Marine veteran drowns while rescuing 2 teens caught in an undertow
By KATE CARLSON AND MADALYN MENDOZA | San Antonio Express-News | Published: June 10, 2016
BANDERA,Texas (Tribune News Service) — After waking up to her first morning as a widow, Lisa Buentello led high school students, friends and family in prayer for her deceased husband at a vigil Thursday night.
"He is free now," she said of Master Sgt. Rodney Buentello, who rescued two teens caught in a hydraulic undertow at the dam in Bandera City Park on Wednesday, but drowned in the attempt. "He is with (the Lord) now but he is in our hearts forever."
About 300 people — each with their own story about how the hometown hero touched their lives — paid respects to Buentello at the vigil outside the entrance of John Jay High School, his alma mater.
"He was like a father figure to me," said 11th grader, Daniel Flores. "Everybody knew him; you just wanted to be around him."
Buentello, 42, a decorated Marine veteran and volunteer coach at John Jay, was at the park with his family when an unidentified teenage girl tried to cross the dam, a violation of a city ordinance, and fell into rough water below it, the Bandera Marshal's Office said in a statement.
A male teenager tried to save her but was also swept away, prompting Buentello to jump in.
“(He) went into the water and managed to save both of the teenagers, but he was dragged under and drowned before rescuers could reach him,” the statement said, adding a Charles Dickens quote: “Greater love hath no man, then to lay down his life for another.”
Buentello served one tour in Afghanistan and three tours in Iraq and twice received the Purple Heart for combat wounds in a 21-year career in the Marine Corps. He left the Corps in 2013 as a master sergeant, friends and family said.
“He took his last breath and pushed the kid out to save him,” said Michael Trevino, his best friend since the eighth grade, who said he arrived at the park about a half hour after his friend died.
A group of students made a memorial in the parking lot for Buentello out of posterboard and candles, leaving handwritten sentiments for their coach, teacher and mentor.
At the vigil, 11th grader Alejandra Martinez said when Buentello said goodbye to her track team at their last practice, she didn't know it would be the last time she saw him.
"He pushed me and motivated me," she said through tears. "He made me ask myself 'What do you work for?'"
Rodney's father, Raul Buentello also served in the Marine Corps and helped out with coaching his children's sports teams.
"He tried to emulate me but he did a better job," Raul Buentello said.
Buentello played football and baseball when he attended John Jay before he graduated in 1992. He worked as an in-school suspension instructional assistant for three years. After work, he volunteered his time helping out with the football team and track teams.
"He was such a vibrant person and never had anything unkind to say," said the dean of the high school, Leslie Kvapil. "He did it all without seeking praise."
Buentello leaves behind wife Lisa and their two boys, 8 and 9 years old, and a 20-year-old son from a previous marriage, Trevino said.
“He lived to serve his country,” Trevino said. “He would do anything to serve anybody.”
Trevino and other friends have launched a GoFundMe account to alleviate costs for his family brought on by the sudden loss.
Lisa Buentello said her husband’s combat experience took a toll and he had suffered from post traumatic stress disorder after retiring.
“He lost many Marines in his arms, so seeing any young person in need, he would do whatever he could to take care of them. He tried to live life to save other people,” she said in an interview before the vigil.
Trevino said he wasn’t surprised by how Buentello lost his life, describing him as the “kindest, meanest person you’d ever meet” because of how brutally honest, yet caring, he was.
“He will tell you what you didn’t want to hear,” Trevino said — but despite the tough love, Buentello had a silly side and was known for joking around, he said.
Bandera deems the area near the dam hazardous and by city ordinance it is “closed to all swimming, wading or boating.” Violators who disregard posted warnings can be fined up to $200. The Marshal's Office said the reporting officer had been instructed to charge the teen.
A memorial in Buentello's honor at the site of his final display of heroism is being discussed by the City of Bandera, according to the Marshal's Office.
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