Tag Archives: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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:

 

Retired Soldier, cancer survivor hopes his story resonates with NCO Corps

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

It’s difficult to fathom the unbridled stamina required to be a full-time Department of Defense civilian employee, a college professor, a motivational speaker, an author and a marathon runner. But it comes easy to Gregory Q. Cheek.

That’s because the retired Soldier — and cancer survivor — considers every day a gift. He has been determined to get the most out of every sunrise since he received the grim news six years ago that Stage 3 cancer in his head and neck would likely cut his life short.

“When you don’t think you’re going to be here in a week or a month or a year, you can look at life differently,” Cheek said during a recent video interview from Stuttgart, Germany, where he works as a stability plans specialist for U.S. Army Europe. “Every day is an opportunity. I tell people to take advantage of every opportunity they have. I’ve been doing that every day since May 10, 2010.”

That was the day Cheek learned a lymph node in his neck was “hot.” Surgery and treatment for the cancer that reached his lymphatic system followed. It was an agonizing ordeal, one that after a mere two weeks left Cheek a crumpled heap on the floor of his hospital bathroom. His throat was nearly swollen shut, his already thin frame became excessively gaunt and he could barely muster the strength to lift his head over the rim of the toilet to vomit. But he had an epiphany while his face lay mashed into the cold porcelain — he had lived the life he wanted.

“It really hit me when I was laying on the floor,” said Cheek, who retired from the Army in 2005. “I was, like, ‘Man, I’ve never worked a job in my life. Life is just one big opportunity.’ I was laying there, and cancer was trying to take my life right out from underneath my feet. From that point forward I really looked at everything different. I just said, ‘I’m going to be grateful for every single day.’”

He has lived that mantra ever since. Cheek chronicled his journey from cancer survivor to budding motivational speaking star in his book, “Three Points of Contact.” It is not so much a blow-by-blow account of his ordeal through cancer. It is a road map to navigate arduous situations in life. As Cheek puts it, you’re always “entering, in the middle of, or leaving some kind of storm.” The book, which was released July 2015, outlines the 12.5-step strategy that Cheek says he has used throughout his life. And he believes young Soldiers can benefit highly from it.

Gregory Q. Cheek has completed seven marathons during the past 10 years. (Photo courtesy of Gregory Q. Cheek)
Gregory Q. Cheek has completed seven marathons during the past 10 years. (Photo courtesy of Gregory Q. Cheek)

That’s why he started a speaking business — something he said was a lifelong dream — and has become a regular visitor to NCO academies. Cheek said he enjoys talking to Soldiers and the conclusion of the weeks-long NCOA is the perfect time to reach out to them.

“I was a young NCO,” said Cheek, who was an enlisted member of the Air Force for four years. “I think my story resonates really well with the NCO Corps. Especially for the young specialist E-4, who is getting ready to be a sergeant E-5, who is trying to make a decision: ‘Am I going to do this for a career, do this for the rest of my life?’ The NCO academy is just a perfect time because I come in and I’m, like, ‘Look, you’re away from your family, you’re getting pumped with all this NCO stuff at this school, but let me tell you some of the advantages of being in the military.’ They hear it from someone who is now a little older and can look back.”

One of those young Soldiers is Spc. Nickie John Cate. Cate is a 68E dental specialist stationed at the Vilseck Army Health Clinic in Vilseck, Germany. He heard Cheek speak after he completed the Basic Leader Course in March. Cate, who said he joined the Army in part because he wanted a way to pay for dental school without financially burdening his parents, said he was moved by Cheek’s story because it underscored to him that his future is in his own hands.

“He has been through ups and downs,” Cate said of Cheek. “But he came to a realization that this is not the end. He is here to motivate people to find a way to improve themselves and to take opportunities that are open. My personal takeaway from his speech is that I must decide to take a leap to whichever goals or dreams I want. In his book, one of the chapters states that writing personal goals every morning will help you step-by-step to getting you where you want to be.”

As it is in his book, Cheek doesn’t focus on his battle with cancer during his talks. Rather, he tries to impart young Soldiers with his renewed appreciation for the time left ahead of them. He asks them to consider the opportunities afforded to them as servicemembers and urges them to take advantage of what they have access to.

“Even if you decide to stay in to be command sergeant major, you’re still going to have 20-something years to go do something else with your life,” Cheek said. “So use all of this time as an opportunity, to network, to go to school, to meet different people, to get different skill training, to travel, to do all those things. It’s a big time for them to have the opportunity to make a decision. But it’s also good to hear it from somebody else on the other side. I’ve had this experience in my life and I can kind of share in retrospect the things to be thankful for. I’ve enjoyed that.”

NCOs have enjoyed his lessons in turn, according to leadership of the 7th Army Noncommissioned Officer Academy of U.S. Army Europe’s Joint Multinational Training Command in Grafenwoehr, Germany. The academy has instituted a professional development initiative in which staff duty NCOs read Cheek’s book and notate lessons in the nightly log. The wisdom gleaned from those pages has had great effect on those NCOs pulling duty, said 1st Sgt. Eric D. Lowery, deputy commandant of the 7th Army NCOA.

“We have our staff duty NCOs read one or two chapters during their shift then write their assessment/thoughts on the chapters they read,” Lowery said. “The comments are amazing. I truly believe that this book has inspired a lot of our staff sergeants and sergeants first class who have read a few chapters during their tour of duty.”

Cheek said he enjoys speaking to Soldiers so much that he makes the trips to various NCOAs out of his own pocket.

“I don’t get a dime,” he said.

Cheek said he speaks to Soldiers as regularly as he can as a form of gratitude for all the military has done for him. He said he was a wayward youth, oblivious to the opportunities that existed all around him. He left home while a senior in high school and was homeless for a time until he decided to enlist in the Air Force. Cheek accomplished that, he said, by sleeping in front of the door of the recruiting office daily until a recruiter finally acquiesced and helped him enter the service.

Cheek’s first assignment was in Turkey. Being overseas was an eye-opening experience.

“I was 18 years old,” Cheek said. “I realized that I really did have all these opportunities back home that I was just letting go by.”

Cheek completed his four years in the Air Force and returned home determined to attend college armed with a message that, to this day, he shares during his speeches — “Act on life. Or life will act on you.”

Gregory Q. Cheek, right, with then-Gen. Colin Powell. (Photo courtesy of Gregory Q. Cheek)
Gregory Q. Cheek, right, with then-Gen. Colin Powell. (Photo courtesy of Gregory Q. Cheek)

Cheek earned his two-year degree from Shasta College in Redding, California, before moving on to California State University, Chico where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1989. He entered the Army the same year as an officer. During his career, which along with deployments to the Middle East included stops at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas; Fort Carson, Colorado; and the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, among other stops, Cheek earned his master’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado. While at Fort Irwin, he began teaching part-time at nearby Barstow College, a position he has since returned to as an online professor. Cheek said reaching his educational and professional goals while serving was a grand accomplishment that was made possible by the Army. But it wasn’t the last time he would be rewarded for his service.

By chance, Cheek was diagnosed with cancer about a month before he was scheduled to take part in the Master Resilience Training Course. The course, taught in Pennsylvania, is one of the foundational pillars of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program and centers on concepts in the field of positive psychology.

“After I was diagnosed, it really is a form of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” Cheek said. “So, I went to the course and it really helped me get ready for what I was going to go through. I had to have surgery and 13 lymph nodes taken out. Having been through the resiliency training was huge. All the simple things like being positive, visualization, eating right, meditation, exercise, all that kind of stuff that we talk about in that course that they provide for our Soldiers was huge. If I didn’t have that course that soon after was diagnosed, I don’t know what would’ve happened. So, I’m grateful for that.”

The notion of gratitude is one that Cheek cherishes. He says its power can help people who are going through tough times. It’s what spurred him to become a positive force for others. After his cancer treatment, Cheek wrote three thank-you cards. One went to his lead doctor, a second to his nurse. The third went to the receptionist at the medical office he frequented in Kansas City.

Cheek had gotten to know more about the woman during his visits. She was a single mother who was working two jobs. Cheek said she expressed her desire to go to college. In the thank-you note he crafted for her, Cheek mentioned the tenacity and resilience he noticed in her during their meetings and how she could use it to live out her dreams. According to Cheek, the woman was in tears reading his note as he exited the office.

“I knew I changed somebody’s life,” Cheek said. “I could have gotten in a car accident right then. I could’ve died the next day. But I knew I changed somebody’s life. The last couple months I just felt like cancer was beating me down, I was losing weight, I was tired, coughing up blood. That feeling I got inside, it was that moment that I felt cancer kind of stop.”

The woman eventually got her degree from the University of Kansas, affirming Cheek’s conviction to be an uplifting force for others. He started his business, which has taken him to 20 countries and has given him an audience of big names from the world of sports and industry. He took up running, finishing seven marathons during the past decade. He wrote his book, a tribute to his medical team who urged him to write it after making it to the three-year checkup he was never supposed to see. Cheek has seemingly never stopped moving since fighting what he calls, “the biggest fight of his life.” He says he keeps up his blistering pace because wherever he goes he wants to reach that one person that needs it, especially if it’s a Soldier.

“I have this thing, ‘One is greater than zero,” Cheek said. “So if it’s just one person that I can reach, one person I can talk to, if it’s the one kid that comes to me at the dining facility after I speak somewhere, that’s fine. When he says, ‘Your message really resonated with me. Can we talk for a few minutes?’ We talk, and I end up changing that person’s life. That’s what it’s all about. One is greater than zero.”

He’s done greater than that. Cheek said he has spoken in front of about 850 young Soldiers since January. He has provided each of those Soldiers with a stamped envelope and a blank thank-you card, urging them to contact someone who has helped them. Cheek said he has received many of those cards back, along with hundreds of emails from Soldiers who say they look at the Army in a new light. The feedback has emboldened Cheek to start spreading his message full time. He plans to return to the United States later this summer to focus on running his business. He also expects to complete his second book by year’s end. It will focus on the importance of education, specifically at community colleges.

But what Cheek is really looking forward to doing upon his return to the country is taking on as many speaking engagements at Army posts as he can.

“If you want me to come speak, I’ll pay my own way,” Cheek said. “I’ll send books. That’s my way of giving back. It’s that ‘greater than zero’ thing, and it will always work out.”

Until his return, Cheek said the one thing today’s NCOs should consider — something that is already being trumpeted Armywide — is education.

“Right now, for an NCO, the focus needs to be going to school,” Cheek said. “This isn’t the old days. In the old days you could be a four-star CSM the old-school way. Nowadays, you need to go to school. And you can. You can knock out an entire four-year degree all online. A lot of people say, ‘Well, I don’t need college.’ You’re right, there are some people who didn’t need college. But you have enough people telling you it’s helpful, and you’re in a place where it won’t cost you a dime. So, why are you not on this computer? Why are you not taking college classes? Why are you not taking advantage of this? One is greater than zero.”

Gregory Q. Cheek snapped a photo after speaking at the 7th Army NCO Academy in Bad Tolz, Germany. (Photo courtesy of Greg Cheek Speaks)
Gregory Q. Cheek snapped a photo after speaking at the 7th Army NCO Academy in Bad Tolz, Germany. (Photo courtesy of Gregory Q. Cheek)

 

Former NCO vows to learn from first professional boxing loss

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

Sammy Vasquez Jr. walked out of the ring dejected.

The 30-year-old former sergeant in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard had just finished battling Felix Diaz to a standstill in a welterweight boxing match Saturday night at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama. For Vasquez, it was the first time he didn’t emerge from a fight victorious. Instead, he heard a judges’ verdict of a majority draw.

Then, Vasquez was called back to the ring.

In an uncommon move, the state boxing commission representatives at ringside recalculated the judges’ scores and deemed the fight a unanimous decision for Diaz, handing Vasquez his first professional loss.

“I’ve never been in a situation where I had to wait for them to add up the scores again,” said Vasquez, whose record now stands at 21-1 with 15 knockouts.

For the former NCO, it was the second time this bout provided the need to adapt quickly to change. Merely two weeks before Vasquez was scheduled to enter the ring, Diaz was installed as his opponent after his previous foe, Luis Collazo, was scratched due to injury. Several boxing writers deemed Diaz a much harsher test for Vasquez — despite being five inches shorter — given his background as an Olympic gold medalist in 2008 for the Dominican Republic who was coming off a hotly contested majority decision loss to former champion Lamont Peterson last December. That notion came to fruition Saturday night. Vasquez knew it even before he had to march back to the ring after the first decision was announced.

“I knew in my heart I lost that fight,” he told reporters after the contest, which was the co-main event of a card that saw WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder successfully defend his title against Chris Arreola. “I tried my hardest, but there were things I should have done that I didn’t do.”

Vasquez accepted the new result with grace and dignity, clapping for Diaz after his win was announced.

“He’s a hell of a fighter,” Vasquez said. “He’s an Olympic gold medalist for a reason. He had a tough decision loss to Lamont Peterson. To me, he was an undefeated Olympic gold medalist. I take nothing away from the man.”

The fight seemed to begin according to Vasquez’s plan. He slowly backed the shorter Diaz down, keeping him at bay with his longer jab. But near the end of Round 2, Diaz unleashed a barrage of counter punches that momentarily stunned Vasquez. That theme replayed throughout the fight, as Diaz timed his counter-overhand shots well. Vasquez struggled to avoid the punches anytime Diaz came forward. The longer the fight went, the more galvanized Diaz became as he partook in some mild showboating by waving his hand like a mitt trying to goad Vasquez into a trade inside.

In Round 7, Vasquez lost his mouthpiece from a glancing blow. He lost it again in Round 8 after Diaz backed him into a corner. The fighters traded a rousing flurry of punches in Round 9 that brought the crowd to its feet, with Vasquez appearing to find his form again after struggling for most of the middle rounds. In Round 10, Diaz was content moving about the ring figuring his decision victory was sealed. Vasquez landed a slew of jabs while Diaz backed up. Diaz landed a counter shot in the round’s waning seconds that once again dislodged Vasquez’s mouthpiece. The referee stopped action and took a point from Vasquez for the delay before the fight ended less than a minute later.

That point proved to be the difference on two of the judges’ modified scorecards as Ron Moon and Irwin Deutsch both scored it 95-94. Karen Holderfield scored the bout 96-93 for Diaz after the modification.

Despite suffering his first loss, Vasquez vowed to regroup and continue his quest to become a world champion.

“We’ll huddle up and start back at the drawing board,” he said. “I’ve got to start knocking those names down again. … This is my first loss. Losses you learn from. Losses just mean you have room to grow. We’ll take it and come back strong the next time.”

While disappointed with the result, Vasquez also approaches the setback with a different perspective. Vasquez deployed twice to Iraq with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in 2005-06 and in 2008-09. He still carries the hidden scars of war. Earlier this year before his fight against Aaron Martinez, Vasquez revealed he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He still attends weekly sessions with a counselor and sees a psychiatrist regularly. Vasquez said his progress is bolstered by the physical outlet boxing provides.

“I’ve already been in the biggest fight of my life,” Vasquez said in the lead-up to his tilt with Diaz. “The difference when fighting other people in the ring and fighting in a war is you get to walk away. Win, lose or draw, I don’t really care. I mean, I want to win of course, but at the same time for someone that has been through the stuff that I have, that us Soldiers have, it’s just great to be ranked in the top 10 in the world. If it was all gone tomorrow, I wouldn’t be upset. I’ve accomplished a lot in my life and I’m very proud of how far I’ve come.”

Boxing phenom, former NCO Sammy Vasquez Jr. sets sights even higher

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

Fast-rising boxing star Sammy Vasquez Jr. wants to reach the top. Literally.

The 30-year-old former sergeant in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard says he wants to climb to the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak, once his days in the ring are done.

“I’ve always wanted to do it,” said Vasquez, a native of Monessen, Pennsylvania, during a recent phone interview. “I just think it would be pretty cool to take a picture on top of the highest mountain on Earth.”

But before he reaches that daunting Himalayan pinnacle, the undefeated Vasquez wants to continue his ascent of the welterweight division and become a world champion. The path to that objective continues this weekend against an opponent with not quite the stature of Everest, but dangerous nonetheless. The 5-foot-10 Vasquez will face 5-foot-5 Felix Diaz in a welterweight bout Saturday billed as the co-main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card in Birmingham, Alabama, that will be broadcast live on Fox. The other headline fight pits WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder against Chris Arreola.

For Vasquez, who boasts a 21-0 record with 15 knockouts, Diaz (17-1, 8 KOs) is a short-notice opponent. The Dominican fighter, who won a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, was added to the card July 1 after an injury sidelined Vasquez’s original opponent, the 5-foot-9 Luis Collazo. But just as he has so many times during his eight-year Army career, which included two deployments to Iraq, Vasquez adjusted.

“Just like being an NCO, you have to adapt and overcome,” Vasquez said. “You have to expect change like that; that’s just how it works sometimes. It wasn’t a big change for me because of the fact that they’re both southpaws. One is just taller than the other. Now I’m fighting a guy who is shorter. So the only difference is the accuracy of my punches needs to be lower now rather than high. So it really wasn’t that big of a change to adapt to.”

Despite being shorter, Diaz still presents formidable opposition. His Olympic pedigree helped him charge up the super lightweight and welterweight ranks with highlight wins during the past two years over Emmanuel Lartey and Adrian Granados. Diaz suffered his first loss in October in a split decision against Lamont Peterson. One judge scored the fight, in which Diaz gave the former champion fits, a draw.

Vasquez expects Diaz to try to apply the same formula during their clash, with the smaller fighter looking to keep the action inside to nullify Vasquez’s reach advantage and limit his movement around the ring. But Vasquez, often rated among the top 10 welterweights in the world, says he is looking to dictate the pace of the fight and is ready for whatever Diaz throws at him.

“I’m not Lamont Peterson,” Vasquez said. “I hit harder than Lamont Peterson and I intend to stick to the game plan as usual. I’ve got a decent inside game as well as outside game and I move a lot. He’s an Olympic gold medalist. He’s going to be aggressive. But I can slug, too, so I think it’s going to be a hell of a fight because we’re both very big competitors.”

Though a win would be a boon for Vasquez and his surging career, he says he is happy simply stepping in the ring. Vasquez has long enjoyed boxing. He was introduced to the sport at age 9 by his father, who wanted to give his son an outlet and a method to defend himself from the bullies who hounded the younger Vasquez at school. But fighting means so much more to Vasquez now, as it provides relief for the hidden scars of his time in combat.

In the lead-up to his fight against Aaron Martinez earlier this year, Vasquez revealed he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Vasquez 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, even as 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, Vasquez knew something was different about him. Those feelings lingered and manifested themselves in the dark confines of the bedroom in the house Vasquez shared with his wife, DelRae, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“A lot of traffic came by my house,” Vasquez said. “At night, I really couldn’t get a lot of sleep. I would count the cars that would pass my house. The lights would reflect off my blinds and hit my ceiling. It was hard for me to fall asleep. I was always thinking because I would hear brakes, cars slowing down and stopping. On Halloween, I looked outside and there was a kid out late at night. A truck stopped right by my house and the kid was jumping in the back of a truck and they rolled off and I would hear the brakes, then again down the next street. I would get very paranoid. It was just tough.”

Vasquez credits his wife with helping him carry the burdens and urging him to get help.

“A lot of people know the cover of my story but my wife is the only one who knows my book,” he said. “She’s the one who helps me deal with everything. If it wasn’t for her, I’d be hurting. I mean not even my father, nobody really, knows about everything because people just don’t understand unless they’ve been through it.”

Vasquez goes to weekly sessions with a counselor and sees a psychiatrist regularly, which has calmed his anxiety. He said he has receieved a big lift by recently moving his family to a home on five acres of property in Colorado Springs.

“I sleep 10 times better than I ever have,” Vasquez said. “It’s been really good now.”

All of his progress is bolstered by the physical outlet that boxing provides.

“Boxing’s very therapeutic for me,” Vasquez said. “I get a lot of anxiety, I’ll get angry or frustrated. If I ever get into that moment, I’ll just go to the gym and hit the bag, think about things and get it all out. When I get tired physically, I’m able to think a lot clearer about the whole situation and then explain to my kids or my wife why I acted out the way I did. We’re able to talk about it, discuss it. It’s just a way for me to wear my body out to where I can really think.

“There’s a lot of things that we all deal with. With this, it’s never going to go away. But it takes dealing with it every day. Eventually you’ll be able to help yourself.”

Another facet of his training that helps is being coached by a former NCO. Retired Staff Sgt. Charles Leverette, a former All-Army champion and the World Class Athlete Program head boxing coach, has helped Vasquez reel off a slew of victories. The fighter says his coach has also served as a father figure and is an advocate during his journey through PTSD.

“Sammy’s right there,” Leverette said in a previous interview with the NCO Journal. “He is close to big things. … We just have to keep proving ourselves and what comes next will come next.”

But Vasquez acknowledges far more of the Army is in his corner. Throngs of Soldiers have expressed their support. While he hopes to make them proud, he also wants to use his platform to help remove the stigma for those who may be experiencing some of the psychological challenges he faces.

“I appreciate all the NCO support, the support from all the Army,” Vasquez said. “But also, I’m rooting for all the guys who are cheering for me. If you’re ever in a struggle or any situation where you don’t know what to do anymore, you definitely need to go talk to the VA, a therapist or a counselor. There’s help out there. You need to be the one to take that step to go see somebody. If you can’t see somebody or you’re afraid to, you can always message me. I’ll reply back, I’ll help you find a source to go get help.

“We’re born and bred in the military to deal with things and just work it out on our own. But everybody needs help. From my standpoint, I’m ranked top 10 in the world in boxing but yet I still go see a therapist. I have a psychiatrist that I talk to. I sought help. It doesn’t matter who you are, how big you are or how little you are. Just because I box and I’m on TV, it doesn’t dictate who I am as a person. So it’s not demeaning or belittling to go see somebody to talk about your situation. It actually really, really does help you. I did eight years. After you’re done you can always follow your dreams. Me? I’m just going to keep pushing forward like always, keep adapting to anything that changes, just like this fight.”

The fight in question is just another obstacle Vasquez must navigate to position himself for a title shot. He said he wants to fight WBC champion Danny Garcia before the end of 2017. A win against the undefeated Philadelphia fighter would bring one of Vasquez’s dreams to fruition. He said he’d defend that title several times before moving on from boxing and on to the next lofty ambition.

“I want to add that to my story,” Vasquez said of his goal to climb Everest. “I just think of my kids being able to say, ‘My dad’s been to Iraq twice, he was a welterweight champion and he climbed Mount Everest. What did your dad do?’ So I want to get to the top.”

The climb begins this Saturday inside Legacy Arena.

Watch it

• What: Sammy Vasquez Jr. (21-0, 15 knockouts) vs. Felix Diaz (17-1, 8 KOs) in welterweight fight.

• When, where: 8 p.m. EDT, Legacy Arena, Birmingham, Alabama.

• On TV: FOX.

• 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 co-main event, with the headline fight featuring WBC champion Deontay Wilder defending his title against Chris Arreola.

As he fights PTSD, former NCO continues climb up boxing’s welterweight division

By PABLO VILLA
NCO Journal

Sammy Vasquez Jr. scored a convincing win over Aron Martinez on Saturday in a nationally televised welterweight boxing match. But another manner in which the former Army sergeant was a victor is just as momentous.

The bout at Staples Center in Los Angeles was the first time Vasquez had been in the ring since revealing that he is living with post-traumatic stress disorder. He told reporters last month when the fight with Martinez was announced about his condition and the difficulty it has posed. As it was during his days directing Soldiers as an NCO, Vasquez hopes he can help lead others grappling with PTSD toward help.

“I have PTSD,” Vasquez said in December. “That’s something I’ve been dealing with for a couple months. It’s hard to talk to somebody about what you’ve been through. You can explain it to them and they can tell you, ‘Oh, I know what you’re talking about.’ In my mind, I’m like, ‘You have no idea what I’m talking about. You can’t touch the surface of what I’m talking about.’ But to talk to somebody, like a counselor that’s been through it, that knows what I’ve been through, and that I can share my stories with, it helps me vent it out and get it off my chest. It’s 10 times easier and 10 times better talking to somebody than holding it in.”

Vasquez certainly held nothing back against Martinez. The fight, which was a Premier Boxing Champions co-feature, was a one-sided affair. Vasquez (21-0, 15 KOs) used his quick footwork and hand-speed to confound Vasquez (20-5-1), peppering him with jabs and straight lefts throughout the first few rounds. Martinez was on the defensive most of the fight, covering up and making very few attempts to attack the much quicker Vasquez. It was an uncharacteristic fight for Martinez who fought Robert Guerrero to a standstill last summer before losing by a controversial split decision. Guerrero fought Danny Garcia in Saturday’s main event for the WBC welterweight title. Nonetheless, Vasquez’s pressure wore his opponent down. Martinez quit on his stool after the sixth round complaining of an elbow injury to give Vasquez a technical knockout win.

“A victory feels good of course, but I wanted more,” Vasquez said after the fight. “I wanted to go 12 rounds, if it would have lasted that long. I wanted a very decisive win. Unfortunately, he got hurt, but every fight is a learning experience for me.”

What we’re learning about Vasquez, the current World Boxing Council Central American Boxing Federation, or WBC/FECARBOX, champion, is that he is a gritty contender. His win Saturday was a WBC welterweight semifinal eliminator, putting him in line to contend for a WBC Silver welterweight title against Amir Khan.

“My name is starting to get tossed around and that’s the main goal,” Vasquez said.

His quest for that lofty title is one Vasquez says he wants to share with his fellow service members.

“I’m just thankful for where I am at today,” Vasquez said in December “A lot of my brothers and sisters in arms who are amputees and can no longer live out their dreams, I’m trying to do the best that I can to help them live through me and still find hope and success to keep going and feel motivated. Regardless of their condition, there’s always something else that you can do. The impact that Iraq had on me, it just showed me how grateful I am to be in the position I’m in.”

Vasquez, a native of Monessen, Pennsylvania, deployed to Iraq in 2005-06 and in 2008-09. His first deployment took him to Camp Habbaniyah, Iraq, where gunfire was 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.

“When I was over there, boxing was the last thing I thought about,” Vasquez said. “If I didn’t think about my brothers in front of me that could be that chance that they get shot or killed. So, when I was overseas that was my main focus — being overseas.”

Upon returning home Vasquez returned to boxing, a sport he had engaged in since age 9. He won the 152-pound title at the 2010 All-Army Championships and was invited to join the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program. While a member of WCAP, Vasquez earned a berth at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Though he missed being a part of Team USA — he lost the spot to Errol Spence Jr., himself a rising professional boxing star — Vasquez knew fighting would remain in his life. What he didn’t know was he would be engaged in another fight that didn’t involve gloves or ropes.

“When I came back home it was very difficult,” Vasquez said. “[In Iraq] you walk around with an M4 for a whole year or more, every day. You eat with it, you do everything with it. You’re used to that. You have mortars going off in the middle of the night so you don’t get a full night’s rest. When you go back home, you’re tossing and turning. You wake up startled all the time. You’re reaching for a gun you don’t have. I couldn’t go to Walmart because there’s too many people in there, I had to watch my back. Even still to this day, I go sit in restaurants and I can’t sit with my back to the door.

“Boxing is a huge outlet for me. There’s thousands and thousands of people there to watch me fight and it doesn’t bother me … until after the fight. After the fight, the high comes down, that’s when everything gets surreal for me and then it’s like, ‘OK, I’ve got to go.’ Now I’m getting edgy and a little antsy. It’s tough to deal with. I just get away from everybody except for maybe the people that are real close to me.”

While Vasquez said he’d rather not divulge specific details about his ordeal, he encourages fellow Soldiers and veterans who are going through similar struggles to seek help. He said it has been a cathartic experience for him, one that has now vaulted him to heights he couldn’t imagine.

“I can only thank God,” Vasquez said. “There were a lot of guys around me that aren’t here today. A lot of things happened and it just didn’t happen to me. It just wasn’t my day. I’m just blessed to be here. It’s an honor.”