Army Pvt. Manuel Lopez Sanchez sat straight in his jet-black wheelchair, his face stern and chest out. He was at attention again.
But he couldn’t hold back his smile.
Gathered around the 84-year-old veteran Friday were about 40 family members and friends, standing in the den of his Rosemead home to watch him finally receive eight medals for his service during World War II.
As the pillow of medals was placed on his lap, tears welled up and he said, “I don’t think I deserve all this. I was fighting for my country.”
Over 52 years of marriage, his wife, Amelia, had urged him to seek the medals. He always refused, saying he thought medals should go to those who died in combat. Sanchez had come close. He received 86 wounds from shrapnel during the Normandy invasion and was spared only when he fell in the mud, which prevented him from bleeding to death.
Death would not find him in battle. But now it was at the door.
In February, doctors discovered malignant tumors in his brain and lungs and said he could have fewer than six months to live.
Just before Sanchez’s tumors were discovered, Rep. Hilda L. Solis had visited a Rosemead senior center asking if anyone who served in the military had not received his medals.
Sanchez’s wife pressed him again, and when the diagnosis came in, he finally relented. But getting the medals usually would take more than a year. Sanchez didn’t have that kind of time.
So Solis made sure he got them.
She said Friday that Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq moved her to take action to help current and former solders receive their medals and to inform families of their rights should they lose a loved one.
“I saw a lot of our men coming back -- a lot coming back in body bags,” she said.
She said many families of veterans are unaware of which medals or financial services are available to them.
Sanchez was born in 1921 and enlisted in the Army in 1942. He became a machine gunner in the 1st Division, and says he was one of the first Mexican Americans to serve. He received two Purple Hearts, reflecting gunshot wounds from his service in North Africa and the extensive shrapnel wounds received while fighting in Normandy, after which he needed 16 blood transfusions.
His wife says he now has frequent flashbacks, brought on by medication, she believes. She says he often screams, “Get down! Get down!”
Sanchez’s two grandchildren were among those gathered Friday. One -- Kevin Keeland, 19 -- patted his grandfather’s left shoulder as Solis presented Sanchez his medals, including the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman Badge and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.
Keeland has been accepted into West Point, pending passing a physical exam, and is considering a career in the military.
Sanchez’s devotion to the armed services was clear Friday. “My life was complete when I joined the war,” he said.
“I don’t need thanks or nothing for doing something for my country,” Sanchez added, his voice wavering. “I just feel lucky to be alive.”