A ceremony was held Wednesday (Sept. 30) to present University of Arkansas at Fort Smith student Robert Lopez a bronze star for actions he took while a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan.
Lopez, weighted down with 80 pounds of flak jacket and an M16 rifle, raced along the wall’s edge balancing on the foot-width ledge as bullets pinged the ground, kicking up dust around him. Minutes earlier in this remote Afghanistan town, the Marines had captured a house the Taliban had filled with ammunition and bombs. Then bullets began flying at them. Men dove for cover and no one knew where the shots came from.
Then Lopez began his run, followed by a machine gunner, to a nearby building’s roof where one of his men kept cover. He began firing his rifle and directed one of his squad to fire mortars toward the tree line. The firing stopped.
In the calm after the fight, Lopez tried to walk from the roof along the narrow ledge. He couldn’t do it. He had to find another way down.
“I’ve often wondered about that,” the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith senior said about that ledge run in 2010.
For that act and another, Lopez received the Bronze Star Medal with combat distinguishing device on Sept. 29. The commendation noted that Lopez upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States.
After Lopez’s parents, Domingo and Mercedes Lopez, pinned the Bronze Star Medal, Maj. Rhett Hansen spoke to the crowd gathered outside Las Americas, the family’s restaurant. He noted that Robert was involved in two heroic incidents.
“Usually there’s only one event,” he said, adding that as a non-commissioned officer Robert was responsible for mentoring and teaching the men under him. “He took care of his Marines in very serious circumstances.”
In June 2010, Lopez, although only a corporal, took over management of the squad after the sergeant suffered a concussion when one of their vehicles was blown up.
On Aug. 22, 2010 under Lopez’s leadership, a grenade made out of a water bottle landed close to the squad. As they turned and ran, one of the men fell. Lopez picked him up and then shielded the Marine with his body. After suffering shrapnel wounds to his arm, Lopez continued directing his squad to hit the insurgents’ house. On Aug. 23 came his run along the wall.
At the end of the ceremony, Robert presented the medal to his father.
“He’s a very humble man. Sometimes they don’t get the recognition that they should,” he said.
Domingo said he was surprised by his son’s gift.
“This is the best thing my son has given me,” he said. “He did a great job in the military and I’m very happy about that.”
In December, Lopez will become his family’s first college graduate, though his sister Patricia isn’t far behind as a junior at UAFS. He will move to McLean, Va., in January to begin a position with Ernst and Young.
“Only in America is where you can change your stripes,” Robert Lopez said, remembering his family’s arrival in Arkansas with only $100. “We went from an immigrant family and living kind of poor to being owners of a business and college graduates.”