Cody Hill was like most late-teen roping bums you know. Coming off a 300-mother cow operation in Ada, Okla., he gravitated toward the arena and was a natural.
He won his first team roping at the age of 12 with Jody Newberry of Professional Bull Rider fame. Hill high school rodeoed and, upon graduation, went to Eastern Oklahoma State College in Wilburton to team rope. He even spent a summer in Arizona to rope and work for ropers Mark and Sid Cooley.
He had no overarching career goals, he was in the prime of his life, roping and having fun. But something was brewing inside of him.
In Ada, Okla., the values of living right and living free, in the words of Merle Haggard, are still strong. Even upon experiencing the personal freedom of college life, the sense that serving a higher purpose was an honorable calling tugged at his conscience.
Out of the blue, one of Cody's good friends, Mark Elkins, joined the Marines. Later, another close friend, Colton Wallace, joined the Army after one of Wallace's friends was killed in Iraq. It hit Hill hard. How could these guys be doing something so noble? What am I doing with my life?
"When Mark was about to go to Iraq, I started feeling guilty," Hill said. "I knew I was as tough as him. I thought I could do it and do a good job. I felt guilty that if he could go, why shouldn't I? Why does he have to do that while I just sit here? I was going to college, but still not doing a whole lot. Just being a roping bum. I saw him about to leave for Iraq and it hit home and I knew it was my time to step up."
Meanwhile, Wallace joined the Army and is currently in Afghanistan.
"Me, Mark and Colton were all best friends in high school," Hill said. "If you would have told us then that all three of us would end up in the military, I would have bet the ranch against it. Recruiters would come to our high school and we would walk by and act like we were interested and get a free pen, but that was it. None of us had any ambition to join, we were going to go to junior college, then OSU and just rope."
But all that changed in March of 2004 when Hill became one of the few, one of the proud: A Marine.
After boot camp and school of infantry, he became a reservist. Despite their trepidations, his parents, Carlyle and Linda, were proud.
For a year, Hill went to school, worked on the ranch and roped. Then, in January of 2006 he was called to active duty as a Lance Corporal in the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. His fireteam consisted of Cpl. Jared Shoemaker, Lance Cpl. Eric Valdepenas and Navy medic Chris Walsh.
They were stationed at Camp Baharia in the Anbar Province of Iraq. The city under their control was the deadliest in the country: Fallujah.
As Marines, Hill and his friends were on the front line. In harm's way every time they left the base, they faced improvised explosive devices, snipers and car bombs. Their job was to rid the city of the men who were terrorizing U.S. forces.
"Some days were hot and boring. Some days were the most scary days of your life," he said. "I went the first two months without firing a round and then all of the sudden it went to some pretty heavy gunfights. We were a weapons company. We were all in Humvees patrolling the city. We would try to keep order in the city. We had intel on high priority guys and we would try to figure out where they were. We would find weapon caches, lots of bomb-making stuff. One time we found a buried bunker that had over 3,000 AK47s. Basically combat patrol."
Cody's best release from the overwhelming duties of a Marine Corpsman in Fallujah, Iraq, was to rope. He and two other Marines from Oklahoma, Jeremy McConnell and Joe Lumpkins, broke down a roping dummy and between them got it to Iraq. Cody's dad, Carlyle, sent over some play ropes and copies of Spin To Win Rodeo and Hill helped the two with their roping. He could teach them something new, McConnell and Lumpkins could learn, and they could all forget about the looming danger beyond the walls. For a few hours a day, they were roping bums.
"I had a little roping dummy that I took with me," Cody said. "My dad sent us some play ropes and we roped the roping dummy on our days off. I taught those guys to rope and they got pretty good. It would take your mind off the other stuff. If we had a bad day or got into some serious stuff, roping would just let me think about home and about what I had to go back to at home."
On June 14th, Flag Day, Hill's fireteam was attacked by a remote controlled explosive. It disabled their Humvee, but no one was hurt. Immediately, he and his comrades jumped out to pursue the triggerman. In an urban warfare setting, this kind of pursuit meant breaking down doors, clearing houses and running through twisting and turning alleyways.
As they burst into one house, Chris "Doc" Walsh was startled to find a baby-a very sick baby. It looked as though it's core had been turned inside out and in fact many of her internal organs were developing on the outside of her body. Immediately the triggerman was no longer a source of concern. Walsh began doing his best to care for the baby. He knew he was in way over his head, so he took pictures and notes and promised to be back.
Walsh was inspired to help the baby, Mariam, however he could and it became his own personal, covert mission to do so. Instantly, his brothers in arms, including Hill, joined him as his brothers in mercy. Unbeknownst to their commanders they would slip out under the cover of darkness each week to help Mariam. To minimize the risk to the family, they would park a mile away from the house and each time they visited, take a different route.
While Walsh, Shoemaker, platoon leader Staff Sergeant Edward Ewing and other various medical experts went in the house to work on Mariam, Valdepenas and Hill-and sometimes others-would stand guard.
In the meantime, it became Doc Walsh's passion to get Baby Mariam out of Iraq. Her condition was diagnosed as bladder exstrophy and Walsh learned from a fellow Marine who had a nephew with the condition that the foremost expert in repairing the damage was a doctor in Boston. The next step was to get Mariam to Boston. Their battalion was scheduled to leave in October, it was September and Walsh, Hill and his comrades all felt like they were running out of time to help Mariam.
"It turned into our mission," Hill said. "We would go on our normal patrols, and then when we could we would go in there late at night and sneak our battalion surgeon in there to do as much as he could for her. We wanted to help her as much as we could. We were still trying to catch the guys that were planting IEDs and the snipers, because in Fallujah there were plenty of them. We would at least visit her house three times a week. The end result was us trying to get her to Boston. We were getting close to leaving and nothing was coming of it."
About four months passed as Walsh fought through his own country's red tape as hard as he did against the insurgents in Iraq.
On September 4, Labor Day, Hill, Walsh, Valdepenas and Shoemaker were on a routine patrol when an improvised explosive device ripped through their Humvee. Shouts went out across radios, fire, smoke and shrapnel spewed from the vehicle and Marines rushed to the downed vehicle.
"I don't remember it, but my friends said we were driving about 30 or 40 miles an hour and I got blown out and hit the wall and took off running. I was on fire. A guy named Doc Cinelli tackled me with a fire blanket. They couldn't find the other guys, they were killed instantly. I don't know how I lived."
Eric "Val" Valdepenas, 21, was the youngest of eight children and attending the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Jared Shoemaker, 29, was a married Tulsa police officer. Chris "Doc" Walsh was a 30-year-old EMT from St. Louis who all the platoon members called "Grumpus."
"He always made sure everybody was taking care of themselves," Hill said. "He did his job well. Jared Shoemaker was our vehicle commander. Everybody in our company liked him. He was a stand-up guy. They were all three great guys."
In an instant Hill lost three brothers and baby Mariam lost her best chance to live. Fellow Marines ran to Hill's side and rushed him to the hospital. For Mariam, they decided the best way to honor the memory of the Marines who went beyond the call of duty was to complete the mission they began.
Miraculously, they did. After e-mails circulated detailing Doc Walsh's compassion for and his comrades' dedication to Mariam, the red tape loosened and by the end of October Mariam was in Boston. The surgery was successful and now the little girl is back in Iraq. Her story became national news, the Boston Globe, Reader's Digest and some of the network morning shows picked up the story.
For Hill, however, the recovery-both physical and emotional-continues.
"It's hard," he said. "I don't go a day without thinking about those three guys."
He was burned over 56 percent of his body. He lost his left ear. He lost vision in his right eye and had to undergo a cornea transplant. His right arm was broken.
Once stabilized in Iraq, Hill was sent to Germany then Walter Reed medical center in Washington D.C. Finally he wound up in Brooks Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. In sum, there were 14 surgeries strung out over eight months. He was in intensive care for 24 days and in the hospital for another three months and then became an outpatient.
"I don't have any pain and that's what matters," he said.
Throughout his recovery, roping was Cody's light at the end of the tunnel. As the only survivor in a horrific attack, the emotions are complicated and surprising. But through it all, with roping as the goal, he has somehow been able to deal with the guilt, sorrow, pain and fear. But he couldn't have even started the process without help.
The first help came from his family. As soon as Cody was stabilized at Fort Sam Houston, Carlyle loaded his horses in Ada and drove them down. As fate would have it, there were stables right across the street from the hospital. On the sly, Carlyle would sneak Cody over to look at the horses. Just seeing them, knowing that soon he could ride them, was the best therapy he had.
"I would drive him over there and let him look at them," Carlyle said. "I kept telling him, 'When you get out you can start riding and when you feel better you can start roping.'"
In the meantime, they brought their four-wheeler down from Ada and bought a Heel-O-Matic to practice on-which Cody does nearly every night.
With the annual San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo forthcoming, Carlyle thought it would be good for everyone to go.
"We asked for some rodeo tickets," Carlyle said.
"A woman who is very dedicated to helping wounded soldiers started trying to get us some."
While shopping at Circuit City, the Hills ran into PRCA bareback rider Chris Harris. Carlyle shared Cody's story with him and asked if he had any tickets to spare. Two hours later, the Hills had tickets.
"He had us the best seats in the house those first three nights," Carlyle said. "He took us back to the contestant hospitality room and we got to meet a lot of people and it snowballed from there."
To call it a snowball effect is an understatement. Harris and the Hills became close and he even stayed at the Hills' apartment during the rodeo. Cody was able to see Blaine Linaweaver, who he roped with in Arizona, and reconnect with him. A San Antonio businessman named Phil Bakke got wind of Cody's story and shared his box seats. Then he got in touch with other friends of his who also had rodeo tickets and within a day or two the Hills had tickets to every night of the rodeo. Randy Corley, the announcer, would find the Hills prior to every performance and sit and visit. Then Speed Williams caught wind of Cody's story and when he won the rodeo, he gave him his buckle.
With that one act of kindness, Hill turned a corner in his recovery. Plus, Hadley Barrett announced what Williams did, and several people in the crowd wanted to help, too.
Don Jones, who is partners with George Strait on the San Antonio Rose Palace, where the George Strait Team Roping Classic is held, heard what Williams had done and looked the Hills up to offer tickets to the GSTRC. Being nuts about roping, the duo accepted. He sat in the box with Cactus Ropes' Mike Piland and former Dallas Cowboys Walt Garrison and LeRoy Jordan. From there, they met local Boerne team ropers who have let them rope at their arenas.
Suddenly, Cody was receiving the kind of compassion he and his comrades had shown for Mariam. People he didn't even know saw a need for help and were going out of their way to improve his situation.
"Some of the best people I've ever known are rodeo people," Cody said. "They're just good people."
All the while, Cody was roping. First, while his right arm was pinned straight-meaning he couldn't bend his elbow-he would rope the dummy. Despite having burns on his face, he would leave his apartment to rope. Even without vision in his right eye, he would get horseback and run steers.
At press time, Cody was already getting back in the midst of the sport and people he loves. He entered a Team Ropers Association event in Boerne and finished second in his classification. He applied with the USTRC to have his number lowered due to his injuries.
"Things are coming along pretty good. I should have won first and second, but heeling after all these surgeries I've been having trouble with my dallies," he said. "It's been a long process. To be back roping and be back on a horse is a big, big stride."
Soon, his old roping buddy Colton Wallace will be back from Afghanistan and you can bet they'll be roping. He's going to build a house back in Ada and hit the amateur ropings and maybe work his way up through the ranks.
But whatever he does, or wherever he goes, he'll carry the memory of three men and one little girl with him. He's had bracelets made with the names of Cpl. Jared Shoemaker, Lance Cpl. Eric Valdepenas and Navy medic Chris Walsh inscribed on them.
The one with Shoemaker's name came early.
"I've been to two ropings and I've won at two ropings and I had that bracelet on both times," he said. "I don't think I'll be going to a roping without that bracelet on ever. I feel like my confidence in my roping is at an all-time high. You rope a lot better when you appreciate being out there. Most ropers take it for granted that you get to do it everyday."
Ropers-and for that matter Americans-everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to Hill and his comrades. Not only does his story put the sport in perspective, politics aside, his efforts and the efforts of men like him make it possible for us to do the things we enjoy, such as rope. Hopefully, at some level, it inspires us all to go beyond the call of duty in our own lives for people who need our help. Or at the very least, not take our freedoms for granted.
Just watch out for him at the U.S. ropings. Chances are his number won't be low for long.