Robert 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 from where the shots came.
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 – 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 of 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.”
Lopez knew he had been nominated for the medal five years ago and said he had promised it to his father. But it somehow faltered as the nomination and witness statements made its way up the chain of command. He didn’t worry too much about it. He didn’t join the Marines after graduating from Van Buren High School in 2007 for medals.
With the war winding down, Lopez decided to leave the Marines after he finished his four-year stint in 2011.
“What are you going to do as an infantryman when there’s no war to fight? That was my Super Bowl. That was what we wanted to do,” he said.
“This is the best thing my son has given me. He did a great job in the military and I’m very happy about that.”
Four years ago, Lopez returned to Arkansas for inactive duty and enrolled at the UAFS. A conversation with a Federal Bureau of Investigation recruiter led him to seek a degree in accounting. When he found that he enjoyed the work, he added finance as a second major and decided not to work for the FBI.
Then at the end of the summer in 2015, Lopez’s former staff sergeant called him and wanted to know if he ever received the Bronze Star. The staff sergeant resent the nomination up the chain of command.
“It was nice to see that the leaders still cared about me even though I wasn’t there anymore,” he said.
Lopez describes those acts of valor as just doing his job, the one he wanted to do since a child, the one where he ran toward the bullets.
“I couldn’t leave my guys there to be shot and killed,” he said about that day running on the wall. “I couldn’t live with myself if one of my guys was killed because I was scared.”
But Lopez does see the Bronze Star as a tribute for his father, for his family. They emigrated from El Salvador, eventually settling in Van Buren. His parents worked and built their restaurant business.
“Some just see us as an immigrant family. Now they can see we can give something back,” Lopez said. “America has given us a lot. I’m giving back. It’s given us a restaurant. It’s given me a college education. It’s given me a full-time job. That’s the American dream.”
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, Virginia, in January to begin a position with Ernst and Young.
Four years in the Marines instilled in Lopez discipline and drive. Four years of studying and participation in various organizations at UAFS gave him the tools to be a successful professional.
“Only in America is where you can change your stripes,” he 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.”