More Than A Memory

Jordan Byrd turned down the opportunity to attend college. He instead became a combat medic, because he loved helping people and wanted immediate hands-on medical experience.

He never achieved his ultimate dream of becoming a doctor. Last October, a sniper killed Byrd while he was rescuing a wounded comrade in Afghanistan.

Byrd's legacy, however, will help students from his native state of Wyoming get the kind of college education he passed over so he could serve his country. He is one of 26 servicemembers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan who are memorialized by the Wyoming Fallen Hero Scholarship Program.

Leo Sanchez, a retired history teacher and member of American Legion Post 2 in Casper, started the scholarship program. He served with the Wyoming Army National Guard and the Marine Corps during the Korean War.

"I was so angry about the way the Vietnam veterans were treated that I said, ‘This is going to be different,'" says Sanchez, who assigned his junior-high students to send care packages to servicemembers in Southeast Asia as early as 1964. "I wanted to be sure these men are honored."

Sanchez founded the scholarship program in 2004 after attending the funeral of Shane Childers, the first servicemember from Wyoming killed in Iraq. Fallen Hero has since established a separate scholarship in the name of each servicemember with Wyoming ties who has made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan. That includes Manuel Davila, the only Wyoming soldier killed in Desert Storm.

Sanchez's goal is to raise at least $10,000 to endow each scholarship. His fundraising efforts include writing to every church in Wyoming to ask for donations. Families, veterans groups and other organizations are pitching in as well, with everything from raffling buffalo hunts to sponsoring 5-kilometer runs. The state will match the first $5,000 in private donations to every Fallen Hero scholarship. The resulting financial aid helps students attend the University of Wyoming or the community college nearest to the late servicemember's hometown.

The money is key to Shanda McCullough's ability to study nursing at Sheridan College in northern Wyoming.

"I'm so grateful," says McCullough, who meets the financial demands of a full college course load by waiting tables at a local steakhouse. "It's helped so much. I spend about $700 a semester just on textbooks."

The roster of fallen Wyoming heroes for whom scholarships are named includes Chance Phelps of Dubois, whose story was memorialized in the HBO movie "Taking Chance," starring Kevin Bacon. Michael Strobl, the retired Marine lieutenant colonel who wrote the story of "Taking Chance" from his own experiences, received The American Legion Patriot Award in 2009.

Sanchez has also arranged for the creation of a Norman Rockwell Moments portrait of each fallen servicemember to hang in the college nearest the hero's hometown, so they are never forgotten.

"Leo contacted us after seeing our portraits featured on the cover of The American Legion Magazine," said Steve Katzenberger of Portrait Image Media. "Leo's enthusiasm and commitment to honor Wyoming's Fallen Heroes is very impressive, and we are extremely honored to be working with the program and the families of these American heroes."

The American Legion has a resolution-driven relationship with Creative Street, which makes and markets the Norman Rockwell Moments portraits and promotes them at the national convention.

Most of the scholarship winners are chosen by lottery. "We make it accessible to everybody, no matter what the circumstances - rich or poor, good grades or bad," Sanchez says. "More people apply, and it keeps the name of the hero alive."

That pleases Lois Ann Wright, whose son, Robert Lucero, was killed in Iraq in 2003. "All scholarships should be done by lottery," she says. "That way, it's fair for everybody, no matter what their GPA is, no matter who they are, no matter what they want to do."

She notes that the Wyoming Army National Guard gave her son the opportunity to serve his country and take advantage of the military's college financial-aid programs. "He would think (the scholarship) is awesome," Wright says. "Just knowing that it helps somebody is enough."

The father of Jordan Byrd, the combat medic who gave his life in uniform last fall, says he's proud his late son's name will endure as part of the Fallen Hero program. "That scholarship is there to help someone in need," said Justin Brost, the fallen medic's dad. "That's Jordan's legacy. He was out there helping people. He's still helping people."