Patriot Profiles: ‘The mastermind behind the machinery is my enemy’
By Jeanne McKinney
An explosively formed penetrator (EFP) is a self-forging warhead. It’s a copper metal dish which varies in size from a 50-gallon drum to the size of paint bucket and contains an explosive charge. Detonation is controlled by cable, radio, TV, or remote arming with a passive infrared sensor that shoots through the charge multiple times, resulting in an explosion that inverts the dish into a giant bullet accelerating towards a target.
Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Derek R. Sanchez was in a vehicle travelling under an overpass when an EFP blew out his entire engine block, injuring his teammate in the passenger seat with high-velocity shrapnel. Sanchez said, “Its armor piercing and there’s nothing that can withstand that. It’s intensely devastating.”
The EFP incident was not the first or last scare for this Navy Combat Cameraman (Comcam) who’s been seared and stretched by battle fire. “I’m scared every time I go out. If someone tells you they get used to those experiences, they’re lying. It’ll always come back to haunt you. You remember brushes with death.”
Life changed for this former retail assistant manager, who walked into his local recruiting office in 2004 sporting a Mohawk and punk-rocker attitude. The recruiters looked at him and said, “Are you kidding me – you’re not serious?” A college degree and high ASVAB (aptitude) scores made them look beyond the exterior at Derek, who was hoping to get “a little more discipline in my life and a decent job.”
Sanchez is serious when it comes to shooting video and photographic intelligence vital to U.S. command posts in the theater of war. For a guy who’d choose boots on the ground taking a hail of gunfire every day over spending a week on a ship — he “just does his job.” The threats of EFPs, IEDs, or bullets and mortar are very concerning, but he states, “I think a bad mind is more dangerous than the machinery behind it. The mastermind behind the machinery is my enemy.”
Some of the best advice Sanchez received when he first got to training was from his best friend, Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Erik Wehnes. “He took me under his wing and told me to be real – authentic - knowing who I am and my mission, because that’s what your teammates want most.”
A Navy mass communications specialist combines four previously separate jobs into one — including photography, lithography, drafting and journalism. Mastering a menu of professional skills is challenging enough, but MC2 Sanchez has to also jump the hurdles of acceptance and respect. The toughest test for the guy with a camera attached to Navy Seal teams or Army Special Forces units is being thought of as one of their own.
When Sanchez was deployed with 10th Group Army Special Forces to Iraq, he had to improve the pre-conceived impressions that existed about those with his MOS (military occupational specialty). A former Army combat cameraman had panicked in a live fire situation, refusing to get out of the truck despite repeated orders, pleading he had a wife and kids.
“What better reason to get out of the vehicle? You fight to survive for your family,” Sanchez said. “You have to realize the biggest target is a vehicle. We’re tactically trained to dismount vehicles and engage in situations like that.” Sanchez not only did his job for 10th group, but they welcomed him as part of the team.
It’s not always possible to dismount and engage when an evil mastermind has planted his calling card under your seat. In Bagdad, when an Iraqi Sergeant Major of this country’s foreign partners got into his vehicle, an IED nearly sent him through the roof. “The only people that were there to respond were the team medic and me, the Comcam guy. Team medics are astonishing – they know what they’re doing. I had to help him try to save this officer, who lost half of his body.”
“I’ve been on missions where we build target packages and go after these bad guys. That’s our job. Once you develop relationships with your team, you depend on them in uncertain situations.” Sanchez adds, “It’s like the guardianship feeling parents give you — He’s got my back, I can scratch his. We’ll make it through this.”
Also on the MC2 skills menu was assisting Bravo Company 5th with FID (Foreign Internal Defense) training — teaching Iraqi and Afghan counterparts to do his job. “You get along with these guys, they know how to do it, but as soon as you go on mission, things go haywire and they don’t do the job. I wouldn’t say they are completely trustworthy either.” Despite generous support from the U.S. Navy, there have been accounts of these students turning during the training and shooting the instructor.
Whether teaching in a foreign classroom or gathering visual Intel with the U.S. Army, Navy, or Marines, Sanchez will strive to raise the Comcam bar. He relies on his training and self-confidence, “I know what they’re looking for in me when I go out there and what they expect of me. It’s performing under stress – some just can’t do it.
“I hear people say, ’My camera is my barrier that separates me from what’s going on.’ In my opinion, that’s stupid. They’re neglecting their own safety and that of others. It’s being aware in your situation and knowing ‘Hey, I’m going home soon and having that social support when you get back and the support from your command that allows you to get a good grasp on things.
“My reward is performing at a level which grants me success in what I do. I feel like I’m doing a good job, I’m physically fit and healthier than I was before. My mind is right.”
Sanchez calls Albuquerque, New Mexico, home, where his family resides. “My dad’s kind of a biker-dude. He’s proud I took a step forward and will back me no matter what. There are days when I pray I don’t pick up a video camera and days when I think it couldn’t get any better.”
More than a haircut has changed for Sanchez, who sports a hard-won attitude, “Be real, be focused. Don’t be apathetic. If you want something bad enough, you can make it happen.”
Sanchez was featured in Popular Photography Magazine’s November 2011 issue.