Nathan’s Story

SSG Nathan Vacho Story

It’s about a Soldier, a young buck sergeant, who volunteers to mobilize for deployment. He belonged to an MOS that wasn’t getting MOBed a lot, he had gone to a medical unit.; They were looking for volunteers, so he decided to volunteer- one of the first ones to raise his hand.

He was ecstatic when he was chosen. That same night he told his father and told him not to tell his mother or wife that he had volunteered. He was also a father to two young children, two girls, ages nine and two.

He volunteered for deployment into a civil affairs unit. Reported to his MOB station, went to reclassification training and upon mobilization his commander interviewed all the Soldiers in the 30-man company.

The commander asked during the initial interview of each Soldier, “Tell me about yourself, what kind of training do you have.” This particular Soldier told the commander, on the military side Army firefighter, combat medic and a trained Army LPN. On civilian side he used those skills as a firefighter and LPN working in emergency rooms and hospitals and nursing homes. He was not immune to seeing children and the elderly die, and in need of great care.

The commander said, “Good. I want you to train the company in first aid. I want you to get them ready in emergency first aid. Because we’re going to need it when we get to Iraq. And every time we have an opportunity, I want you to be training.”

It was 2.5 months before the unit left for Iraq. Many times the sergeant broke the unit down into hip pocket training and trained the Soldiers in first aid.

They deployed to Iraq, went to battle hand-off, right seat, left seat ride. On the second mission, a roadside bomb went off as the convoy traveled down an MSR (main supply route), instantly killing that Sergeant and one other Soldier. A third soldier died on a Blackhawk helicopter. All were in the same HUMMV.

The other two Soldiers that died with him had over 280 combat missions; one was a first sergeant who was driving, the other a specialist who was the gunner.

They had been around for 11 ½ months and they knew their job. The fourth and fifth Soldier in the vehicle were wounded. The commander sent a letter to the Sergeants parents in which he wrote that they credit the medical training the young Sergeant had given the Soldiers in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th vehicles to act quickly and correctly with saving the lives of the other two Soldiers.

The Sergeant died, not knowing the impact of the training he had provided to these other young Soldiers. We might not know at a battle assembly, at mobilization, how important the training we are receiving is going to be. We may never know. This young Soldier never knew the payoff of the training and experience that he shared, but we know.

That’s something that, when we go to a battle assembly, or training, if we are the instructor, if we are conducting the training, that we conduct it to the task, conditions and standard. It’s very important.

We must be prepared to provide that training; we must have the proper training aids, properly researched and we must conduct it the best we can. If you are a Soldier attending training, attend at the proper place, at the proper time, in the proper uniform with positive mental attitude, ready to receive training.

To do anything less as an instructor or student, we are derelict in our duties. That is what we’re there for. That’s our sole purpose; to prepare each other for combat. Whether it’s leaders training leaders, professional development, battle assembly or everyday classes, because you never know when you’re going to lose leaders or Soldiers. And it doesn’t have to be in combat. It could be family conflicts, annual training, battle assembly, professional development where leaders are taken out of those roles. And you have to be prepared to carry on the mission.

The other lesson from this story came when that young Sergeant’s body was flown and airlifted back to the U.S., to Delaware. As they prepared the Soldier for his final journey home, they went through his pockets and found three coins. Three challenge coins. Now, not many Soldiers would carry something like that in a combat zone.

We have to stop and think about why would he have those three coins. He had probably six or eight additional coins given to him throughout his eight-year military career that he had in storage at home. He also could have left those three coins by his bunk, in his rucksack, but he kept them in his pocket. So they must have meant something to that Soldier. To try and figure that out, one would have to look at all the coins, put some thought into it and to figure out why those three coins and not the rest. Why those three?

On the first coin, was the phrase, “not by sword alone”. The Soldier was a medic. We talk about the infantry, the rangers, or special forces, all the press and coverage they get. But it’s not always about sword alone. It’s about engineers, MPs, cooks and clerks and transporters, mechanics, and so on. Everybody contributes to the mission. Everybody. Everybody’s job is important, and don’t let anyone say any different. If we didn’t need all these Soldiers in these jobs, we wouldn’t have them in the Army.
It’s also about humanitarian and support missions. It’s sometimes about saving lives, not taking lives, and that type of thinking. It is truly One Team, One Fight.

That’s the first coin.

The second coin was a coin for enlistment or reenlistment. This Soldier was to reenlist overseas as he had over eight years in the Army Reserve. We all know what the oath says. “To solemnly swear (or affirm) to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.” It’s the oath of enlistment; it’s also about Army Values and what they stand for, it’s about the non-commissioned officer creed, it’s about the Soldiers’ Creed where we get our Warrior Ethos. These are all charters that we are asked to live by in the United States Army. They make up who we are as an institution, and it’s those values, those oaths, those creeds, our charters, that need to be discussed with our Soldiers. They must also be renewed from time to time. They become very important within our unit structure and within our Army.

The third coin that that Sergeant had in his pocket was my coin. My coin says that it’s ”awarded for leadership excellence.” Approximately 5 days before that Sergeant was killed he was selected to replace the Team Leader that was in turn selected for another mission. It was this soldiers new responsibility that placed him in the first HUMMV of that convoy. He wanted to be with that 1st Sergeant as he wanted to learn from the best. So his Team captain assigned him to that first vehicle. One leader was taken out, and another took his place. And that was that kind of leadership, learning from the best and leading from the front as they were in the first vehicle of that convoy.

This Sergeant had been offered a safer duty assignment early on during the pre mob training. He turned it down saying, “I wanted to do my part.” He did not want any favoritism. I came to know this story because that young Sergeant was my son. These are lessons I will never forget.

Written by Command Sergeant Major
John W. Vacho, 88th Regional readiness Command
U.S. Army Reserve
Ft Snelling, MN

KIA 5 May 06 – Baghdad, Iraq
SSG Nathan J. Vacho
U.S. Army Reserve
548th Minimal Care Detachment
Madison, WI