PASCO -- When Army Spc. Chris Sanchez lands at Tri-Cities Airport on Wednesday, he will be a stone's throw away from his new ride and the good Samaritans fixing it up for free.
Two students at Columbia Basin College's automotive program have spent a lot of time on a Chevrolet Caprice belonging to Sanchez, who's been deployed in Iraq. The soldier didn't know if he'd have a useable car on his return until a couple of weeks ago.
Sanchez, a Tri-City native stationed in Colorado Springs, Colo., saw an ad for a 1986 Caprice last year, while still in Iraq.
The car was cheap and he needed a ride when he returned home to his wife and child after his deployment.
Sanchez called his brother, Joey, and asked him to buy the car if it seemed in good shape. Joey, who professed to be "no mechanic," test drove the car, found it to run fine and bought it.
About seven months ago, Chris Sanchez came home for a quick visit from Iraq. He took his new car for a spin -- only to get stranded on the highway.
The car was towed to Joey's house and Chris went back to the Middle East thinking he might have just wasted his money.
Joey put out a plea for help on Facebook and quickly found people ready to help a soldier, including a CBC automotive instructor.
Dan Von Holten asked the students in the automotive performance club if they would be willing to take on the Caprice. Two of them ended up with the project -- Carlos Edwards and Chelsea Schulz.
"It's always nice to help out someone when you can," Schulz said. "But especially when it's a vet -- someone serving our country -- I'm all for it."
Edwards felt an even stronger connection. He was a soldier until 2005 and spent 16 months in Afghanistan.
"Being a veteran, you have that brotherhood," he said. "It's an honor to help a fellow soldier out."
The two examined the Caprice and found the engine beyond repair. The head gasket was blown, turning the engine oil into a "milkshake," Edwards said. Gallons of coolant had leaked into the oil, frothing it.
The original offer was that Sanchez only pay for parts. Labor would be donated. By then, the car needed enough parts to make the project cost-prohibitive.
Another student heard about the dilemma and donated an entire engine for the cause. Edwards and Schulz seemed poised to welcome Sanchez with a purring ride in time for his return. But when they checked out the replacement engine, it had problems too.
They were back to square one.
A call to Pasco Auto Wrecking solved their problems. When they mentioned that the car in question belonged to a veteran, another engine was on its way for next to nothing.
"They gave us a heck of a deal on a small-block," said Sean Totten, the students' instructor. "You might as well call it a donation."
Now the students will put in more time to fix the car's suspension, clear up some electrical issues and put in the working engine.
They will have spent 100 hours on the car by the end of it, only a few of which count as lab hours toward their studies. Most of it is just volunteer work.
Sanchez's car won't be quite ready when he arrives Wednesday for a visit, but it will be close. When his brother told him on the phone how much effort people here had made, Chris Sanchez was "in shock," Joey said.
"He just can't believe people are willing to do this for someone they don't even know," Joey Sanchez said.
-- Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; email@example.com