Bears players past and present look for opportunities to honor those that have served their country, and that especially holds true as the Bears kick off Salute to Service Week brought to you by Cigna.
The team's specialists, kicker Eddy Piñeiro, punter Pat O'Donnell and long snapper Patrick Scales, along with former players Jim Thornton and Jay Hilgenberg, visited Topgolf in Wood Dale Monday to meet with veterans in the Chicago area through Wounded Warriors.
In attendance were veterans of recent wars, soldiers linked in their Bears fandom and the sacrifices they've made. One such man was Johnny Raguay.
Raguay enlisted after graduating from Lane Tech in Chicago. Raguay was looking for a way to support his young family. His brother had served in the Marine Corps and advised Raguay that the Air Force would provide a more stable home life.
That was in February of 2001.
Raguay had barely complete Bootcamp in San Antonio, Texas, when the United States invaded Afghanistan. As a vehicle mechanic, he was stationed at the Aviano Air Base in the Italian Alps: far away from home, but still out of harm's way.
That changed in 2004. With the country waging two wars, fulltime service members were entering second and third tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army requested support from the Air Force. That's how Johnny Raguay, vehicle mechanic, found himself in combat in Iraq, a few weeks after the birth of his daughter.
"I was 22 years old, never been in so much as a BB gun fight," said Raguay. "The first maybe three weeks were the hardest. We got mortared a lot on base. I had to get used to reacting to that stuff pretty quickly."
A year spent riding on the back of a truck in the dusty desert of Iraq has led to eye problems for Raguay, but the most painful wounds have been internal. In the 15 years since his deployment, Raguay has battled PTSD related to his wartime experience. He's had to adopt his unit's motto in his civilian life.
Adapt and live or don't and die.
The timing of his return home was fortuitous. A diehard Bears fan since his high school years, Raguay had mostly watched losing seasons. However, the team's young players at the time of his deployment--Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Charles Tillman--had developed into the premier defense in the NFL.
"When I came back home in 2005," said Raguay, "and these guys were firing on all cylinders. Man, it was like a renewed energy, for like the potential, the talent, everything that was happening in Chicago."
For Raguay, his love of the Bears isn’t based on geography alone. It's based on philosophy. The hard-nosed play, the defensive prowess and the generational chip-on-shoulder have always made Raguay, the working-class veteran, see the team as a kindred spirit.
"I love it because it's kind of representative of the blue-collar people," said Raguay. "You know, we work really hard. Yeah, we're not really flashy. We're not all glitz and glamour, but we work hard, wherever it is that we end up at the end of the season."
Raguay returned to Chicago full time in 2009, attending DePaul and earning Bachelor's and Master's degrees. He continues to root for the Bears, and his fandom follows players even after they sign with other teams.
Raguay chatted with Piñeiro, finding common ground in their shared Nicaraguan ancestry, Piñeiro being the first NFL player to claim lineage from the Central American nation. He expressed admiration for the kicker's mental resiliency and ability to fight through hard times.
"Against the Chargers," said Raguay, "Piñeiro had a tough week, but now he comes in, and he does what he can do for us in the current week. It's inspiring to watch that because it's a lot of pressure."