Category Archives: NCO News

Ex-NCO comes up short in welterweight boxing main event


By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

Sammy Vasquez Jr. entered the ring Thursday night for a nationally televised welterweight boxing match, believing it was a bout he couldn’t afford to lose.

The only problem? His opponent felt the same way.

Vasquez, a former sergeant with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, suffered the second loss of his career when he was knocked out in the sixth round by Luis Collazo. The fight was the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card at the Horseshoe Tunica Hotel and Casino in Tunica, Mississippi.

Vasquez (21-2) entered the fight coming off the first setback of his career, a unanimous decision loss to Felix Diaz in July. Collazo was Vasquez’s original opponent in that summer tilt before an injury in training camp made way for Diaz. Vasquez remained eager to eventually face the battle-tested Collazo in order to salvage his top-15 ranking in boxing’s premier division.

But Collazo (37-7) had plans of his own. The veteran southpaw hadn’t fought since a July 2015 loss to WBA welterweight champion Keith Thurman. The long layoff gave many experts reason to write off the 35-year-old. He knew he had a weapon in his repertoire that could prove otherwise.

“I knew his big punch was the right hook,” Vasquez told reporters after the fight. “I was working on keeping my hand up to block it. I dropped it at the wrong time, and he got me.”

Collazo first connected with the punch in Round 3, sending Vasquez to the canvas. He then deftly lured the Iraq War veteran into the knockout blow in the sixth round.

“In the locker room, my team was telling me that he’s going to be waiting for it,” Collazo said. “We wanted to touch him soft down low and then go up top. We opened him up. We both tried to line up the hook, and mine landed first.”

Vasquez controlled the action early, using his movement and jab to nullify Collazo’s aggressive approach. But Collazo found his target in Round 3, resulting in the knockdown. Vasquez regained his legs in the fourth round, peppering Collazo with a flurry of punches that opened a cut above his right eye. Action slowed down in Round 5 as Vasquez resumed keeping Collazo at bay with his movement, seemingly clawing his way back into the fight.

But it all came to a violent end in Round 6.

Though disappointed with the result, Vasquez also approached the setback with a different perspective. He previously stated that he has been in the biggest fight of his life. Vasquez deployed twice to Iraq with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in 2005-’06 and in 2008-’09. He carries the hidden scars of war. Last year, Vasquez revealed he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He attends weekly sessions with a counselor and sees a psychiatrist regularly. Vasquez said his progress is bolstered by the physical outlet boxing provides.

After his second consecutive loss, Vasquez knows he will have an arduous task ahead of him to climb up the welterweight rankings again. But — as he did last summer — he is willing to make the trek back.

“Obviously this is going to set me back,” he said. “I need to come back stronger. I hope that I can come back and fight someone that can help me move up the ranks.”

 

 

Former NCO looks to get back on track in boxing’s welterweight division


By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

It would have been easy for Sammy Vasquez Jr. to take a step back.

After suffering his first professional loss and a health scare last summer, the budding welterweight boxing star could have set his sights on an opponent of a lesser caliber in order to get back into the win column. But Vasquez, a former sergeant in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, knows only one direction to move — forward.

“Boxers now, if they lose a fight, they take a step back,” Vasquez said during a recent telephone interview. “They fight mediocre guys just to get back on a win streak. I don’t have time for that. I want to fight the best guy out there. I don’t care who. Just throw me in against someone.”

That someone will be veteran Luis Collazo. Vasquez (21-1-0, 15 knockouts) faces the former WBA welterweight champion Thursday in the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card at the Horseshoe Tunica Hotel and Casino in Tunica, Mississippi. The fight will be broadcast live on Fox Sports 1.

Collazo (36-7, 2 KOs) will arrive in Mississippi with a solid résumé. Most of the losses on his record have come at the hands of world champions, including his most recent fight in July 2015 against Keith Thurman, the current WBA title holder. The veteran southpaw presents a formidable challenge in Vasquez’s quest to bounce back. But the former sergeant’s preparation, which he says has been bolstered by the removal of a tumor and a trio of parathyroid glands in his throat, is also aided by a bit of familiarity.

Vasquez was scheduled to fight Collazo in July before an injury forced the New York-based fighter to bow out. Vasquez was forced to adjust to a new opponent in Felix Diaz, an Olympic gold medalist for the Dominican Republic who gave Vasquez fits when the pair squared off at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama. Diaz’s fast hands and sprightly footwork nullified Vasquez’s game plan. Though Vasquez offers no excuses for his unanimous-decision loss, he does concede his health was a factor in the fight. The tumor gave him elevated levels of calcium and caused his Vitamin D levels to dip. He developed kidney stones. The surgery to have the tumor removed was scheduled two days after the fight. Despite that, he pushed forward.

“I didn’t tell anybody on my team about the tumor,” Vasquez said. “I kept that to myself because I didn’t want anybody to take the fight away from me. Diaz is a very tough fighter, a competitive fighter. The things that I wanted to do, I couldn’t do. My feet felt like they were in quicksand.”

Like a good NCO, Vasquez said he adjusted. He led Diaz around the ring, hoping the smaller fighter would tire from the number of punches he was throwing. Vasquez bided his time until the ninth round when he unleashed a flurry of punches that momentarily stunned Diaz. But it wasn’t enough.

“I just couldn’t close the deal,” Vasquez said. “I was just too physically exhausted.”

Vasquez didn’t have much time to dwell on the loss before his surgery 48 hours later. He says being surrounded by a solid support team including his coach, retired Staff Sgt. Charles Leverette, a former All-Army champion and the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program head boxing coach, made the healing process easier.

“They were there through the whole process,” Vasquez said. “Everything, through the fight, after the fight, they were there giving me positive vibes. The people that you really know are there for you when you’re at your worst or your best. It touched me. But at the same time, I don’t dwell on the past. I just get ready for the future.”

The immediate future brings an opponent who will be no pushover. Collazo is historically an aggressive fighter who tries to back fighters down, willing to eat shots to deliver some of his own. But Vasquez says he is prepared for any contingency the crafty veteran will bring.

“I have to stay on my toes, box him,” Vasquez said. “He’s always a come-forward guy. He takes a good shot and keeps coming and coming. We worked on a lot of game plans. I’m very excited about this fight. It will definitely test where I’m at in this game.”

A win against the battle-tested Collazo puts Vasquez back in the conversation among the upper echelon of the stacked welterweight division, his manager said.

“Sammy Vasquez Jr. is a warrior. He has the character to go forward,” said Garry Jonas, CEO of Probox Management, in an interview with BoxRec.com. “This opportunity against Collazo will be Sammy’s return to the big fights. He is at the best level and will soon be challenging boxers like Danny Garcia, Keith Thurman, Errol Spence Jr. and the best out there at welterweight.

“We do not want to make any excuses about his defeat in the last fight. I just want to say that we are convinced that this year Sammy Vasquez Jr. will return to the big fights. Sammy is a pro. He prepares for each fight with determination and that is what will stamp his name again with the big fights.”

The label of pro is one Vasquez has previously said he honed during his time with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. The Monessen, Pennsylvania, native deployed with the National Guard in 2005-’06 and in 2008-’09. His first deployment took him to Camp Habbaniyah, Iraq, where firefights were a typical part of the day during missions that took Soldiers from the base near Fallujah to the outskirts of Ramadi. Vasquez’s second deployment saw him split time between Fallujah and Taji.

Upon his return, Vasquez turned to the sport he had been a part of since he was 9 years old. He parlayed his boxing skills into a gold medal at the 2010 All-Army Championships in the 152-pound division and an invitation to join the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program at Fort Carson, Colorado. After his time in the Army, Vasquez quickly ascended the welterweight ranks, collecting the World Boxing Council Central American Boxing Federation, or WBC/FECARBOX, title along the way.

During his rise, Vasquez quietly dealt with the hidden scars of war. Before his fight against Aaron Martinez in January 2016, Vasquez revealed he had been living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Vasquez credits his wife, DelRae, with helping him carry the burdens and urging him to get help. He still goes to weekly sessions with a counselor and sees a psychiatrist regularly, which has calmed his anxiety. He continues to urge fellow veterans and Soldiers to seek help if life is proving difficult.

“The things that I’ve been through in my life are tough,” Vasquez said. “But everybody goes through problems. My message is there’s always help out there no matter what situation you’re going through. There are always people to talk to, there’s always someone to confide in. I would definitely take advantage of that. I think that’s the biggest problem for a lot of veterans. A lot of us are so thick-headed, we don’t feel that we ever have a problem or we ever need to talk to somebody. I really hope that people can start reaching out and start talking about their issues or problems with someone who can help them find a better avenue to get through tough situations.”

For Vasquez, the next tough situation arrives in one day, and he intends to show that he is ready to fight his way forward.

“It was a good thing I lost that fight (against Diaz) because I think that a lot of people were ducking me,” he said. “I was undefeated, an up-and-comer and had a lot of hype around me. So a lot of guys were afraid to fight me. Now that I lost, it’s ‘Oh this kid’s beatable.’ So hopefully now I’ll get an opportunity to fight names. Fighting somebody and beating somebody like Collazo I think is a great reputable name for me, especially after taking my first loss.”

Watch it

  • What: Sammy Vasquez Jr. (21-1, 15 knockouts) vs. Luis Collazo (36-7, 19 KOs) in welterweight fight.
  • When, where: 8 p.m. EST Thursday, Horseshoe Tunica Hotel and Casino, Tunica, Mississippi.
  • On TV: Fox Sports 1.
  • Of note: Vasquez is a former sergeant with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He deployed to Iraq twice during an eight-year career. The fight is the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card. The undercard includes a welterweight fight between Yordenis Ugas (17-3, 8 KOs) and Levan Ghvamichava (17-2-1, 13 KOs); and a junior welterweight bout between Ryan Karl (13-0, 9 KOs) and Eddie Ramirez (15-0, 10 KOs).

Get help

If you think you are suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, there are ways to get help:

 

NCOs discuss Army warfighting challenges at professional development session


By MARY B. GRIMES
CECOM Public Affairs

With an eye on 2017 and beyond, Command Sgt. Maj. Matthew D. McCoy, U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, wrapped up 2016 by hosting a professional development presentation for the Command, Control, Communications, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or C4ISR, community.

Open to military and civilian members of the DOD workforce, the professional development session titled, “The Future of Combat; the Army Operating Concept and the Army War Fighting Challenges,” was held at the Mallette Training Facility and addressed a myriad of issues significant to the Army’s number one priority: readiness.

“While this session is designed to be CECOM specific, we wanted to open it up to the greater APG and C4ISR community,” McCoy said. “The purpose of this session was to inform our own workforce on the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s process of developing future Army capabilities. What this is not, is a discussion about the acquisition process and reform. It is not a deep discussion about multi-domain battle, and it’s not a discussion about the transition. It’s an introductory opening to the Army Operating Concept, the Army Warfighting challenges and the future design of combat.”

Those challenges, from Southwest Asia to Europe, make clear the need for a strong and effective force that is capable of employing the complete range of potential operations. Toward that end, Army officials say TRADOC Pam 525-31-1, “U.S. Army Operating Concept: Win in a Complex World,” is a key document in the Army concept framework, and outlines how the Army will employ forces and capabilities in complex environments against increasingly capable opponents. The Army operating concept also describes the Army’s contribution to globally integrated operations, and speaks to the need for Army forces to provide foundational capabilities for the joint force and to project power across land and from land into the air, maritime, space and cyberspace domains.

Joining in the discussion via video teleconference, keynote speaker Army Capabilities Integration Center Command Sgt. Maj. Stephen J. Travers, thanked the CECOM command sergeant major for organizing the session, and went on to provide a brief overview of the TRADOC mission.

“TRADOC is a design-build form, and we’re the design portion of that, Travers said. “It starts with a concept. Every single Army command has its purpose, and we interact as TRADOC’s future force, but we’re also an extension of the Army’s staff. TRADOC is a team of professionals from all different walks of life, all different backgrounds, to help design our future force.”

Also chiming in on the exchange, Soldiers from across C4ISR, Integrated Logistics Support Center, and the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, generated conversations that touched on such topics as gaps between new equipment and training, achieving physical and mental capabilities over adversaries, one-Army integration (multi-component fight), collaboration between centers of excellence; future force development, what winning really means, and the ability to define the winning conditions more clearly.

That future force, as Army leaders continue to point out, will have to confront a number of new strategic realities. Laying the groundwork for further discussion, McCoy said, “The Army operating concept has changed in how it defines our future challenges. What it says is that the future is unknown and even more so, it is unknowable. The Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Mark A. Milley, has made it clear that the number one priority of the total Army is readiness, and there are no other number ones. That readiness is individual. It’s collective. It’s at the unit level that feeds our nation’s strategic readiness. Readiness is all linked to our daily operations and that helps us prepare for the future of combat in our complex world.”

The professional development session drawing to an end, McCoy said, “As we leave here today, let’s keep in mind these things: the Army is fundamentally designed for a specific purpose — to deter aggression and to fight and win when called upon. Our Army warfighting challenges are operational-needs based. They are concepts that have to be addressed to win. If they were all easy, they wouldn’t be challenges. Readiness is our number one priority. That’s how we accomplish the mission that our nation has given us … and that mission is to win. We have to win in a complex world.”

Army’s top recruiter draws inspiration from troubled past


By DON WAGNER
Army News Service

For Staff Sgt. Ernie Nieves, the Army’s top recruiter for fiscal year 2016, being a recruiter is the perfect opportunity to give back to the community.

“I treat every applicant like they are family, like my own children,” he said. “My job gives me a platform to mentor, teach and motivate them to do better for themselves and those around them.”

In fiscal year 2016 his recruiting efforts resulted in 50 enlistments. But in his free time, Nieves also mentors high-risk kids from the urban streets of Chicago. Nieves estimates he has mentored about 24 kids since 1992, but he’s not keeping score.

On weekdays, weekends and evenings, he mentors kids in schools, in their home, and in parks — anywhere and everywhere he can. All kids need some form of mentoring, he believes.

With each new generation, kids seem to him further detached from core values, self worth and overall motivation. Nieves tells his kids not to accept or engage in the violence they are exposed to on the streets. He tells them that there is a better life.

“I never give up on people,” Nieves said. “Gang and gun violence is not normal. [Violence] is not and should not be accepted. A true hero inspires change, one life at a time.”

He believes that many kids who join gangs do so because they lack role models, financial resources, or stable families. For many of them, the gang lifestyle is all they know.

Reaching out

Nieves still remembers when the ice cream trucks would come around the neighborhoods; the gang leaders would buy ice cream for all the kids in hopes of recruiting them. They made the kids feel protected, like they belonged to something much greater than themselves.

Before mentoring directly to the youths, Nieves said, he would meet with gang leaders to request that they release the youths. The meetings actually surprised some leaders, who responded positively. But as the years have passed, Nieves has found this approach is becoming more difficult.

“Most of the leaders do not have any sense of tradition, respect or value for anything or anyone,” Nieves said.

On the other side, Nieves said, he has mentored kids whose parents are barely involved in their kids’ lives.

The last protégé he mentored was homeless only six months ago. Now that recruit is in Army basic training.

Drawing on a troubled past

Nieves believes his blended family and his own experiences as a gang-involved youth allow him to relate to the youths he helps. The Puerto Rico-born NCO moved to Chicago at age 5. Several years later, his parents divorced and his father left.

“This left a huge void in my life, and I was left to fill that void with the only example of family and fatherhood I knew, the local gang members,” Nieves said.

At 9, Nieves joined a gang. Two years later, he said, gang members betrayed him and stabbed him with an ice pick in his knee. So he joined an opposing gang to which several of his family members already belonged. He claims that he became gang president at age 13.

During his years in a gang, Nieves said, he was shot on three separate occasions. The first time, he was shot in the leg during a gunfight with an older man from an opposing gang. The second occurred after an ambush, when he was shot in the arm as he tried to run into a house.

“The entire house was shot up. Bullet holes through the door and windows,” Nieves recalled.

On the third occasion, he was hit in the foot by a ricocheting round.

At age 16, Nieves had a son, and he began having dreams of being shot while in a vehicle. In his dreams, the rounds would go through him and hit his son in the back seat. He decided it was time to leave the gang life behind.

“It was then that I decided that this was no life for my son,” he recalled. “I had to give him more.”

Nieves graduated from Chicago’s Wells Community Academy high school in 1990. After years of self-employment in real estate, he enlisted in the Army at age 31 in 2004. He joined the Army Reserve so he could stay close to his children.

Integrity

Today, Nieves considers integrity the most important Army value.

“You must be able to do what you ask others to do and, finally, you have to care about those you lead,” he said. “I admire people that inspire without seeking personal attention — everyone that makes a difference in the lives of those around them.”

Nieves loves the city of Chicago and said his “heart hurts with the lack of life-changing programs.”

“People here are very unique,” he said. “Unfortunately, Chicago still remains somewhat segregated racially.”

He heads a blended family household with eight children. He and his wife, a retired Chicago police officer, have two sons in the active Army. One is stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and the other is a Ranger stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. Both are serving in military intelligence.

Nieves plans to retire in about 10 years. After retirement, he said, he plans to mentor full-time. Currently, he is researching ways to create an interactive mentorship program that can serve as a template for anyone who wants to become a mentor.

“I want to have a mentorship program in every major inner city throughout the country,” he said. “I want to light a fire in as many people as possible to inspire change, one person at a time.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley pins the Army Commendation Medal on Staff Sgt. Ernie Nieves while meeting Soldiers serving in the Chicago Recruiting Battalion on Nov. 12, 2016. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Chuck Burden)
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley pins the Army Commendation Medal on Staff Sgt. Ernie Nieves while meeting Soldiers serving in the Chicago Recruiting Battalion on Nov. 12, 2016. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Chuck Burden)

WCAP NCO named to Impact25 list of women who have made a difference


By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

It’s been a momentous year for Sgt. Elizabeth Marks.

The combat medic and U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program swimmer spent the summer garnering international headlines for a grand gesture while winning four gold medals in swimming at the Invictus Games. That led to an appearance at the ESPYs, the awards show that recognizes sports’ highest achievements, to receive the Pat Tillman Award for Service. She followed that up by smashing a world record and winning two medals during her first trip to the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The list of hardware is already impressive. But it received another addition earlier this week.

Marks was named to the ESPN Women’s Impact25 Athletes and Influencers list Tuesday. The list highlights the top 25 women who made the greatest impact in sports and the societies in which they live. Marks joined names such as Simone Biles, the Olympic gymnastics gold medalist who was also the magazine’s Woman of the Year; Kathryn Smith, the National Football League’s first female full-time coach; and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee.

“It’s extremely special to even be mentioned,” Marks said on Twitter about being an Impact25 nominee.

Her unveiling as an honoree was marked by an essay written by Prince Harry. The British royal was at the center of the moment that opened the world’s eyes to Marks.

In May, she made international headlines for her gesture at the Invictus Games in Orlando, Florida.

Marks was decorated with her fourth gold medal at the Games by Prince Harry, who created the competition, an international Paralympic-style, multi-sport event, which allows wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel and veterans to compete. After he placed the medal around Marks’ neck, the 26-year-old gave the award back.

Marks wanted Prince Harry to deliver the medal to Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, England, where she spent the duration of the inaugural Invictus Games in 2014. Marks traveled to London in the fall of that year to compete in the Games when she collapsed with respiratory distress syndrome. Her condition worsened and she was eventually hospitalized and placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, life support to help her breathe. She missed the Games, but Marks said she was fortunate to come back alive. She said donating one of her medals was the only way she could think of to repay the hospital staff. Her request was honored June 1.

“This is an incredible achievement by any standards,” Prince Harry wrote about Marks’ appearance in the Impact25 list. “And I know this is how she wants to be defined, by her achievements and her abilities. But as an Army sergeant wounded in service to her country, her journey to get to this point has been remarkable. To me she epitomizes the courage, resilience and determination of our servicemen and women. Using sport to fight back from injury in the most remarkable way, she sums up what the Invictus Games spirit is all about.

For Marks, her ordeal in 2014 wasn’t the first time she had to endure an arduous hospital stay. In 2010, after suffering devastating injuries in Iraq, she grew nervous about the words being bandied about her such as “end of service” or “retirement.” Marks called her father to vent her frustrations. The former Marine told his daughter to write what was most important to her on a piece of paper. She scrawled “FFD” in pencil on a torn sheet of paper. The acronym stood for “fit for duty.” She was deemed fit for duty on July 3, 2012, after several painful surgeries and exhaustive rehabilitation. Marks has not stopped trying to live up to the notion, resuming her job as a medic while also competing for WCAP.

She was back in the pool one month after her ordeal in England. Two months after leaving the hospital, she broke an American record in the SB9, a disability swimming classification, 200-meter breaststroke. Less than two years later, she set a new world record in the 50-meter breaststroke in the SB7 division.

“I was told it’d be six months before I got into a pool again,” Marks told the audience at the ESPYs where she became the first active-duty Soldier to receive the Pat Tillman Award. “I got into a pool about a month out of my coma. Without those physicians, without their service, I would’ve died. I hope that my service could eventually mean that to someone.”

Marks received a standing ovation after accepting the award on the stage of the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. She thanked her father and the Pat Tillman Foundation for turning an “absolute tragedy into a triumph.” She also thanked her fellow injured service members throughout the world for their support. She said any success she found at the Rio Paralympics would be because of them.

And find success she did. Marks broke her own world record in the breaststroke to win the gold medal. She then had a heroic swim in her leg of the 4×100 medley relay to help the Americans win a bronze medal after getting off to a difficult start.

The feat seemed to cap off a storied sports year for Marks. But this week proved otherwise. And that should suit her desire to inspire her fellow Soldiers just fine.