FORT KNOX, Ky. — From a young age, Adrian Sanchez knew the value of perseverance.
Sanchez’s family migrated from Mexico to California before he was born. His great-grandmother toiled in the fields of California. His grandmother worked long hours in a textile factory. And, his mother began working at age 16 to provide for her family. They were diligent, he says, and “found a way to make life work.”
“Everything I did in my life, I knew was a reflection of my mom, my grandmother, and really, the hardships and struggles that they went through to put my whole family in a position to potentially succeed,” Sanchez said.
His perception growing up was "work, pay your bills and take care of your family." It’s what his family did. As a teen, Sanchez saw himself following their example, but college was never really on his radar.
“No one in my family ever really finished the whole college thing. The kind of barriers there for first-generation Americans and college are pretty big,” Sanchez said. “When you don’t know about the SATs or scholarships, college really isn’t a thing. Or, it is a thing, but you just aren’t as educated on it.”
When he graduated from Eastlake High School in 2007, Sanchez attended a local community college in Chula Vista, California but dropped out after one semester.
“It seemed like a bigger high school and I was unprepared for the level of work that showed up,” he said.
On top of being unprepared academically, Sanchez couldn’t decide on a career path he wanted to study. He felt like he was wasting money. Because of this, he felt an immense amount of pressure to get a job and start providing for himself.
Sanchez entered the work force and stepped into the same pattern he’d seen for generations — work, bills, family. Over the next four years, Sanchez began to feel a pull in a different direction. He wasn’t sure what the direction would be, but “I wanted to do something else with my life,” he said.
An idea began brewing after he watched one of his childhood friends enlist in the Army. Sanchez observed from the sidelines as his friend climbed the ranks, jumped at opportunities, and traveled the world. Sanchez was inspired and, “on a whim” in 2011, he walked into a recruiting office in San Diego and enlisted.
The first in his family to join the service, Sanchez said it was a little intimidating.
“If you asked my mom and my grandma at the time, they thought that the Army would just go off and shoot people” he said.
As an enlisted soldier, Sanchez completed Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) to become an intelligence analyst with Signal Corps. Working as an intelligence analyst gave him the opportunity to travel the world — something he’d never dreamed possible.
“I was the first person in my family to go really far from home,” said Sanchez. He’s worked and traveled in England, Germany, Belgium, France, and even the Republic of Georgia.
Sanchez began to climb the ranks. After five years in the Army, he was a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO), a husband and father. He wanted to continue his service in the Army, but found inspiration in a different direction.
He’d seen a childhood best friend and fellow NCO go Green-to-Gold. Sanchez attended the ceremony as his friend’s first salute — a gesture traditionally reserved for a soldier who has been influential in that Officer’s life.
“I knew he was going to school, but never asked how he was doing it. Then, when I was his first salute, I asked him, ‘Can I do that?’”
From there Sanchez’s Army career took another turn. He applied for college through the Green-to-Gold Program. The program is designed to offer enlisted soldiers in the Army the opportunity to earn a commission as an Army officers.
Sanchez was accepted into the program and returned back home to California as an Army ROTC Cadet at San Diego State University.
“That was kind of like my first real intro to college, which I’m insanely grateful for. I got to go back as an older, and, what I like to think of as a more mature student,” he said.
In 2017, Sanchez learned he would be branching Infantry. He wasn’t thrilled with the branching decision since he’d hoped to stay in Signal Corps. But, he “embraced the suck” and resolved to make the best of his assignment. Sanchez finished school and received his Bachelor’s Degree in International Security and Conflict Resolution, and commissioned as an Infantry Officer in the United States Army.
After four years as an Infantry Officer, Sanchez said he wouldn’t change anything about his career path.
“I just learned a lot about myself,” he said. “I learned that I could push myself when I thought that I had reached my breaking point.”
In 2018, Sanchez led 36 infantrymen into Syria on a deployment “doing things we didn’t think we were going to do,” he said. “We brought every one of them home safely. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”
As promotion time neared in 2020 for 1st Lt. Sanchez, he came across an opportunity to work with a different type of team — high school and college-aged kids. The General Cavazos Internship Program aims to put Hispanic officers in the pathways of Hispanic teens. With the officer’s influence and guidance, the Army hopes to increase interest within ROTC and commissioning programs among the Hispanic population.
Sanchez applied to the internship program early in 2020 and was selected. Now a Captain, he is currently a Military Science instructor at Arizona State University. He loves giving back and bringing a positive Army influence into Spanish-speaking communities.
“I know there are not a lot of senior leaders who look like me, who speak Spanish, and who come from the same type of backgrounds,” he said. “For me, it’s about talking to the families and saying, ‘I grew up on the streets of L.A. too, and I know that there are tons of road blocks [with school].”
Part of his role in the program is to ensure prospective Cadets and their families have information and guidance to make a confident decision about joining Army ROTC. Sanchez said most colleges don’t have Spanish language information that explains ROTC programs and how they connect to education. Sanchez relates to this experience, since the same type of information wasn’t available to him as a teen.
A large portion of the barriers Sanchez faced as a young Mexican-American in the Army, he says, have faded away—but some still exist. These barriers, and how he experienced them, are what make him relatable.
“I can kind of serve as the model of ‘Hey, I was like you at one point — racial backgrounds aside — there are successes in the military,’” he said. “The mission of Cadet Command is to first and foremost get kids their degrees, and we’re a pathway to opening the doors of higher education. If I can relieve one stigma for one family, I think I’ve fulfilled the intent for what this mission is.”
He works to communicate a realistic picture for what Army ROTC, college, and a career with the Army might look like.
“We can’t pull the wool over anyone’s eyes,” he said. “Will it at times be difficult? Yeah, but I will be here with you while it’s difficult.”
As the Cavazos intern for ASU, Sanchez serves as a bridge to help guide Army ROTC students in the right direction. He feels confident his ASU team is building resilient leaders while matching Cadets with the best branch to enhance their talents.
“Now I’m in a position where I could potentially have a really good impact or a really negative impact across someone’s life,” he said. “We all wear name tags that say ‘U.S. Army,’ so when I think about myself as a leader, I like to think of myself as a leader for any soldier regardless of their job.”
The way he says it, you know he’s said it before. There’s respect and pride in his voice. This is Sanchez’s career goal, and something he sees as attainable, thanks to the Army.
Captain Paolo Bonventre is a friend and fellow Infantry Officer. He agrees that Sanchez has the passion and drive to make a positive impact.
“I think what Sanchez does is provide a really good representation of a Mexican-American in the ranks — especially in the Infantry — because it’s so white-man dominated,” Bonventre said. “When you do see that he’s a minority, coming in and taking charge and crushing it, I think a guy can look at Adrian and relate to him.”
Sanchez hopes his experiences serve as an example to others — a type of inspiration — for those soldiers who might not think that next step in the Army is possible.
“They can see him as someone they can look up to. If he can do it—they can too,” Bonventre said.
Having experienced first-hand the Army’s slow, yet steady transformation to reach a more diverse population, Sanchez said he’s been able to take advantage of more possibilities now than he would have ten years ago.
“If I can be [a Colonel] and show that it’s 100 percent attainable through hard work, dedication, and care, then I think that’s the angle I want to take,” he said. “If diversity isn’t working in the Army, I don’t think I’d be in this position right now.”
About Army ROTC
Army ROTC is one of the best leadership courses in the country and is part of your college curriculum. Through classes and field training, Army ROTC provides you with the tools to become an Army Officer without interfering with your other classes. ROTC also provides you with discipline and money for tuition while enhancing your college experience.
Army ROTC offers pathways to becoming an Army Officer for high school students, current active duty Soldiers, and for current National Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers through the Simultaneous Membership Program.
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