FORT HOOD, TX – When Staff Sgt. Benjamin Westrich won third place in the lightweight division at the 2011 U.S. Army Combatives Championship here July 23, it meant more to him than a plaque and a handshake. It meant much more for many people.
Westrich, an Individual Readiness Training instructor at Fort Carson, Colo., competed for Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Socha, the senior enlisted leader of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) who has been battling late-stage lung cancer for more than a year.
“You’re the one who goes out and fights, but it’s your teammates who get you there,” Westrich said. “He’s dedicating his entire life to the Army. I feel it’s the least I can do as a Soldier in his Army.”
Westrich first learned about Socha’s plight when the 10th SFG(A) combatives team combined with the Fort Carson team in preparation for the tournament.
“One of their (noncommissioned officers) mentioned that the 10th Group sergeant major had potentially terminal cancer, but he was still checking up on the team and making sure they had everything that they needed,” Westrich said.
According to Westrich, seeing Socha’s dedication in person really hit home.
“This is a guy who has a lot of stuff that should, rightfully, distract him from what he is doing here with the Army,” Westrich said. “Just seeing someone actually put the mission first, in every aspect of his life, is truly impressive to me.”
Socha was an important influence for every member of the team, according to Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Irby, Option Training Company commander for 10th Special Forces Group.
“Frank was the guy who pushed combatives so much in 10th Group,” Irby said. “He had the vision, and he pushed it down to the battalions.”
The idea to dedicate the team’s fights to Socha was laid out on the first day of training camp.
“If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here,” said Capt. Jonathan Fagins, a Fort Carson team member from 4th Battalion, 10th SFG(A).
Despite having a limited amount to training time, the team secured two third place finishes at this year’s championship tournament.
“It’s one of those things that I can’t wait to get him on the phone and let (Socha) know,” Irby said. “I’m going to be able to go back and show the group commander that the combatives piece has validated itself in competition.”
Due to chemotherapy, Socha was unable to attend the competition.
“We wish he was here,” Irby said. “For him to be able to see the matches next year is my hope and goal.”
According to Irby, however, many of the fighters fought as though Socha was in the stands.
“No one likes to lose, but one of the things some of these guys were most upset about is that they couldn’t represent Frank later on in the competition,” Irby said. “We were just glad to have some guys in the late rounds for him.”
Irby said that many of the fighters adopted Socha’s never-give-up attitude.
“I never saw anybody even start to quit,” Irby said. “There wasn’t an ounce of quitting from any single member of our team from Fort Carson. We all did great.”
Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Charpenter, 1st Battalion, 10th SFG(A) out of Stuttgart, Germany, credits that spirit to Socha’s involvement in the combatives program.
“He was the kind of guy who, despite still fighting his battles, was still checking on me,” Charpenter said. “That meant a lot to me, personally. I think he touched a lot of people that way.”
Irby said that the Fort Carson team’s success holds special meaning.
“We continue to push for him getting healthy,” Irby said. “Everybody here doesn’t know who he is, but for those of us who do, our fights meant a lot.”
Irby also said that Frank Socha holds special meaning.
“I’ll tell you this, and I’ve told him this to his face,” Irby said, “in all my time in Special Forces, he’s the best command sergeant major that I’ve known.”