himself and began firing, and silenced two enemy positions as his team escaped. By the time he ran out of ammo, the turret was his only escape. Flames left him with second-degree burns he didn’t notice until later. He left just in time; moments later grenades and rockets inside the Humvee exploded.

“Exposing himself to a high volume of fire impacting his vehicle and disregarding the intensifying flames, Sanchez remained with the vehicle to accurately engage the enemy with his machine gun,” said the award citation that would grant him a Bronze Star for his actions. Sanchez said he was happy his unit had nominated him for the award, but didn’t care if he won. He wasn’t in it for a medal.

He would never know that he won that medal. About a month later, on July 27, his Humvee with four other Marines in it ran over an explosive device during a patrol near Ramadi. He was killed instantly in the blast with two others. Another would lose a leg, and the fifth suffered a shattered ankle.

Heavy violence in Ramadi was eventually curbed, in part because local sheiks fought back with the U.S. against Al Qaeda after outrages over the insurgents’ brutal tactics. The August shift became known as the Anbar Awakening and served as a turning point in the area.

The end becomes a beginning

But the end of Sanchez’ life turned into a beginning.

“I don’t want to say Henry was the reason for the memorial, but it started because of his death,” memorial committee vice president Faye Gardner said. “Henry was kind of the impetus.”

Gardner said Sanchez’ death made the community think not just about his sacrifice, but that of many more veterans living in Garner and around the country, and emphasized that the memorial was always intended to honor them all. An ad hoc committee was called together, and various pie-in-the-sky ideas were considered.

It wasn’t until 2009, with Harold Annis entering the fray to lead the committee, that things got rolling. They finally set a budget, and had a design contest that elicited 23 entries. A panel of outside architecture experts judged the ideas. A design from Clearscapes won; it just happened that the design had been conjured up by a Garner resident, Mon Peng Yueh.

A deliberate fundraising plan was set into action, targeting civic groups, businesses and individuals to build up $200,000 before going to the community. They decided they needed $300,000 before signing papers committing to construction. Finally, with the project becoming more real, the sale of commemorative bricks and benches to be displayed at the memorial fully funded the project in May, right around the time of the dedication.

“Garner has come through with flying colors, built the equivalent of a state or national monument rather than a small-town memorial,” Ayscue said. “It’s really a town memorial, because everyone contributed in one way or another.”

‘Some extra help’

Despite her elation with the memorial, the anniversaries have not gotten easier for Ayscue. The pain doesn’t fade; in fact it “feels like yesterday.” She said he was “her world,” and said it’s probably better she’s working all weekend on the anniversary of her grandson’s death. It keeps her mind elsewhere for a bit.

The support helps and she reciprocates. She went to the hospital in Bethesda, Md. to visit those injured in the blast that killed her grandson. Stopped without clearance, she told the guard the general situation. “Henry Sanchez?” the guard said, and immediately told her where to go. “If anyone tells you anything other than where to go, tell them to call me.”

The respect for Sanchez spans state lines, as former unit members as well as high school classmates have named their child Henry since his death. She’s even taken into her home one Marine named Joseph Smelling. He works for the Wake County Sheriff’s office. It was Sanchez who took him in first, refusing to let the Louisiana native stay at the Camp Lejeune barracks alone over the holidays.

At the memorial back in June, Ayscue’s new friend with the guitar resisted her urging to return to playing the song after they chatted. He says that he goes by feel and memory, and can’t play past a certain point without a recording of the song to play along with. But he relents and he gets through the song. And his friend, according to Ayscue, said “Wow, that was good.”

“He said ‘I think I’m getting some extra help, the tune is playing in my head extra good.’ ”

Jahner: 919-829-4822

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