American Legion Rider Gene Hendricks, of Broken Bow, greets war hero Alex Jauregui as he deboards a plane in Kearney. The two were serving in Iraq at the same time, though in different units, and have a common bond. Photo by Julie Toline, KCNI/KBBN radio
In July 2006, the 1074th Transportation Company of the Army National Guard deployed to Iraq. Gene Hendricks of Broken Bow was a member of that unit - it was his first overseas deployment. It was also the first deployment for a young soldier from McCook, named Randy Matheny.
Unfortunately, Matheny did not make it home with the rest of his unit.
Matheny, a 2004 graduate of McCook High School, joined the Guards a year out of high school - in March 2005. Though a member of a different unit, he really wanted to deploy and begged to go with the 1074th. Dean Reicks, Mathenyâ€™s high school typing teacher, was Truck Master for the 1074th at the time - so he pulled some strings and made Mathenyâ€™s request happen.
Reicks also has strong ties to Broken Bow. Both he and his brother, Dom, began their guard careers at the Broken Bow Armory back in the 1980s.
February 4, 2007, seven months after arriving in Iraq, the vehicle Sergeant Matheny was driving was hit by an IED (improvised explosive device). Matheny was killed.
Watching the horrific incident from a nearby vehicle was Alex Jauregui, who was a member of the same battalion as Matheny but a different unit. Alex ran to the burning vehicle and pulled Matheny out.
â€śHe (Matheny) was already gone, but Alex knew if he got him out his family would be able to have an open casket at his funeral,â€ť explains Hendricks.
Though their son could not be saved, Mathenyâ€™s family was extremely grateful to Alex for his heroic actions. Mathenyâ€™s mother, Jan Collins of McCook, began a 5-year communication with Alex - who was on his second deployment at the time of Mathenyâ€™s death. He would deploy two more times.
It was on his fourth deployment, in April 2012, when Alex himself also came face-to-face with an IED. He lost both legs as a result.
But Alex is a true fighter, and as members of the American Legion Riders will tell you, he is a true inspiration.
Alex was sent to Walter Reed Military Hospital in Bethesda, Md., to recover and rehabilitate from his injuries. Just two months after losing his legs, in June 2012, he took his first steps, and Nov. 3 - seven months after his injuries - he ran on his prosthetics.
â€śHis doctors in Bethesda told him they only had one other guy who progressed that quickly on prosthetics - and he was a Navy Seal!,â€ť Hendricks said.
Reicks, Mathenyâ€™s former teacher, paid a visit to Alex at the Maryland hospital in August, and Alex shared with him at that time of his desire to come to Nebraska and visit Mathenyâ€™s mother whom he had remained in close touch with. Reicks then immediately went to work organizing a trip to Nebraska for Alex.
He contacted the Veteranâ€™s Airlift Command (VAC), a non-profit organization that offers free travel to wounded veterans for certain purposes, and they agreed to help. Reicks then called a fellow member of the 1074th, Hendricks, and told him about his plans to bring Alex to visit Mathenyâ€™s family.
Wanting to be part of this special event for a man Hendricks calls â€śa true American heroâ€ť, he organized about 20 Legion Riders to meet Alex in Kearney and offer him a proper escort. The riders were part of Broken Bowâ€™s Sandhills Chapter of the American Legion Riders, and the South Central Chapter of American Legion Riders, which got its start in Broken Bow.
The group met the plane at the Kearney airport Nov. 7, and escorted Alex to the Kearney Legion Club.
Of course the highlight of Alexâ€™s trip to Nebraska was a face-to-face meeting with Mathenyâ€™s mother, Jan Collins. But while here he also made an appearance at Ravenna High School, where he was guest speaker for the Veterans Day program, and two other high schools. He participated in a specially organized duck hunt in North Platte Friday, and a banquet was held in North Platte in his honor Saturday evening. He then spent Monday and Tuesday this week in McCook, with the Matheny family.
Jan Collins says â€śAlex is a true American hero, and he feels like a son to me.â€ť
At the end of the day, the Broken Bow Legion Riders bundled up for the chilly ride home from Kearney. But there was one more special moment yet to come for the group.
â€śBy the time we hit Ansley we were all freezing,â€ť says rider Deb Sonnichsen. â€śSo when we got to Broken Bow we all decided to stop at Tumbleweed for coffee and supper, to warm up.â€ť
Hendricks then joins in the conversation. â€śThere were eight of us eating together, and when we got up to pay for our meals we were told that they had already been taken care of. Someone in the restaurant that night paid for all eight suppers.â€ť
Hendricks and Sonnichsen were both moved by the gesture, and want to say thank you to whoever the Good Samaritan was that night. However, it would be my guess that whoever picked up that ticket was just saying thank you first - an appropriate ending to a very special day.