"There's strong. And then there's Army strong." --U.S. Army recruiting advertisement
You've probably seen and heard that line more than a few times of late; probably thought that it's a catchy marketing phrase. Well, it's more than that -- because I've met people that are living proof of the truth contained in those words, folks like Sean and Diane McEndree.
I first met them back in August 2005, with Sean still recovering from wounds sustained in combat over in Iraq. A veteran solider turned truck driver, Sean re-upped after 9/11, joining the 96th Transportation Division out of Ft. Hood, TX. “I saw all these young kids getting ready and I knew they‘d need every experienced hand they could find,” he said. His employer at the time, National Carriers, helped him get back into the Army in 2003 so he could help out - going back in as an E-4, the same rank McEndree reached when he left the service the first time - finally getting deployed in February 2004.
In August 2004, his convoy got ambushed as it paused to dismantle a roadside bomb. Perched on the back of an armored tandem axle deuce-and-a-half guarding the rear of the convoy, Sean opened up with his twin 50-caliber machine guns as bullets, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) rained down on them.
At some point, his truck took a direct hit -- he can't remember from what -- and the explosion threw him 30 feet. His good friend and platoon Sergeant, Barry Meza, dragged Sean to safety and got him medical attention -and none too soon. “I took a lot of shrapnel through my back from the explosion,” Sean recalled. “It broke three of my ribs, shredded one lung and parts of my liver." Awarded the Purple Heart, he needed a year to recover from his wounds -- rehabilitation helped along by his wife, Diane, an ex-soldier herself -- but those injuries also marked the end of his Army career.
His good friend, Sgt. Meza, however, suffered a worse fate: Returning to Iraq for a second tour, Meza died in combat Dec. 19, 2004.
When I met the McEndrees back in 2005, Sean had gamely returned to trucking as an owner-operator for National Carriers behind the wheel of a sharp black Peterbilt dubbed "Fallen Heroes." With his friend Meza's name emblazzoned on the nose, Sean wanted to turn his truck into a "rolling memorial" to those who'd lost their lives in Iraq. He wasn't sure how, but just by talking with him, you knew he and Diane would find a way. They'd also just learned Diane was pregnant with their first child together (they each have three from previous relationships) so things were really looking up.
Then fate decided to deliver Sean another roadhouse punch.
As a "bull hauler," Sean shuttled big steers cross-country. But in September 2005, a new guy he worked with forgot to set the pin in the trailer door and a monster bull got loose, stomping Sean all to hell -- putting him back in the hospital with a separated hip and broken femur. Laid up for a year and half, the McEndrees had to sell their truck and Sean feared his driving career was really over for good this time.
Yet, in true Army fashion, they didn't give up. After moving back to Copperas Cove, TX, Sean “got that twinkle back in my eye” and started looking to drive again. After hooking up with Freymiller Inc. hauling refrigerated goods as a company driver ("Hauling freight that doesn't move on it's own and try to kick you," he stressed) Sean and Diane revived their old operating authority - Veterans Express LLC - and got a new truck on a lease-purchase plan in January this year, which promptly went into the hands of the Chrome Shop Mafia (made famous by the show "Trick My Truck" on the Country Music Television channel) for a four-week, $39,000 paint job and show truck upgrade.
Various veteran groups - from the Order of the Purple Heart to the Wounded Warrior Project - along with other sponsors chipped in funds along with $5,000 of the McEndree‘s own money to pay for his rolling memorial, appropriately called "Fallen Heroes 2." Sean wasn't sure what the design on the truck should look like, so he talked things over with Ryan "Ryno" Templeton, the famed painter with the Chrome Shop Mafia. "I gave him some of my ideas and he ran with it," said Sean. "And it turned out better than I could ever hope."
With Barry Meza's name again on the nose, Sean's new Peterbilt features a mural of Arlington Cemetery with a giant American flag at half mast -- all set against an eye-popping sky blue background. The Purple Heart medal is prominently displayed on the sides of the sleeper (as it should be) and the interior is decorated with American flag curtains and coverings hand stitched by Diane -- all of this happening while they raised their newborn son Sean Jr. and took care of their other children.
It's quite a truck but Sean and Diane aren't done yet, as their goal is to put together his own fleet -- "Three trucks ought to do it," Sean told me -- and eventually give Fallen Heroes 2 to Sean Jr. (Who apprently is already calling it "my truck.") All of this while still dealing with the aches and pains from two sets of injuries that should've put him down for the count. Needless to say, I am rooting for them to accomplish that goal.
For more photos of Sean and Diane‘s rig, go to www.fallenheroessemi.com. You can also drop them a line at [email protected]
And if you see him on the road or parked somewhere -- "Fallen Heroes 2" is hard to miss -- make sure to say hello. He's doing a great job representing America's armed services out there.