Traumatized ex-soldier died trying to 'find peace' on the Appalachian Trail
By ARELIS R. HERNÁNDEZ, TOM JACKMAN | The Washington Post | Published: May 18, 2019
The physical injuries kept Ronnie Sanchez Jr. from moving as fast as he wanted on the Appalachian Trail, but it was the unseen wounds that almost made him quit.
After 16 years in the Army and three tours in Iraq as a combat engineer, it took the 43-year-old veteran years to emerge from a cloud of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that had kept him locked up in his house in Oklahoma City and avoiding other people.
But he did it, little by little, slow and determined, by rediscovering his love of the outdoors. He biked. He raced dragon boats. He learned how to ride horses. And in February, Sanchez decided to take on another challenge in a life full of them.
He would attempt a "thru-hike" of the Appalachian Trail - all 2,192 miles from Georgia to Maine - beginning the journey earlier than most because his pace would be slow. Of the 5,000 hikers who would register this season, Sanchez was No. 21 on the list. Partway in, problems with his knees and shoulders - the subject of repeated surgeries after years in the military - forced him off the trail for weeks.
"If you get discouraged, it's hard to come back from that," said hostel owner Colin Gooder, who persuaded Sanchez to take a break and work for him at his North Carolina shelter - a rest that gave Sanchez the strength to continue hiking.
Sanchez adopted the trail name "Stronghold." And by early May, he had made it to southwestern Virginia - 545 miles into his odyssey.
Then, sometime early on the morning of May 11, a man who had frightened others along the trail with his erratic behavior allegedly invaded the camp that Sanchez and three others had set up in Wythe County. The man threatened to burn the hikers' tents, and they decided to leave, the FBI said. But as they tried to leave the campsite, the man confronted the group with a long knife, and eventually stabbed two of them, killing Sanchez.
The alleged attacker, James Louis Jordan, 30, of Yarmouth, Massachusetts, was charged with murder and assault, and ordered held for a psychiatric evaluation. Sanchez's family, friends and the hiking community were left mourning.
"His heart was really big," said Sanchez's ex-wife, Elizabeth Sanchez, who said she had remained good friends with Sanchez even after their separation. "He would help anybody. He was excited to get to Maine.
"It's so devastating he died like this," Sanchez said, "after all those deployments."
Ronald Sanchez Jr. was born and raised in Garden Grove, California, near Anaheim, along with three brothers and one sister, his ex-wife said. He graduated from Santiago High School in 1994 and entered the Army in April 1995, Army records show. He deployed to Iraq in 2003, 2005 and 2007, the Army said, and retired from the Army in 2011. In Iraq, he worked on bridges and construction projects and was also tasked with driving top commanders around the country, Elizabeth Sanchez said.
After he left the Army, he lived in Missouri and fell into a deep depression. His ex-wife said he spent his days sleeping and his nights watching television and playing video games. Sanchez told the Oklahoman last year that he rarely went outside and did so only late at night to avoid being around people. "I sat around and ate junk food," he said.
But Veterans Affairs suggested that he should move to Oklahoma City, where VA administers many recreation programs for recovering vets. He began cycling, and he told the Oklahoman, "These programs at the VA just kind of opened it up for me." He had just finished a 64-mile ride, and Elizabeth Sanchez said he also had become involved with dragon boats, in addition to the hiking he had always done with his family and his ex-wife.
Elizabeth Sanchez said that in addition to hiking the Appalachian Trail, "he really wanted to ride a bike across the U.S., to raise veteran awareness. It meant a lot to him to help veterans."
Gooder, owner of the Gooder Grove Adventure Hostel, said he was surprised by the number of veterans he'd encounter on the trail.
"When I first started operating a hostel, there were a number of veterans that came through that were trying to heal wounds," he said. "The trail helps them heal. Nature deserves all the credit for that."
Sanchez was no exception. The pain was intense when he first came to the hostel, and he was not sure he could continue. But Gooder said he wouldn't let Sanchez give up. He offered Sanchez a place to stay in exchange for helping him run the place for a few weeks.
The hostel had only three rules: "Be kind. Be kind of clean and just be," he said.
Sanchez helped Gooder turn over rooms. He said Sanchez took meditative walks to test his legs as he recovered. Gooder taught him some tai chi techniques he had learned to help him align his knees correctly when he hiked. But there were other problems that required more time.
"He was looking to find peace because he had what we call the 'monkey mind' in tai chi," Gooder said. "He couldn't shut his brain off and the memories kept coming through."
After a time fortifying his mind and body, Sanchez set out again.
They spoke for only a few minutes, but hiker Dawn Maxwell won't soon forget her passing encounter with the veteran. It was Feb. 25, and Stronghold was pushing north. His build and gait signaled to Maxwell that he was ex-military. The braces on his knees told her he was suffering. And a soft smile beneath the black scruff of his mustache telegraphed the contentment of a man who had overcome.
On that sunny, unseasonably warm winter day, he was the only person on the trail. Maxwell, a Chicago attorney known as "Tinkerbell" on the trail, was headed south. Sanchez was going in the other direction. When he saw her, the Army veteran moved to the side to let her pass and she stopped to talk.
"He was just a real gentleman," Maxwell said. "I had a 15- to 20-minute conversation, and I just remember thinking it was a beautiful day and I was having the most pleasant conversation with this man."
Sanchez confessed he was in pain. They talked about the terrain, the weather, what to expect next on the trail and shuttles he could catch to a hostel. It occurred to Maxwell to connect him to another hiker and soldier also suffering from PTSD.
"It happens all the time on the trail," Maxwell said. "People really open up to other hikers. People get lonely out there. And I'm a real talker, and he was very open."
Other hikers who met Sanchez along the trail were effusive in describing his compassion and kindness. They posted their remembrances on the Hiker Yearbook Facebook page, echoing memories of a man who they imagine tried to protect those around him when the group was ambushed.
"If God had asked for someone to raise their hand to volunteer and save everyone else on the trail from being hurt or killed, Ron would've been the guy to raise his hand," Gooder said. "It almost makes sense that it was him. He was that selfless."
Elizabeth Sanchez said her ex-husband was an experienced camper and calm in dangerous situations. During one trip in California, a bear wandered into their campsite, taking food and making eye contact with him. It then turned and walked away.
"He was really cautious," she said, noting that he carried a knife but never a gun on the trail. "He felt safe out there."
Elizabeth Sanchez said she believed the woman who was also stabbed during the incident, who survived, was a recent acquaintance who had just met Sanchez. Canadian media have described her as being from Nova Scotia.
"You can't help but try to picture it," she said. "I just picture him telling the guy, 'Get out of here, just leave us alone.' "
The FBI said in an affidavit that Sanchez, an unidentified woman and another man and woman were in the process of packing up their campsite to escape the threatening hiker when he attacked. The man and woman fled into the woods, and the man chased them but did not catch them, the affidavit said. Then the man returned to the campsite and repeatedly stabbed Sanchez while the unidentified woman fled, the FBI alleged.
The attacker then tracked down the woman and stabbed her until she lay down and pretended to be dead, authorities said. She then fled into a neighboring county.
Local authorities said Sanchez had managed to send an SOS signal from his phone. But when sheriff's deputies found him he was dead, with a 20-inch knife near his body. A short distance away, they found Jordan in bloody clothes.
The traumatized trail community - or the "AT tramily" - plans to gather this weekend to honor "Stronghold" in a vigil that will bring hundreds of hikers to Damascus, Virginia, for the annual Appalachian Trail Days Festival.
Matthew "Odie" Norman is a trail angel - someone who helps hikers along their way - who met the accused killer in early May, gave him a ride and bought him a bus ticket to get him away from the trail. On May 15, Norman posted a black-and-white photo on his well-read "Hiker Yearbook" page of three pairs of feet he said belonged to the survivors of the attack: "They are all doing well, a little broken, but no where near defeated."
When tragedy strikes the Appalachian Trail, it is tradition for fellow hikers to find ways to continue the journey for those who can no longer walk. Sometimes, they carry a photo of their comrade. Sometimes they take a piece of gear to the peak of a mountain as a memorial. But there is only one true way to honor an Appalachian Trail hiker, they say.
Finish the trail.