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On Island Profile: Antonio Sanpere


Nov. 12, 2006 — "The remarkable thing about Tony is not what he has gone through but how well he deals with it," says Ellen Sanpere, speaking about her husband, Antonio, a decorated Vietnam veteran and a sailor.
Sanpere was born in Spain in the 1940s. His family was forced to relocate to Argentina when he was three months old because his homeland was embroiled in civil war.
"My father was always looking for ways to make money," Sanpere says. To fulfill his father's entrepreneurial desires, the family moved again to Venezuela.
In 1960 the family found itself in Miami, where Sanpere decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. His reason was simple: "After three years of service you could apply for citizenship faster."
The Army shipped Sanpere to Germany during the Cold War while his family again relocated, this time to the Virgin Islands. After he finished his tour in Germany, Sanpere decided he wanted to be a career soldier and enlisted in officer-candidate school (OCS).
"We were considered the dumbest, oldest, highest-ranked officers in the school," Sanpere says.
He made sergeant in the Army when most OCS students held a lower rank, and he hadn't attended college at the time. OCS was hard for many of the 240 students in his class, he says, because, "They couldn't handle being treated like lesser-ranked officers; we were all sergeants."
He was the first of 111 students to make it through OCS that year.
Wanting to command a platoon, Sanpere negotiated his way into one. He commanded many platoons during his tour in Vietnam, specializing in avoiding detection by the enemy. Three months into his first tour, the Army told Sanpere to take much-needed "R&R" — rest and relaxation. He opted out of R&R for more combat time. This time Sanpere led a platoon. While thwarting an ambush, he got wounded.
To receive a higher rank in the military, Sanpere says, he knew he had to see more combat-command time: "For me, as a 27-year-old lieutenant, I was five years behind the West Point lieutenants," who were all competing for higher ranks. Sanpere decided to go to Vietnam.
"We were patrolling outside the perimeter, and when we returned to camp there was an ambush waiting for us," Sanpere says. He was in a chopper heading to camp when his colonel told him, "Your unit is trapped!"
"The only way to get out of an ambush is to attack it," Sanpere says, so he responded to the ambush with grenades and guns. He hit a mine that flipped him, breaking his left elbow and causing him to lose most of the hearing in his right ear and part of the hearing in his left. The mine he hit, made of 50 pounds of TNT, was five meters in front of him. Sanpere got covered in tiny pieces of shrapnel that later came out of his body naturally.
"Your body rejects that stuff," he says, noting that the pieces were miniscule — nothing like being hit with a bullet. His grenades, Sanpere says, landed "right between the legs of the bad guy."
The Army shipped Sanpere back to the U.S. with a record of only one soldier lost during combat. The soldier was a "tunnel rat," he says, and went into a tunnel before it was cleared by the unit, coming face to face with seven enemy soldiers. Sanpere rescued the wounded soldier, who later died en route to the hospital because of shock.
"So you get another medal," Sanpere scoffs. You "either get a medal or a court martial" for such acts, he says. Sanpere made quick decisions in combat that may have violated orders, he admits, insisting his first and only concern was his men.
"Don't risk the men," he says. "We got results without risking the men."
For his time in service Sanpere received many medals — he can't even remember how many. The ones he can recall include two good-conduct medals for his years of service, one national defense medal for his Cold War efforts, air medals for his hours in the air, five purple hearts, two bronze stars with an added "V" for valor and a silver star placed on his pillow while he was in the hospital.
After the war, Sanpere utilized the services offered to him by the military and got accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for engineering. But he chose to go to Boston University's engineering program because it had smaller classes. He returned to St. Croix after college to work with his father and brother at their used-car company in Christiansted's Basin Triangle. Later he moved to St. Thomas and began Tony Sanpere Auto Sales. "Those were simple days," he says.
Now Sanpere is a sailor. He participates in regattas around the world, and says his love for sailing began in St. Croix. He has more than 100 trophies from his time at sea, and says he will continue to compete.
After the Sept. 11 tragedy, Sanpere and his wife participated in Sail for America in memory of the people lost in the World Trade Center. The Sanperes proudly flew the V.I. flag on their sails, along with 25 names of people who died as a result of the attacks.
As for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, "We may lose a few over there to save thousands over here."
"I could care less about the politics," he says "I just knew that if I was there, the kids under my command would not die."
Sanpere's boat Cayenne III can be seen off the Christiansted waterfront, and he and his wife are gearing up for their next regatta in February.
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