CHICAGO – A heroic Vietnam veteran, who waited more than four decades for a proper homecoming, finally received a long overdue welcome on Saturday night during the PBR Built Ford Tough Series event in Chicago.
The 68-year-old veteran’s son in law, Luis Blanco, was part of the well-deserved recognition for a veteran who has endured nearly unspeakable pain during the majority of his life.
After Sgt. Hector Gutierrez stepped into the bucking chute to help pull Luis’ rope, arena announcer Matt West asked every fan at the Chicago Invitational to thank and honor a “true patriot and American hero” for his sacrifice and service.
Gutierrez stoically nodded his head and waved to the crowd in Allstate Arena. The impromptu ceremony was deeply appreciated, and it brought back a lifetime of memories.
Years before, Hector Gutierrez became professional bull rider Luis Blanco’s father-in-law, he was a Sargent in the U.S. Army with a story seemingly made for Hollywood.
Gutierrez was born in California, and when he was 3 years-old, his father stole him, whisking the young boy to Mexico. For years, Hector was led to believe his birth mother had died.
The playful boy was quick with a smile and a joke but felt emptiness inside. Something wasn’t right. At the age of 13, he’d learn the truth: his real mother was alive in California.
Hector rushed back across the border. Mother and son would reunite, but she had remarried, and Hector would live with his uncle until his group of gung-ho buddies all joined the Army. Gutierrez served two tours in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, from 1968 – 1970.
The soldier with a penchant for keeping everyone laughing in the face of periodic horror was one month shy of completing his second tour when his platoon was securing a strategic hill and all hell broke loose.
Coming down the hill, the unit’s point man triggered a booby trap. Gutierrez’ face was spared from the ensuing grenade explosion, but he took the blast impact from chest down. He can’t remember how many surgeries were required to patch up his body during eight months of being shuttled from one intensive care unit to another in hospitals in Japan and California.
While Gutierrez was awarded silver and purple stars, Vietnam veterans at the time were largely shunned – and sometimes treated with rank hostility. The unpopular war angered Americans. Many conflated the courageous sacrifices of those serving with questionable policy objectives and failing military strategies that were playing out for the first time in living color on the evening news.
The trauma to the loyal soldier’s mind would turn out to be worse than the physical injuries that eventually healed. And, upon his return to the states, it would challenge the Gutierrez family for years.
“When these men come back from war, you never really know what they have been through,” said Meghan Blanco, Hector’s daughter and Luis Blanco’s wife. “They are not regular people any more. It’s not easy on the families. We went through many difficult times. But we need to always remember what these soldiers have been through. We need to respect them and care for them.”
The pain and stress Hector and Meghan endured was forever compounded one Christmas Day when they lost a son and a brother. On Dec. 25, 2009, David, a U.S. Army Staff Sargent, was killed in Afghanistan by a remote control bomb. The career military man was 33. He left behind a wife and three children as well as an equally grief-stricken father and sister.
Two wars, decades removed, fused together by two awful explosions.
What happened in steamy rice paddies half a world away had been very hard for Gutierrez to talk about, and the Sargent known as “Chico” had completely lost touch with his former brothers in arms. Twenty years later, his platoon found him. With Meghan coming along, Hector attended a reunion of the 173rd.
She met men without eyeballs, men in wheelchairs missing legs, men walking around with deformed limbs which had been burned to a crisp in firefights.
“I saw the faces of blind men light up when they heard the voice of Chico,” she said. “I understood that my dad had meant so much to them. He had saved their lives, and his silly jokes had distracted them from the awful things they had to live and see.”
Until retiring several years ago, Gutierrez had a job counseling veterans, listening to their stories, trying to soothe deep trauma. But it was still tremendously difficult to discuss his own flashbacks, grief and guilt.
“Seven or eight years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to talk about my problems,” Gutierrez said. “I’ve been getting help and doing better.”
He lives on a ranch in Mexico and takes joy in traveling north to watch his strong, confident son-in-law try to ride the world’s most fearsome bulls, attending about dozen Built Ford Tough Series events each year.
He loves all these trips. Yet, prior to the surprise at the Chicago Invitational, one memorable PBR event stood out – the 2015 World Finals in Las Vegas.
Luis was the big winner. But it had nothing to do with 8-second rides and a gold belt buckle awarded on the shark cage, or any kind of lucky run at a casino roulette wheel.
No, that was the weekend Luis and Meghan made a life-long commitment, and Hector, beaming with pride, was there to give away his daughter to the Brazilian bull rider.
Like many events in Hector’s life, there’s a story behind the wedding.
The couple, who fell in love in a Texas dance hall after Luis won a bull-riding event, had been talking about getting married. The November weekend in Vegas was going great. Even though Luis had missed a big chunk of the 2015 season, traveling back to Brazil to care for his mother who was undergoing cancer treatment, he made the World Finals by riding two bulls at the Velocity Tour Finals to earn a wild card berth into the big dance at Thomas & Mack Center.
Unfortunately, the first night of World Finals, Blanco shattered his right ankle. One metal plate and six screws later, a Vegas wedding didn’t seem likely.
Luis’s agent, Jane DelBianco, had other ideas. She rallied the PBR family to plan a celebration attended by more than 100 people connected to PBR.
The couple’s vows were officiated by Riding High Ministry’s Todd Pierce. Real Time Pain Relief stepped in to pay for the reception. Rider Relief Fund set up the room, and western sports magazine Humps N Horns magazine took all the photos.
And so at PBR events, when fans observe a line of bull riders and bull fighters standing at attention for the “Star-Spangled Banner,” no rider is prouder than a man who grew up on a ranch in a small town in southern Brazil.
“It is an honor to marry Hector’s daughter, to compete here, and to be part of the Celebrate America tour,” Luis Blanco said. “Every night, I thank God for the opportunity I have here.”
During an interview in the arena with Brandon Bates on PBR Live, Blanco’s father-in-law said the night in Chicago was one of his happiest moments.
“We have a lot of hero veterans who are not taken into consideration,” Gutierrez said. “Thank you, PBR, so much, for thinking of us and remembering us.”
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