By Lisa Buentello
USMC MSGT Rodney L. Buentello was born June 27, 1973 and left this world on June 8, 2016. Rodney had such a big personality. You either really liked him or really hated him and probably all at the same time. MSgt Buentello served in the Marine Corps for 21 years, was a two-time Purple Heart recipient and survived four combat tours. The Marine Corps was his love and his passion. During his time in the Marine Corps, he made a huge impact in so many lives. As a Gung-ho Marine, he pushed his limits and made sure the Marines did too. Rodney was an avid jokester and loved to make people laugh. He was the only person I know that could get away with saying and doing the most absurd things. People didn’t know what to do or how to react to him. Most of the time they would laugh, like did that just happen? He would have this huge smile followed by a hearty contagious laugh.
The struggles of deployment took their toll on him as well as our family. After his 3rd deployment, and two new baby boys, the impact of war started to set in. He began to struggle with sleep, anger, and remorse. The solution was inevitable. He was going to have to get help. Our future as a family depended on it. Counseling was painful and having to relive the loss and feelings of losing so many young Marines in his presence was killing him emotionally. I did the best I could to listen and support him. As a military brat myself, I knew the impact war had from watching my Dad, my Grandfather and my uncles. He struggled with why God had taken his Marines at such a young age. Rodney felt he had lived enough of a life that it should have been him not them. Their lives hadn’t even begun. It was moving time again and we were thankful for some of the tools we received to get us to our next duty station.
Deployment came quick and this one hit us all really hard. Our sons were a little older and able to recognize what deployments meant. Ryan, our oldest child together, took it the hardest. As Ryan was saying his goodbyes, he told his Dad, “what if you don’t come back? what if your gun jams and you can’t protect yourself?” How do you answer that? Rodney assured him that he would do everything in his power to get back home. He told all three boys he was good at his job and nothing was going to keep him from getting back home soon.
Thank God he was right and that would be his last deployment. He dropped papers to retire and we would be back home in San Antonio within a year.
Retirement wasn’t all that easy. Jobs were hard to come by. We decided I would go back to work. I got a job at our Alma Mater, John Jay High School. After about 3 months of Rodney sitting at home and not having any successful jobs offers, a position as an in-School Suspension Instructional Assistant came available at John Jay as well. He applied and of course was overly qualified but was given a chance.
Rodney made such an impact and was right where he was supposed to be. As a natural mentor, leader and motivator, students quickly took to him. He started to feel like he had a purpose. He volunteered to help coach the football team and the track team. Without knowing it, this was how he would give back to those Marines he lost. He listened and inspired these young adults. Giving them hope and a taste for what they could achieve.
With the help of the Wounded Warrior Program Rodney was able to find a job that would allow him to utilize his degree in leadership. He made the very hard decision to leave Jay for a second career as a manager for Cintas. He would leave John Jay at the same time school ended which allowed him and the students to say their goodbyes.
We had only 2 weeks before he would start his new job so we cleaned out the shed, did some much needed room improvements and decided we needed a break and wanted some relaxation. Bandera City Park had become a favorite and we enjoyed ourselves the few times we had been plus it was a quick drive. It was a Wednesday, June 8th, 2016 and we knew it would be less crowded so we packed up our truck and headed out. We usually go down to the back part of the river but that day we decided to stay closer to the dam in a spot that seemed calmer.
Some teenagers came to enjoy the spot we were at and we made small talk. They moved on and went closer to the dam. We had just finished setting up and Rodney had attached a rope to the tree for the boys to pull themselves in just in case. Rodney was always very cautious and very prepared when it came to the water. He was an amazing swimmer and could hold his breath for a long period of time. Sometimes he would scare me as to how long he could stay under water.
Just as I sat in my chair and told Rodney how peaceful it was, we heard screaming and one of the teenagers running towards us. Rodney took off. The boys and I followed. Two of the teenagers had tried to walk across the dam and fell in. They were caught in the undertow and bobbing up and down. The water was high from all the rain and the water was rushing down the dam. Rodney yelled for the boys to get the rope. He was trying to keep the teenagers calm and walk them through getting out. I could tell he was starting to get really worried. The boys were crying and Roman, our youngest, kept saying he didn’t want his Dad to die. Rodney couldn’t take it anymore and decided he had to do something. He went to step on to the dam and turned around to look at me. I told him “Don’t” I could see in his eyes he had to do it. I think he thought he was going to walk down the dam and pull them out. When he got half way, the water was to strong and he couldn’t hold himself; he fell in. As he fell the impact pushed the girl out. Rodney was trying his best to kick the boy out of the undertow and kept trying to push him. He would go underwater and come back up. At this point the boys were falling apart. Roman was crying and Ryan told Roman that “Daddy was a Marine and he was a good swimmer he is okay; he is going to save them.” I tried my best to stay calm and keep them calm. There was a log in the water that was hitting both the boy and Rodney. Rodney used it to push the boy out. A sheriff finally showed up. He had this orange disc with a thin rope he was trying to throw it in the water for Rodney but it was going nowhere. I could see Rodney getting so tired. He started to lose energy. It’s like time was standing still. He just stared at me. I was yelling for him to get closer. I saw him take one last deep breath. I thought he was just going to go deeper in the water and come up the other side. By then fire trucks, a helicopter and ambulance were there. They started moving me and the boys back. I didn’t want the boys to see anymore so I took them up the hill to my parents. They were supposed to meet us there. I called them as it was happening to hurry.
When I went back down to the river, they wouldn’t let me get closer. The Marshall made me stay with him near his vehicle. I was just waiting to see them pull him out. I finally saw them pull him out on an orange board. I remember thanking God that they got him and smirking because it must’ve been hard for them he was so muscular and heavy. As they pulled him on to the bank, they covered him with a tarp and I knew he was gone.
Rodney lived his life to help others. His struggles with PTSD because of the loss of his Marines weighed on him. Those teenagers triggered that pain and he went into survival mode. The Marine Corps trained him to survive and taught him how to save lives. I know in my heart this was God’s plan for him.
Rodney impacted so many lives and I know that telling his story and keeping his memory alive along with giving back is the only way to keep his legacy going. In order to continue to motivate and inspire our friends Mark Acuna, Dalia Acuna, Monica Morales, Vincent Morales, Pete Pruneda III, and Lesa Soto have helped me to host an annual golf tournament to raise funds for scholarships for John Jay seniors to follow their dreams. It just made sense to give back to the school that had given us both so much. As a student, at Jay HS, Rodney was heavily involved in sports and it kept him out of trouble. My hope is that the Rodney Lee Buentello Memorial Foundation will help to give back to the community Rodney was so devoted to.
Greater love hath no man, than to lay down his life for another.
Remembering a Fallen Hero
By Lisa Buentello