Corpsman receives hero's welcome in return to Kinnick High School
By Allison Batdorff, Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Friday, December 16, 2005

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — When Gilbert Rocha walked out of Nile C. Kinnick High School with a diploma, he was one student among all those in the graduating class of 2003.

When Rocha came back to the school this week, almost three years later, he had to walk alone through a tunnel of raised swords and face a cheering crowd.

But then, the 20-year-old Navy corpsman traded his cap and gown for a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star Medal.

“This is unexpected,” said Rocha, looking a tad embarrassed at being the center of attention at the Yokosuka Naval Base high school on Wednesday. “But it feels pretty good to be back.”

To earn high honors at such a young age is “crazy,” said student Corey Bauhs, 17, who waited to shake Rocha’s hand.

“He deserves it though,” Bauhs said.

Rocha was working a vehicle checkpoint in June in Anbar province in Iraq when two suicide car bombers aimed for him and the two Marines sharing the checkpoint.

“The two Marines were wounded; I was hit in the thigh,” Rocha said. He treated the Marines first and made sure they were medically evacuated before tending to himself, he said.

As a Kinnick student, Rocha was commanding officer of the school’s Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. The unit’s 124 members hosted a party on Wednesday for him.

“I’m glad to be home,” he told them. “There were a few moments there when I wasn’t sure if I’d get home again.”

Rocha’s leg now is “fully healed,” he said.

“He seemed so intimidating at first,” said Joyce Cao, who recalled sweating about going to Rocha for her NJROTC promotion when they were students. “Then I talked to him and he was nice. He knew what he was doing and you could tell that he loved ROTC.”

Omar Hasan retired from the Navy to instruct naval science. He knew Rocha as a freshman, he said.

“He was quiet and well-liked,” Hasan said. “Now’s he’s all grown up and we’re so proud of him.”

Rocha returns to the United States on Jan. 2, as he is stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C. But this week, he’ll talk to Kinnick students and show pictures of his seven-month tour in Iraq.

“It’s good for our kids to meet him,” Hasan said, calling Rocha a real-life role model. “Our kids think heroes are characters on video games, television and hip-hop videos. He’s a real person, an everyday guy, and it just feels good to know that we have a hero in our ranks.”