For the vast majority of vehicle owners, the front seat of their car is simply the area located directly to the right of them: A place in which to store their belongings or for somebody to ride in every so often.
But for United States Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient Marlene Rodriguez, the front seat of her 2018 Mustang GT will serve as a daily reminder of not only what she has lost, but what keeps her going after many years battling adversity, both physically and mentally.
Staff Sergeant Rodriguez is one of only 500 women who have been awarded the Purple Heart. She is also the first woman to join the Military Order of the Purple Heart, and her list of awards grew even larger shortly after the dawn of the year 2017.
In early January 2017, Rodriguez earned the Ford Motor Company’s “Go Further” Award, which honors everyday heroes for their sacrifices and more.
As if winning the award wasn’t exciting enough, shortly after receiving the well-deserved recognition, action star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, in collaboration with Ford, surprised Rodriguez in her native state of California with a brand new 2018 Ford Mustang GT in a video that instantly became a YouTube sensation.
In the emotional clip, an overwhelmed Rodriguez touched the hearts and minds of viewers with her genuine shock and humble appreciation for Johnson’s mere presence, in addition to his surprise gift.
With so little information released pertaining to the 2018 Mustang redesign at the time, Rodriguez was still getting a feel for all of the car’s bells and whistles but was quick to think of the ultimate personal touch that she could add to the vehicle.
Rodriguez promptly planned to have the name “Kevin Jones” stitched on the passenger seat headrest in an effort to help keep alive the spirit of one of her fallen brothers-in-arms. The 18-year-old Jones died in 2005 after he and Rodriguez’ vehicle was hit with an IED during the war with Iraq.
Already sporting Jones’ name on a tattoo on her leg, Rodriguez has used her late friend’s untimely death as an inspiration in her years since leaving the armed forces and will now be further reminded of him every time that she steps into her dream car.
“The best thing about my design for the vehicle is that they allowed me to dedicate the passenger seat to my fallen soldier [Jones], Rodriguez said. “I think that’s the most amazing part; is that I get to drive with him every day.”
With over 850,000 views on the video posted on Johnson’s personal YouTube channel, it is clear that Rodriguez has inspired many auto enthusiasts and patriotic Americans alike, but her story begins long before she arrived on set for that life-changing day.
Into The War Zone
Being a sheriff’s daughter, Rodriguez developed an affinity for serving her community at a young age, with the ultimate goal of joining the United States Army later in life. After a brief flirtation with a career in law enforcement in an effort to follow in her father’s footsteps, Rodriguez elected to enlist in the Army at the age of 23.
Rodriguez’ maiden year in the armed forces coincided with the United States’ invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, meaning that the newly-christened private would be facing a whole new set of challenges shortly after donning a uniform for the first time.
Little did Rodriguez know at the time of enlistment, that her experiences roughly 7,500 miles from home would change her life and the lives of those around her forever.
Due to the gravity of the situation in the Middle East, Rodriguez’ initial deployment turned into three separate tours of duty in the trenches.
On one fateful day during one of her early deployments, the vehicle that Rodriguez was driving took a direct hit from an IED near Taqaddum, Iraq. The impact knocked the Colton, California native unconscious and resulted in the death of her passenger, Jones.
Rodriguez had grown close to Jones during their brief time together in the armed forces, and unlike the damage done to her body, the sudden death of her friend would never truly heal.
In addition to coping with the loss of Jones, Rodriguez endured a number of physical ailments on her way back from the encounter with the IED. While the tragedy and the harm done to her physical and mental state would have sent lesser individuals into early retirement, Rodriguez had no choice but to return to active duty once she was deemed physically able.
“It’s not your choice. I wish it was that easy, that you could say you couldn’t, but when you’re in active duty… if you’re fit for duty, you basically go into duty,” Rodriguez said. “Being a private, I thought volunteering for the first tour was going to be something exciting, but I made that mistake and I kept catching deployments after that because I was on that timeframe to catch that next one.”
“There’s no saying that you don’t want to go because that isn’t going to happen.”
Not long after returning to the desert, Rodriguez would again face a life-threatening situation in her third and final deployment.
In 2007, now acting as a truck commander, Rodriguez’ vehicle was hit by an RPG. The grenade penetrated Rodriguez’ vehicle, and similar to the contact with the IED two years prior, this latest attack knocked Rodriguez unconscious once again. Only this time around, Rodriguez’ body and mind suffered far more devastation than before.
The Long Road Back
"up-to 10 seizures per day in some instances"
The brain damage, as a result of the strike, led to a seizure disorder, which caused Rodriguez to develop a severe speech impediment, in addition to the non-stop seizures. In the early days following the attack, Rodriguez endured up-to 10 seizures per day in some instances.
During the long rehabilitation period, Rodriguez regularly saw a speech pathologist and had to learn how to find the words that she desired to say all over again.
Between the relearning how to speak, the routine seizures, and the long battles with PTSD, Rodriguez faced her share of trials and tribulations in the months and years following her final tour of duty in the military.
While her fellow soldiers were battling the Iraqi insurgents in the desert, Rodriguez was locked into her own series of internal conflicts that tested her fighting spirit every single day. But as she learned during her days of combat, quitting was not an option, and Rodriguez refused to allow this newfound enemy to get the best of her.
“It’s been a long process,” Rodriguez said. “First, I had to work on my traumatic brain disorder and that kind of spearheaded into the PTSD. I would say that it took six years to get where I am now.”
“I thrive off resilience. That kind of gets me going and gets me to the next level. And if it wasn’t for that which I developed through the military, I don’t think that I would be alive today.”
Rodriguez honorably retired from the United States military several years later, but her battle with PTSD was just beginning. Having faced two near-death experiences, the death of a close friend, and a long and painful rehabilitation process, Rodriguez had experienced a lifetime’s worth of despair before her 30th birthday.
As she continues to grow stronger and develop as a person in her post-war years, Rodriguez has spent the bulk of her civilian life helping former soldiers make the transition from the war zone into everyday society.
"Helping others is my motivation"
Now living in Texas, Rodriguez completed her associate's degree at Northwest Vista College in 2016 and is hoping to earn a four-year degree in recreational therapy from Texas State University in the near future. Along with continuing to better herself, personally, the goal of her educational endeavor is to help soldiers of the past and present with their rehabilitation processes post-deployment.
When she was not busy studying, Rodriguez has been a vocal advocate for the well-being of her fellow veterans, by getting involved in her community and various charitable organizations, including the Military Warriors Support Foundation. Established in 2007, the non-profit charity assists combat veterans in their transition from the battlefield to civilian life.
By sharing her story with anyone who will listen, Rodriguez has begun to conquer her fears, while instilling a sense of hope in both soldiers and civilians.
“PTSD hit me hard and I was in a very serious depression. I had my share of suicidal attempts, and it was that resiliency that brought me forward… Using [Jones] as a tool to take those extra steps forward is pretty much how I got out of it,” Rodriguez said.
“[Helping others] is my motivation and that’s what pushes me forward… I’m trying to get my degree in recreational therapy because I know what kind of tool it is to pull you out of that dark zone. If I can help as many people as possible, that’s my goal.”
As Rodriguez continued to share her story, many influential people, such as those within the Ford Motor Company, as well as a certain action star, began to take notice.
In January 2017, an unsuspecting Rodriguez traveled to her native California for what she believed to be a simple and private award ceremony. Rodriguez received notice that she was a nominee for the coveted Ford “Go Further Award” where she would answer a few questions, potentially receive a piece of paper, and return home to Texas.
Or so she thought.
Do You Smell What Marlene Is Cooking?
Rodriguez arrived on set for her scheduled interview at 12:00 p.m. local time, but would not get in front of the camera until 6:00 that evening. Following a scenic tour of Santa Monica, Venice Beach, and the Hollywood sign among other tourist attractions, Rodriguez finally returned to the studio for what she believed would be a routine interview in which she would share her story to a room full of complete strangers: something that she had been doing for many years.
“They definitely procrastinated for a very long time,” Rodriguez noted. “I really just thought that they were going to give me some paper award that said ‘We appreciate you’ and that’s really all I was thinking.”
Midway through the emotional interview, fresh from filming hit HBO series ‘Ballers’, Johnson emerged from out of nowhere, much to the delight of Rodriguez, who had been a dedicated fan since the former’s days in World Wrestling Entertainment.
Aside from perhaps a member of her beloved Los Angeles Dodgers, Rodriguez could not have asked for a better celebrity guest on what turned out to be a life-changing day.
"My reaction was all real"
“I didn’t know what to say,” a stunned Rodriguez recalled. “I had no idea that he was behind the scenes the entire interview listening to me. It’s kind of awesome to get to see someone who inspires you and take the time to meet with me. He’s a very busy person and I just really appreciated it.”
Already overcome with emotion having encountered her childhood hero, Rodriguez’ excitement reached a near fever pitch when Johnson informed her that he had one last surprise for her. Having already expressed her love of the Dodgers to Johnson, Rodriguez anticipated that the surprise was being able to see her favorite team in action at Dodger Stadium for the first time in her life.
Baseball tickets would have been great, but Johnson had other plans in mind.
At the snap of Johnson’s fingers, a nearby blue curtain fell, revealing Rodriguez’ true surprise: A brand new Orange Fury 2018 Mustang GT.
“[My reaction] was all real. There was no acting going on. That was just wild,” Rodriguez said.
“When he was like, 'How would you like to drive this car to a Dodgers game?', I was thinking, 'Well, I live in Texas now.' 'It would be a long drive, but I would love it in that car.'"
The now-famous reveal represented the first time in which the general public laid their eyes on the new 2018 Mustang, and Rodriguez was able to take in the action up-close.
After briefly catching her breath and realizing that she was in fact not dreaming, Rodriguez went to examine what would soon be her new car and marveled at all of the latest technological advancements.
In the months before she could physically drive her new 2018 Mustang, Rodriguez received a 2016 GT as a loner.
The timing of Johnson’s gift could not have been any better, as Rodriguez was already in the market for a new car.
“I was actually driving a 325I BMW, and I leased it, but I was ready to purchase a vehicle, but I didn’t really know what kind of angle that I should go,” Rodriguez said. “Because I live here in Texas, I was kind of thinking about getting a truck. I really admired the Rampage, so I was going to go get a Rampage, but I was kind of procrastinating.”
Rodriguez had been a fan of muscle cars her entire life, but up until recently, preferred the Mustang’s rival, the Camaro, to the pony car. After driving the 2016 GT around for nearly a year and counting the days until she can get her hands on her 2018 Mustang, however, it is safe to say that Rodriguez is a proud member of Team Ford now.
The 2018 Mustang And Beyond
Speaking of the 2018 Mustang, after just recently joining the Ford muscle car community, Rodriguez cannot wait to experience the host of performance upgrades that she has heard so much about.
“I like that you can start your car from your phone. That is just the most outrageous thing that I have heard in my life, but I think it’s super cool,” Rodriguez said. “I like the fact that you’re looking at a 10-speed [transmission] instead of a usual eight or six. I also like the dashboard… Man, that thing is awesome and how you can change the colors and alter it however it fits you.”
Rodriguez has become so entrenched in the world of Ford Mustangs that she actually joined a Mustang club in her hometown in Texas. In the brief time in which she has had a pony car, Rodriguez has quickly discovered the tight-knit nature of the Mustang community in her area and across the globe.
Similar to her days on the battlefield, Rodriguez knows that her fellow Mustang enthusiasts have her back and are always available to help with any installation jobs or to simply discuss cars in a friendly setting.
Rodriguez may soon call upon her newfound muscle car friends to help install a speed-oriented upgrade or two once she gets her 2018 Mustang in order to help keep up with the more experienced performance drivers in the club.
Of all of the modifications present in her Mustang club, however, none of them will be more meaningful than the front seat of Rodriguez’ 2018 Mustang in which she plans on honoring her “fallen soldier.”
Whether she decides to hit the drag strip or if she is simply cruising around on one of those long, south-central Texas roads, Rodriguez will never truly be alone, as Jones will be right there with her through wherever life takes her next.
And, like so much of her life to date, Rodriguez’ next big journey will be nothing short of extraordinary.
“I kind of use [Jones] to kind of empower me, so now my newest adventure is to take my soldier to the top of the world, so this year, in March, I’m going to be climbing Mount Everest,” Rodriguez said.