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Lincoln’s ChalleNGe Academy Puts Wayward Teen on Path to Becoming Top Army National Guard Soldier

RANTOUL, Illinois – In the early 1990s, Jose Sanchez was a teen hanging with a crowd that had him headed to jail, or worse.

And then he got in trouble with police as a juvenile. “I was terrified. I didn’t know how to tell my parents,” Sanchez said. He was only 15.

Fast-forward nearly three decades later and now Sgt. Maj. Jose Sanchez has 26 years of service, is the top logistics noncommissioned officer in the Illinois Army National Guard and is continuing a successful career as a Cicero (Illinois) Police sergeant. He now leads his department’s Special Operations Division. He’s deployed twice. From 2003 to 2004 he deployed for 16-months with the North Riverside-based 1244th Transportation Co., taking part in the invasion of Iraq. From 2010 to 2011 he deployed again to Iraq with the 1244th. This time the unit was among the last units out of Iraq as they moved military equipment from Iraq to Kuwait. He’s earned the Bronze Star, three Army Commendation Medals and the Combat Action Badge. He lead and mentored hundreds of Soldiers in the North Riverside-based 198th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 108th Sustainment Brigade as the unit’s command sergeant major for about two years until being selected as the Illinois Army National Guard headquarter’s G4 (Logistics) sergeant major in October. As the G4 sergeant major, he is the top logistics NCO in the ILARNG.

His rebound from a teenager standing before a juvenile court judge to an accomplished Army leader and civilian police officer started with Lincoln’s ChalleNGe Academy. He grew up in rough neighborhood in Chicago and then his parents moved the family to Maywood, which he said was just as bad. His parents worked all the time just to put food on the shelves, he said. “And I was lying to them.”

Sanchez said his life could have easily gone in a completely different direction. He blew off his first court appearance. “I was being dumb,” he said. He was summoned to court again and this time he went. “The judge asked me why I missed my first court date and I just kind of shrugged my head,” Sanchez said. “Then he took me back” to the jail cells. “It changed my life completely.”

It was then that Sanchez realized he did not want to go to jail. “I was scared. I thought I knew about things, but I did not.”

He got a second chance. This led him to this new quasi-military program that the Illinois National Guard was running called Lincoln’s ChalleNGe Academy.

“I had heard of it,” Sanchez said. “Back then it was a new place that just opened in 1993. Kids would go there to change their lives and get a better direction. I had never really considered anything military, but it was my best option for my future.”

Before he entered Lincoln’s ChalleNGe, Sanchez said his options seemed limited. “Where I come from, it seemed that everyone either became a gang-banger or a factory worker, and that’s what they did their whole life.”

But one of the Lincoln’s ChalleNGe cadre, a military staff sergeant, saw something in Sanchez. “He said, ‘Look kid, just because you are from there, that is not who you are.’ He saw how the other cadets gravitated toward me. He told me ‘You’re a natural born leader.’”

When Sanchez arrived in Rantoul for the academy’s 22-week in-residence phase in 1995, he didn’t know what to expect. “For a 16-year-old, it was a big step,” Sanchez said. “This was the first time I would have been away from home. I spoke with my parents, and this was the path I was going to take.”

The military environment took some adjustment.

“It was a total shock at first,” Sanchez said. “There were all these different kids from everywhere. There were cadre in their military uniforms yelling at us. For some, it was a hard time to adjust. Once I got used to routine and structure, I knew this was a challenge that I could take on. It wasn’t scary anymore.”

As the days passed, he learned what he needed to do to graduate. The schedules, discipline, marching, morning physical training – it was all part of a program meant to build resilience and character in these young men and women.

“We’d call the cadences while marching, do the (physical training), and go to school, but one of the things that really had an effect on me was the cadre,” he said. “They were there with us every day. They became our support and foundation.”

To this day, Sanchez models some of the leadership he learned from Lincoln’s ChalleNGe Academy cadre. Whenever he visits the battalion’s companies, he’s known to huddle up with the NCOs to learn firsthand from them. What are their concerns, their complaints, their ideas – how can he better support them as the battalion commander’s senior enlisted advisor?

Like the command sergeant major, the Lincoln ChalleNGe cadre start off tough, but the cadets soon learn that they care about each of them. “Those examples of leadership were a turning point. I was successful because my cadre looked out for me and helped me along the way,” Sanchez said. “Some days they were tough because they needed to be, but they were there for everyone.”

Sanchez graduated from Lincoln’s ChalleNGe in January 1996, one of 343 graduates in Class 5. He would become command sergeant major of the 198th CSSB in February 2022. While there was a lot of growth and development between graduating from LCA and becoming a battalion CSM, the academy gave him a good foundation to continue to develop his leadership skills.

Sanchez said that as a sergeant he led by example by being a hard worker. As a staff sergeant and a sergeant first class he was a disciplinarian enforcing the standards. “After E-7, that’s when I really learned to become a servant leader. We are here to serve Soldiers, not the other way around,” he said. He still enforces the standards and he’s learned to listen to Soldiers. “You never know what’s going on in a Soldier’s life unless you listen and have some empathy.”

Lt, Col. Danielle Price, the Commander of the 198th CSSB, said that Sanchez gave her “different lenses” to look at issues that required her command decisions. She gave an example of an NCO in a subordinate company that was having issues with his military obligations. “He told me that the behavior was uncharacteristic of that NCO.” As the command team delved into the problem, they found that the NCO was struggling with personal issues that Price said were “detrimental and, in fact, catastrophic.”

Together they helped get the Soldier the resources needed to assist with the personal issues and the NCO’s military performance has improved. “He helped get him on the right track and now he is in much better standing with his unit leadership,” Price said. “The Soldier felt that we were not giving up on him and that meant a lot to him and his family.”

Price said that Sanchez is humble and willing to share his experiences and his struggles with his Soldiers. During the “Restore Trust” initiative he shared his experiences with counter-productive leadership and mistreatment based on discrimination, Price said. “He’s very relatable and willing to step out of his comfort zone. He builds trust with the enlisted Soldiers and NCOs.” Sanchez said that graduating from LCA, meeting that challenge, gave him a sense of accomplishment.

“My family was proud of me. I was proud of me,” Sanchez said. “After everything I experienced, it gave me a different direction. I decided to join the Illinois Army National Guard.” Approximately one year after graduation, Sanchez enlisted in the Illinois Army National Guard as a motor transportation specialist.

“Going into Basic Training - everything felt familiar,” Sanchez said. “The structure, routine, and leadership. I felt like this was a natural step for me.”

Sanchez served in many positions. He was the first sergeant for the 1744th Transportation Company for more than five years after serving in the 1244th Transportation Company for the first 19 years of his career. But as a sergeant in the 1244th, Sanchez was at a crossroads in his service. “Honestly, I had some crappy leadership. I had some that were telling me not to go to (leadership) schools, that they needed me too much at (annual training). They were setting me up for failure.”

Then he met Capt. Shawn Nokes and 1st Sgt. Jeff Sima, the new command team of the 1244th Transportation Company. They changed the whole command climate. Nokes and Sima showed they cared and worked to help advance the careers of their Soldiers. They got Sanchez into the schools he needed and got him promoted to staff sergeant. “That’s a big reason I stayed in.”

Nokes would later serve as the battalion commander of the 198th CSSB with Sanchez as the command sergeant major. Sima is a brigade command sergeant major.

“When I met Sgt. Maj. Sanchez, he had told me about his experience in the Guard and his background,” said Nokes, who is now a colonel and in command of the Springfield-based 129th Regiment (Regional Training Institute). Nokes said he learned about Sanchez's experience in the academy and how it changed his life’s direction.

“His stories about the academy are incredible,” Nokes said. “You have this place that works with youth. It brings them in and puts all this effort, guidance, and support to help the next generation. The academy has been around for 30 years and there is a generation who are now leaders in our military and in our communities, all over the nation.”

Nokes said Sanchez's experience shows the effect of what leadership, care, and support can produce.

“There are just more than 16,000 graduates from Lincoln’s ChalleNGe, even more with their sister academies across the nation,” said Nokes. “Sgt. Maj. Sanchez is one of many success stories from Lincoln’s ChalleNGe. The foundation of what he learned there has only been refined by his military service and his other careers.”

Nokes said Sanchez continues to pay forward the lessons he learned as a 16-year-old at Lincoln’s ChalleNGe Academy.

“Leadership is what makes people and units strong and he is a Soldier who uses his experience and growth to continue to inspire young Soldiers and prepare a new generation,” Nokes said.

“He’s risen to great heights in two careers,” said Command Sgt. Maj. (ret.) Mike Behary, the former State Command Sergeant Major for the Illinois Army National Guard. Behary was the 198th CSSB’s command sergeant major when Sanchez was the first sergeant for the Crestwood-based 1744th Transportation Co. “He was very engaged and involved, but he wasn’t an attention seeker. He’d talk about what the unit was doing and what his Soldiers were accomplishing. He was humble when it came to his accomplishments – it was all about the team.”

Resilience – the ability to bounce back despite adversity – is a skill that Sanchez has developed throughout his career. “Life can be a roller coaster,” he said. His first deployment was a prime example. After a year of living in tents with no air conditioning in one of the hottest countries on earth, running dangerous missions into Iraq, and sometimes not being able shower for close to three weeks at a time, the unit was getting ready to go home. Then, just before the Illinois Soldiers were about to fly that big jetliner back to the states, the unit got extended for six months.

“When I called back home, my parents thought I was joking,” Sanchez said. “It was hard.” The situation in Fallujah had gotten very bad, very fast, and the truckers were needed to rush supplies to the fight. The Soldiers’ morale took a hit, but they steeled themselves and pushed on. “One of the NCOs made a point. He said, ‘Soldiers are dying there.’” They needed the 1244th Transportation Company’s help.

Sanchez said that he still sometimes struggles with self-doubt despite all he’s accomplished in two separate careers. “Never in a million years did I think I’d make command sergeant major. Even when I was scheduled to go to the Sergeants Major Academy, I was thinking I’m not good enough – that all I have is a GED. But I always had someone who believed in me – who would help push me out of my comfort zone.”

“I’ve been blessed with great mentors,” he said. “If I had the same effect on others – even if it’s just one Soldier – then I can call my career a success.”

Sergeant Major Jose Sanchez’s Leadership Lessons Learned:

  1. Be empathetic to your Soldiers. Get to know them and understand their lives when they are not in uniform. Sweep floors with them and pick up the latrine. “You get to know the true capabilities of your unit by getting to know the Soldiers.”

  2. Be humble. Humanize your rank. Talk to your Soldiers and be honest with them. Learn from them and follow up with them. “Get to know your Joes.”

  3. Serve as a mentor and accept mentorship. “Talk to people who will help you get out of your comfort zone and help others do the same.”

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