Familiar face at suburban car wash is decorated vet with personal story to share

BARTLETT, Ill. -- If you have been down Route 59 and Stearns Road in Bartlett you’ve probably seen Rick Rodriguez.

Rodriguez is the face outside Mr. Car Wash most days of the week.  While he’s a familiar face to the locals, some have no idea he is also one of the country’s most decorated Vietnam veterans.

“This car wash has saved my life,” he said. “It saved my life. I know that sound extreme, but only I can tell you how much it’s done for me.”

For nearly 50 years, Rodriguez has battled PTSD.

“It’s the emotional part that people need to understand,” he said. “It never goes away. Sometimes I have dreams where I remember every single thing like it just happened yesterday.”

Rodriguez was just 19 when he went to fight in Vietnam. It was that same year, Sept. 28, 1968, that Rodriguez will never forget. Charging an enemy bunker alone, Rodriguez was credited with rescuing his wounded platoon leader and saving the lives of many members of his squad. He returned home two years later with a uniform covered in medals including two Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and a Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest honor.

“I have a hard time dealing with that because you know, I never considered myself a hero,” Rodriguez said.  “When you lose a brother, it’s very difficult. I’m 70 now and I still feel that emotion very intense. I lost very good friends and I think they should’ve gotten those medals, not me.”

Thirty-seven flags dot the perimeter of the car wash representing the 37 men in his company that didn’t make it home.

“Those flags stand for something,” Rodriguez said. “They were my brothers and they shall never be forgotten.”

Most who pull in to the car wash will never know the back story on those flags or why a little side window conversation means so much to Rodriguez. He’ll tell you he isn’t here for the paycheck. In fact, every day Rodriguez is there he is as a volunteer. He said the good he gets out of it is worth more to him than any paycheck. It was the one thing that was able to bring him back from a dark place.

“Many vets suffer with it every single day,” said Jay Garsticki, the host of Operation Fishing Freedom, a Discovery Channel show dedicated to telling the stories of U.S. Veterans.

“They think it’s buried and here it rears its ugly head every now and again.  That’s when these veterans either decide to take their own lives or turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.”

Studies have shown that simply talking and sharing their stories helps in the healing process. If you’d like to know more and support getting those vet’s stories out there, check out their kickstarter campaign. The best way many of us know to honor those who gave their lives for our country is to honor and share the stories of those still here to share it.