Standing tall

Paint by the Chrome Shop Mafia of 4 State Trucks in Joplin, Mo., “Rhino from Trick My Truck painted it,” says owner-operator Sean McEndree.

With the U.S. death toll in Iraq now well over 3,000 lives and with more than 17,000 injured, Sean and Diane McEndree of Veteran’s Express, LLC, Copperas Cove, Texas, are keeping the memory of the fallen alive. They’re well on their way toward turning their 2005 Peterbilt 379, leased to Oklahoma City-based Freymiller, into a rolling, working memorial they call “Fallen Heroes 2.”

McEndree was active duty in the Army and then in the reserves throughout most of the 1990s, he says. His over-the-road career began with Florilli out of West Liberty, Iowa, in 1996, and he later signed on with Liberty Transport out of Burlington, where the Fort Madison, Iowa-raised trucker did the majority of his driving at the time. When the Iraq War began in March of 2003 he reenlisted out of a sense of duty. Based in Ft. Hood, Texas, as part of the 13th Corps Support Command of the 96th Transportation Company, 180th Transportation Battalion, McEndree was deployed in February 2004.

Good Friday, April 9 that year, McEndree was driving a deuce and a half as part of a convoy on its way to Baghdad Airport when they were stopped. Word had come down that the convoy in front of them was under attack. But no one realized they’d stopped right next to a line of planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – until it was too late.

“It was a very coordinated, planned attack,” says McEndree. “A three-and-a-half-hour battle.” After a vehicle ahead of him went up in flames, he hopped out of his truck to get clear and took a direct hit from another IED. “They say it threw me 30 feet through the air,” he says.

To add insult to injury, when he was getting up, he took a bullet in his right shoulder.

But McEndree considers himself lucky – others didn’t make it. A driver in the forward convoy, Macon, Miss., native Thomas Hamill, a contractor for KBR at the time whose story has since become well-known, was kidnapped and held by enemy forces through the release of the Abu Ghraib pictures, before finally escaping.

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McEndree was ultimately transported back to Ft. Hood for rehab – in emergency surgery for his wounds, he’d lost part of his right lung, gall bladder, diaphragm, large intestine and liver. Shrapnel to this day is lodged in his chest and right leg. “I’ve got good days and I’ve got bad days,” he says. “When it gets cold I hurt real bad – I get real stiff – but I’m very fortunate.”

As he recovered back stateside, life wasn’t all bad. “About a month after I got injured,” he says, “the guys rolled me out of the barracks and took me to the bar,” Wild Country, a joint in nearby Harker Heights frequented by soldiers. It was there he met his wife, Diane – “We became friends and drinking buddies,” Diane says, “and it escalated. He tells everybody, ‘She’s my best friend and my drinking buddy, and I’d be lost without her.'”

She wasn’t the only one helping him through his recovery. Sgt. Barry K. Meza went above and beyond the call of duty and did McEndree’s laundry and assisted him with his meals, among various other activities. “He’d make sure I wasn’t doing too much,” McEndree says. “And he didn’t have to do any of it. I was really grateful.”

In November, McEndree’s unit was deployed to Iraq without him – his injuries rendered him nondeployable. Within three weeks of the unit being back in country, on December 19, 2004, Meza was killed.

McEndree received word while on CQ (charge of quarters) duty. “He was devastated,” says Diane. “I was at work, and he called me crying. He said something had gone wrong.”

Meza had been involved in an accident in Shuaybah, Kuwait.

A few weeks later McEndree’s grief was compounded by his medical discharge from the Army. “It’s rough – it still hits me from time to time,” he says. “The camaraderie you get with the guys you work with in the Army