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World War II veteran Paul Pacheco sits outside of his Las Cruces home and shows off a framed display of medals that he earned during his time in the military. Among them are a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

LAS CRUCES — A sheep rancher's son with dreams of becoming a teacher, Leopoldo Pacheco grew up in a scenic area between Ruidoso and Roswell.

"He was always reading," said Ralph Fresquez, a younger cousin to Pacheco. " ... an intellectual."

In 1943 Pacheco received a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Notre Dame, where he also studied history.

Instead of teaching history, Pacheco lived it.

Soon after college, Pacheco survived harrowing World War II battles, dodging death — sometimes remarkably —and earning medals for heroism in Europe.

At 92, Pacheco lives in Las Cruces with his wife. He's blind and nearly deaf from mortar shells and bombs, but, his family says, Pacheco's memory remains sharp.

As visitors to Pacheco's home thumbed through an old book commemorating the 83rd Infantry Division's experience in the war, his nephew read names aloud.

Whom might Pacheco remember, just weeks before Memorial Day?

He recalled nearly all of them, noting sadly that most of them were killed in combat.

Shortly after the Allies had captured Omaha Beach but were still taking fire from distant German guns, Pacheco said, his company of about 200 men landed.

By the end of those early days, Pacheco said, he and a few cooks were the only members of that company that weren't killed or flown out with serious injuries.

As a result, Pacheco's nephew Chris Vellanti said, the cooks took care of Pacheco. While most of the men drank sweetened coffee, the cooks made an individual pot for Pacheco — black, as ranchers drink it, his family said.

Many of Pacheco's fellow soldiers died from German bombs near Normandy, France.

As the company advanced, casualties mounted, according to an account Pacheco recently dictated to his son.

Pacheco earned his Purple Heart for taking grenade shrapnel in a fight with two Germans that he and a lieutenant eventually killed.

One of the biggest battles Pacheco recalled happened in Germany's Hurtgen Forest, where extensive fighting left the once densely wooded area barren. Shortly after seeing that, Pacheco remembered approaching a German compound.

A battle ensued, Pacheco said, and he was a squadron leader. Two soldiers suffered injuries in a minefield. Two of Pacheco's own soldiers refused to assist him in rescuing the wounded men. Eventually two soldiers came from another squadron, Pacheco said, and they evacuated the men, through the snow, using a door as a stretcher.

Said Pacheco: "In our regiment, we never left our wounded behind. We always picked them up."

For that act, Pacheco earned a Bronze Star, a medal awarded for "heroic or meritorious achievement," according to the U.S. Army website.

Tragically, just after getting the wounded men to a wall, an artillery shell came in. It killed them and injured others.

That wasn't Pacheco's only close call.

Gunfire killed two men who surround Pacheco as they marched. While on patrol on a bridge, two German soldiers fired at him. Pacheco remembered flashes and bullets flying by his head. He instinctively fired toward the flash, killing the Germans.

A bullet hit Pacheco's canteen one day. The impact and sudden moisture made him think he had been shot. But the bullet stayed inside the canteen. Pacheco retrieved it and carried it "for years," he said.

Fresquez said Pacheco only recently started talking about his experiences, adding that a trip to Normandy helped Pacheco gain "closure" with what he endured.

His family and ranch stayed in his mind throughout his tour. He sold his cigarette rations, won many poker games, sending the money back home to his sisters.

He penned a Christmas letter that Fresquez, the younger cousin that grew up like a little brother to Pacheco, kept in his wallet for years.

Immediately after the war, Pacheco enrolled in a French university. He didn't stay long. At his father's request, he returned to run the sheep ranch, a place where Billy the Kid reportedly shot two men.

"I didn't realize my dream," he said, talking about his plans to go into education.

He did, however, survive to see his daughters become teachers.

James Staley may be reached at 575-541-5476. Follow him on Twitter @auguststaley