FORT MCCOY, WIS. – Shortly before Christmas, it became heartbreakingly clear that the young daughter of a First Army Soldier was losing her long battle with cancer.
Sophia Sanchez was moved to hospice. Her family – including her father, Sgt. 1st Class Reuben Gonzalez of the 181st Infantry Brigade – gathered around her. A Facebook group – Singing for Sophia – put out a call for people to come sing Christmas carols outside the little girl’s Wisconsin home.
Then her Army family arrived. The commander, command sergeant major, and several Soldiers from the 337th Brigade Support Battalion visited to lift her spirits. One Soldier dressed as Santa. Even for troops used to hard days at work and on the battlefield, the afternoon was a gut punch for everyone in the room.
“For the last part of her time on Earth we made sure she felt appreciated by her extended Army family,” said the 377th’s Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth H. Marshall, Jr.
Sophia died two days after Christmas, her family at her side. In an obituary in a local newspaper, her family described her “spark plug” personality, her infectious smile and a wisdom far greater than her 12 short years. She loved sunflowers and sunshine and took great pride in being “sassy.”
“Around 8:20 a.m.,” her mother Jennifer wrote on social media that night, “heaven gained the most beautiful angel, the most precious being we’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing and raising.”
In an Army increasingly focused on being a People First organization, the care showed to young Sophia’s family illustrates the impact connected leaders can have on their Soldiers, teammates and families. Gonzalez, an observer coach trainer for 1-377 BSB, was deeply moved by the support from Peterson and other leaders within First Army.
“When I got to the organization, Sergeant Maj. Peterson’s first concern was why I was here. He didn’t ask what could I do for him, but instead asked what he could do for me,” Gonzalez said. “He could have clocked out, checked out. He came in late one day and called the emergency room to make sure I got a grant to help with medical expenses. He went above and beyond to help me.”
Three weeks after Sophia’s death, as Command Sgt. Maj. Peterson retired after 31 years of service, Sgt. 1st Class Gonzalez arrived with a personal and emotional gift.
It was a framed photo of Sophia, surrounded in her final days by all the 181 Soldiers who’d loved her.