“Come on, sergeant major, let me see those cartwheels!” reverberated through the fitness center in Kabul, Afghanistan, earlier this month during an intense early-morning workout session led by the senior noncommissioned officer in the U.S. military.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Wayne Troxell, the senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, prodded Army Command Sgt. Maj. David M. Clark about those flips, then quickly shifted his rallying cry away from the Resolute Support/U.S. Forces Afghanistan senior enlisted leader to another Soldier.
“No choking up on those sledgehammers, Clements!” Troxell yelled out to Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Clements, the senior enlisted leader at Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, who was lifting, twisting and holding the weighted tool over his head.
“You have to train hard, because our enemies are training hard,” Troxell bellowed in the training session at the Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Troxell accompanied his boss, Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, to assess the mission to train, advise and assist Afghan forces.
“The battlefield is dynamic,” Troxell said after a high-intensity, sweat-inducing circuit session that included jumps, core strengthening and weight training. These types of daily vigorous training sessions push beyond Soldiers’ comfort zones and have a singular focus: to keep troops ready for the enemy, he said.
Service members must be agile and flexible in the battlefield, where they scale walls, navigate rough terrain, work in extreme temperatures, and carry heavy loads over long distances, Troxell said, so the workouts need to mimic situations the troops could face on a mission.
“We have to have the reserve to be able to defeat the enemy when we get on the objective or we come under attack,” Troxell said. “We have to train under conditions that are harsh, brutal and extreme, so that our minds, our bodies and our souls are prepared for that kind of fight.”
Explaining his “PME Hard” philosophy, Troxell detailed the importance of a holistic focus to be “physically, mentally and emotionally hard.” Adding spiritual resilience is an important component as well, he said.
“We have to train our bodies; we have to train our minds,” he said. “Then we have to be able to train with emotion [and] with passion, and then we have to have something outside ourselves that we can rely on in adversity — some kind of spiritual fitness.”
In addition to battlefield readiness, the training builds resilience, camaraderie, confidence and trust among the troops and services, he said.
“This kind of training allows us to bounce back quicker, because combat is brutal and unforgiving — we all know that — and bad things happen,” said Troxell, who has served five combat tours of duty, including in Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“In the end, when we take the fight to the enemy, it’s one team and one fight. The more we can do these shared experiences and bonding between other services, the stronger we’ll be when we have to fight.”
With more than three decades of service, Troxell said, he has no plans of easing back on his heart-pumping training, even after he hangs up his uniform.
“I’m 52 years young, and I’m going to continue to train like this until I can’t do it again,” he said. “I anticipate that Sergeant Major Dave Clark and Sergeant Major Mike Clements and I, when we’re in our ’80s, are going to be doing this same stuff. Stay tuned.”
As the soldiers of Djibouti joined the African Union Mission to Somalia to help fight the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, they had a major weakness: The Djiboutian army had no logistics unit.
That made resupplying their soldiers in Somalia difficult and sometimes impossible. Djiboutian army officers requested U.S. Army help, and a Regionally Aligned Forces group of U.S. Army Soldiers recently spent five months in Djibouti training the country’s first army logistics unit.
Because there had not been any logistics soldiers in the Djiboutian army, training began almost from scratch, said Staff Sgt. Richard Keaton, senior foreign weapons instructor for the United States Army Africa RAF training team.
“We’ve been doing supply operations, convoy operations, basic rifle marksmanship, advanced rifle marksmanship, various tasks that you’d have your everyday soldier do,” Keaton said. “Because it’s a new company, they haven’t had any basic training or basic military drills, so that’s what we’ve been enforcing.
“The main goal is to support the African Union Mission to Somalia,” he said. “By helping train up the Djiboutians, it supports the mission in Somalia. It gives them the tools necessary to survive out there. The entire time they’ve been going down to Somalia, their logistics packages have come through air drops and air resupplies. What they are trying to do now is ground resupplies. So, that’s the importance of standing up this logistics company. We’re giving them the ability to move supplies from Djibouti to Somalia by ground and get them there securely and safely.”
The RAF brought together Soldiers from three different divisions: the 10th Mountain Division of Fort Drum, New York; the 1st Armored Division of Fort Bliss, Texas; and the 3rd Infantry Division of Fort Stewart, Georgia.
Sgt. 1st Class Charles Frith, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the RAF, said the group came together after the 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade was tasked with the mission.
“They wanted extra stuff that we just didn’t have on hand,” Frith said. “For instance, they wanted some foreign weapons training, and in sustainment we don’t train with foreign weapons. So they went out to other divisions and tasked some of those folks to come in and provide those things for us.”
At the beginning, the limited knowledge of the Djiboutians meant the U.S. Army NCOs had to stop and make sure the Djiboutian soldiers could do things that might usually be taken for granted. For instance, before they could teach the Djiboutians how to drive heavy vehicles, they first had to make sure they knew how to drive, Frith said.
“When we get a new Soldier into a U.S. Army unit, I know that Soldier knows how to do some basic things, just from life alone, and then also from what they’ve been taught since they’ve been in the military,” Frith said. “Here, that has not been the case. Things that I would normally overlook, I’ve had to learn to pay more attention to those details and talk to those guys more up front and say, ‘Where, really, are you with your training? Here’s where we thought you were going to be, but can you drive a vehicle? Do you have the strength to pull back a 50-cal charge handle? Is your arm big enough for a tourniquet to go around?’ Some of their arms were too small for a tourniquet to go around. So we had to teach them ways around that.”
The notorious heat in the Horn of Africa was another challenge the NCOs had to overcome to train the Djiboutian logistics unit. Though the Soldiers lived at Camp Lemonnier, a U.S. Africa Command base in Djibouti, they had little other affiliation with the camp. Their work took place at Djiboutian army facilities, and they worked a different schedule than most at Camp Lemonnier.
“We’re the only people in country who work a Djiboutian schedule, which is Sunday through Thursday,” Keaton said. “It will get to about 115 (degrees Fahrenheit) with the heat index, so they shut down everything about 1100, then come back into work about 1600 or 1700 and work until 2000. That’s just to avoid the extreme heat.”
With a Djiboutian population that speaks a variety of languages, including Somali, Afar, Arabic and French, communication could sometimes take time, said Sgt. Scott Winkler, the RAF’s medical NCO in charge.
“The biggest problem is the language barrier,” Winkler said. “For the most part, the officers mainly speak French, though a lot of the officers and some of the NCOs speak some English. The enlisted, we had some English, French, Somali and Afar. So when we were teaching, our translators would have to translate it three times so that everybody could get the information.”
As is often the case when the U.S. Army is working with a foreign army, the role of the NCO was a frequent discussion point between the two sides, Frith said.
“Their army is a new army, and their NCO corps is not very well established,” Frith said. “The roles of what their NCO does in their army is new to them. They are a very officer-heavy military. For years, they focused all their training on the officer side of the house. Now, working with the U.S. military, they see that there is a lot of benefit from bringing the NCOs into it. They have to get them more engaged.”
“They do start to notice that the U.S. NCOs lead the training,” Winkler said. “So, recently we’ve been seeing the NCOs on their side start to pick up and train their soldiers, which is really good to see.”
The value of NCOs is clear in the U.S. Army, especially during training like this, said Capt. Daniel Samuelson, the officer in charge of the RAF training group.
“As someone who has never come out and trained a partner nation before, these NCOs bring a lot of experience to the table, and they’ve been consummate professionals the entire time,” Samuelson said. “What NCOs bring to the mission is they are the mission. They’re the executors; they make it happen. On the officer side, we plan, we give guidance. But ultimately, when it comes down to it, they are the ones making it happen. So without them, there wouldn’t be any mission here.”
Ready to learn
Members of the RAF training team all highlighted one positive of training the Djiboutian forces: their desire and willingness to learn.
“I did a little bit of this type of training in Afghanistan, and it wasn’t as successful,” Winkler said. “The Afghans would just kind of come in and leave. These guys really enjoy getting the training, which is a nice change. They come in, and they are ready to learn. When you teach to them, they give it their all. They pick up on the information really quickly.”
Keaton’s focus was on teaching the Djiboutian soldiers about weapons, and their desire to learn made the work easier, he said. Keaton also had previous experience training Afghan forces and agreed that the positive attitude of the Djiboutian soldiers made a large difference in what they learned.
“It’s extremely rewarding, training weapons,” Keaton said. “A lot of these guys had never touched an AK-47 before. So having a guy actually remember what we taught him and be excited about it, be excited about how he shot that 50-cal, how he shot that AK-47: it’s rewarding to see that excitement in their eyes.”
After five months of training, the U.S. Soldiers were eager to watch the Djiboutian soldiers put their newfound knowledge on display in a culminating event that involved the Djiboutian forces executing a convoy lane while under fire. Their actions during the event were impressive, Frith said.
“Comparing from the day we got here until now, outstanding,” he said. “When we first got here, if we had told them they were going to go to a convoy lane and execute, most of them would have jumped in the vehicles, drove right out and drove right through the point. Whatever vehicle got hit and died, the rest of the guys may have stopped, or they may have just left that vehicle and kept going. Today, coming out here, they communicated. Their NCOs came up and did battle drills with them before they hopped in their vehicles. They verified that their equipment was going to be mounted and was working properly. They had the right people. They verified communications. They got a convoy manifest in order. And then they started patrol. The details of pulling that together, when we got here, they couldn’t do. Some of the guys couldn’t even drive a vehicle.”
The Djiboutian unit then demonstrated their knowledge and skills in dealing with a roadblock, an improvised explosive device and a downed vehicle.
“Bringing all that together … it’s only a few minutes of execution, but they are demonstrating months of training. It was outstanding,” Frith said.
Samuelson said the culminating event made it clear that the new Djiboutian army logistics unit was prepared for its mission.
“There is significant progress,” Samuelson said. “They’re not U.S. Soldiers, but they are a competent force. They’ve grown from nothing into something they can use in Somalia.”
After the culminating event, Wosam Abdul Hassen, a Djiboutian soldier who was part of the training, expressed his appreciation for the U.S. Army Soldiers who taught him so much.
“We learned a lot of things,” Hassen said. “Now we can do a lot of things that we didn’t know how to do before. The training was good. I say to them, ‘Thank you.’”
In addition to helping fill a gap in the Djiboutian army, all the NCOs agreed that the training mission had also made them better noncommissioned officers. Keaton said working with the Djiboutian soldiers, building them up slowly despite language barriers and an early lack of knowledge, taught him patience.
“It’s taught me that working with different types of people, you have to train them differently,” Keaton said. “We already have that in the States; you can’t train every Soldier the same way. But this has broadened my perspective on how to train Soldiers and how to actually make an impact so that Soldiers can learn. Sometimes you have to break it down to the lowest level in order to get somebody to understand it.”
“It has helped everybody out on both ends,” Winkler said. “They have received a lot from us, but at the same time, we’ve learned a lot from them. We’ve learned how to adapt teaching styles to get the point across in an efficient way. I think it’s grown all of us as leaders and NCOs.”
From the moment Sgt. George Dalton Libby arrived on the Korean Peninsula with the rest of the 24th Infantry Division on June 30, 1950, the odds were stacked against them. But Libby’s efforts through extreme adversity would earn him the nation’s highest military honor.
The Taro Division was the first American force to reach the Republic of Korea in response to the invasion by the North Korean People’s Army five days earlier. The 24th ID was charged with slowing the advance of the North Korean assault until more U.S. forces could arrive. But that was no easy task.
The division was grossly understrength in the aftermath of post-World War II cutbacks. Its speedy arrival and limited training time in Korea meant the 24th would be, in effect, a strategic bump in the road, meant to hinder the enemy’s advance while 140,000 United Nations troops formed what eventually became the Pusan Perimeter to the south. This translated to setback after setback in the early days of fighting.
Beginning July 14, the 24th ID began a valiant stand against three attacking North Korean divisions during the Battle of Taejon. The North Koreans successfully pushed the Americans back from the Kum River east of the city before beginning an intense urban assault.
On July 20, the remaining elements of the division were attempting to withdraw from the city that once housed its headquarters. Libby was among them as part of C Company, 3rd Engineer Combat Battalion. According to his Medal of Honor citation, he was aboard a truck bound for the town of Taegu when it encountered a North Korean roadblock. Enemy forces ambushed the truck, disabling it. The subsequent barrage of bullets killed or wounded all Soldiers aboard except for Libby, who exited the vehicle and scrambled to a nearby ditch to take cover. As bullets whizzed around him, Libby returned fire, allowing wounded Soldiers to leave the truck and take cover. Twice during the firefight, he exposed himself to enemy fire by running across the road to administer aid to wounded Soldiers and pull them to safety.
Soon after, Libby heard an M-5 Half-track approaching. He flagged down the driver and began helping the wounded aboard. As the vehicle drove off, the enemy directed its fire at the driver. That’s when Libby made the decision that thrust him into history. Realizing that no one aboard would be able to operate the vehicle if the driver was killed, Libby used his own body to shield him. Libby received several bullet wounds in his arm and torso as the massive tractor rumbled away from the scene, his citation states. The vehicle made frequent stops with Libby firing his M2 carbine at enemy forces they encountered as he helped more wounded Soldiers aboard.
Eventually, the tractor came upon another roadblock and was peppered with bullets. Libby, who had ignored requests to receive first aid, once again held himself in front of the driver to shield him. Libby was struck by bullets repeatedly but refused to withdraw as the driver careened through the roadblock and headed toward safety. Libby held his position until he lost consciousness and died. He was 30 years old. His citation states, “Sgt. Libby’s sustained, heroic actions enabled his comrades to reach friendly lines. His dauntless courage and gallant self-sacrifice reflect the highest credit upon himself and uphold the esteemed traditions of the U.S. Army.”
Libby’s body was returned to the United States. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on Aug. 2, 1951.
Libby was born Dec. 4, 1919, in Bridgton, Maine. He served during World War II before his time in Korea. Since his death several buildings and monuments have been named in his honor. Perhaps the most notable is the George D. Libby Bridge, which spans the length of the Imjin River and links North and South Korea.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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