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Injured Marine, his brother open pub in Glen Ellyn
By Jake Griffin | Daily Herald Staff

Jerry Hernandez, left, and his brother George are opening Ellyn's Tap and Grill in Glen Ellyn in spite of the economy. Above, the Marine corporal spent two tours in some of Iraq's most dangerous battle zones.

 

Daniel White | Staff Photographer

"It's going to get better," says Jerry Hernandez, above with wife, Gaby, on the economy. A scar on his shoulder partially erases his "Grunt" tattoo.

 

Daniel White | Staff Photographer

Marine Cpl. Jerry Hernandez and his rocket launcher are silhouetted by the setting Iraqi sun where he spent two tours in some of Iraq's most dangerous battle zones before being severely injured by a remote-detonated roadside bomb in 2005.

 

Courtesy of Jerry Hernandez

Medics work to stabilize Marine Cpl. Jerry Hernandez just 20 minutes after a roadside bomb detonated about 30 feet from where he was patrolling the streets of Ramadi, Iraq in April 2005.

 

Courtesy of Jerry Hernandez

The impact of a roadside bomb tore Marine Cpl. Jerry Hernandez's machine gun into pieces.

 

Courtesy of Jerry Hernandez

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Published: 4/13/2009 12:05 PM | Updated: 4/17/2009 9:53 AM

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Jerry Hernandez charged headlong into life as a Marine.

He chose infantry training after boot camp to get into combat quicker.

"I was thinking I was going to miss the war," he said.

After he returned from war, Hernandez and his brother, George, could have picked an easy path in business and simply franchised one of their father's successful Mexican restaurants. Instead, the brothers persuaded dad to help them open a bar and grill in Glen Ellyn, despite an economic climate as turbulent as the Middle East.

"I did have some hesitations because the economy is so bad, and I told him I'd rather have him hold off," said Jerry's wife, Gaby. "But in the end I realized he needed my support, so I trust him and I didn't think twice."

So Jerry Hernandez charged headlong into his new life.

"Look," he said, "our prices aren't high. People can still afford a beer and a burger. If you look at the history of the economy, it goes up and down. It's going to get better."

On March 4, the brothers opened Ellyn's Tap & Grill at 940 Roosevelt Road. It's in the Baker Hill Shopping Center just a little west of the I-355 interchange. The scent of fresh varnish and paint still lingers in the air.

And most people who shake Jerry's hand as he makes the rounds inside the bar would never know that he wasn't able to move that hand - let alone the entire arm - just a few months ago.

A little pile of trash

Jerry Hernandez had spotted the little pile of trash on the streets of Ramadi, Iraq, and immediately felt uneasy about it.

"I was thinking about going over and taking a look, but then I thought if there was something in it they'd just blow it when I got there, so I kept my distance," he recalled.

It was April 2005 and it was already hot.

His unit was escorting another outfit sweeping the area for roadside bombs. They had closed down a major intersection to do the sweep, so any number of the onlookers might be unfriendly.

Jerry was two months into his second tour in Iraq, and despite spending 25 days under constant insurgent fire in Fallujah in 2004 and emerging unscathed during his first go-round, Jerry wasn't letting his guard down in the slightly less volatile capital of the Anbar Province.

"They called us back to our vehicles, and as I was closing in on that pile of trash I got about 10 meters from it and the next thing I know I go flying through the air with the wind knocked out me," he said. "I landed on my face. It felt like I got punched in the nose."

Unable to move at all at first, he couldn't hear, and his safety goggles had cracked. Jerry struggled to breathe as well.

He'd later learn his right lung had been punctured by shrapnel, and his left lung had collapsed from the force of the explosion.

"The first thing to come back was my hearing, and I'm hearing gunfire," he said.

Insurgents had remotely detonated a mortar shell hidden in the pile of street rubbish and began firing on the troops as they came to Jerry's aid.

"I managed to get on my back, and I started grabbing for my weapon because that's how you're trained, and you're pretty useless without it," he said.

Fishing around in near-blindness from all the dust and damaged goggles, he found his machine gun - or rather a piece of it. The explosion had annihilated his weapon. The stock was blown apart from the barrel. A large gash in the butt of the weapon was likely carved out by shrapnel.

Laying prone and without a weapon, he waited helplessly for aid to come.

When medics finally reached Jerry, he was a bloody mess with numerous slashes and shrapnel wounds to his arms and legs. A dagger-like hunk of shrapnel was sticking out of his vest, but it didn't pierce his armored chest plate. A medic stuck a tube into his side and reinflated his lung.

"As soon as he did that I figured I'd be OK," he said. "I was conscious and now I could breathe."

Frontman

Jerry manages the customer side of Ellyn's while George takes care of the kitchen. Jerry's the face man.

"He's a better talker," George concedes. "He's more outgoing than I am, and he knows drinks better than I do."

Jerry's also a little closer, living just down the road in Glendale Heights. George still lives in Addison, where they both graduated from high school at Addison Trail.

Jerry tries to make it to every table or everyone at the bar to see how things are going and welcome patrons to the new establishment.

Mike Formento, director of the Glen Ellyn Chamber of Commerce, says the brothers have a lot more going for them than some other entrepreneurs do in this economy.

"I think they made some very wise decisions because it's formerly a restaurant with lots of parts and pieces that were already there," he said, "and that cuts down some costs."

The Ellyn's menu is the usual array of sports bar/pub fare - wings, fried appetizers, sandwiches and a few entrees. The brothers say they are working things out with the menu to see what sticks and what can be changed. They claim to be married to nothing on the menu just yet.

"The menu's pretty simple," Jerry said. "We just wanted to get the doors opened."

Gaby Hernandez, who's now five months pregnant with the her and Jerry's first child, helps out at Ellyn's and gets teased by her husband and brother-in-law when she's there.

"They like to give me a hard time about getting free food, but I feel like I pull my weight," she said.

The fully stocked bar is the central attraction of the space. Flat-screen TV sets show a variety of sporting events or news, depending on the time of the day. The dark wood furniture and accents are mellowing.

Occasionally, George has to help his brother pull something off a shelf if it's too heavy for Jerry's surgically repaired right arm to handle.

Jerry doesn't hide the scars from his battle wounds. His sleeves are usually rolled up as he takes care of business upfront, exposing what looks like a lot of painful reminders of his time at war but actually account for just a fraction of his scars.

Just the meds

It would be days before Jerry's family found out about his injuries, but not for a lack of trying on Uncle Sam's part.

"I don't know what I was thinking, but I had changed my cell phone number," said Gaby Hernandez with a lingering hint of embarrassment in her voice.

Through a series of circumstances that are only humorous a couple of years removed from the events, the Marines could not reach any of Jerry's large extended family for nearly a week to inform them that he was being shipped to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.

"I was the first to find out," George Hernandez said. "It was a Thursday and I was on my way to class and the phone was ringing and I didn't recognize the number, but it said something like 'U.S. Government.' They asked for my dad and I told them he wasn't here and I was going to hang up, and they finally asked if I had a brother who was in the Marines. And that's when they told me there'd been an accident. I just sat down. They wouldn't tell me anything else."

Later on, George checked the phone's call history and discovered the Marines had been calling since Sunday.

"I don't care," Jerry said. "I was out of it. I wasn't going to be able to talk to them, anyway."

The pain medication Jerry was given was so strong he has no recollection of the five days he spent in a German hospital before coming back stateside for further surgeries and rehabilitation. Five days where he amazed doctors by moving around the hospital despite extensive injuries, including damage to his heart.

"It was good stuff," he said of his meds.

When his family arrived en masse at the naval hospital, they said the swelling from his wounds had left him barely recognizable. There were also some other worries.

"The doctors were saying it was either brain damage or he was hung over from the medication," Gaby said. "Turns out it was just all the medications."

Getting better

At first, Jerry was kind of upset that his "Grunt" tattoo on his right shoulder had been partially erased by a shrapnel scar.

"Now I think it gives it a little something," he said.

His wife joked that it's the one good thing to come from the explosion.

"I hate all his tattoos," Gaby said. "All of them."

But the partial obliteration of the tattoo was the least of his worries when it came to that arm. Although he defied medical expectations in almost every other aspect of his recovery, his right arm still wouldn't move.

The same faith Jerry has in his business he acquired during his rehabilitation process. And if he ever doubted it, Gaby would reassure him that it was "going to get better."

"I definitely tried to support him," she said. "He did all the work, though."

The two met in junior high. Her parents used to get reports from her teachers that she was flirting with "this boy" too much. They went to different high schools but kept in touch over the years and reconnected after they had both graduated.

"He called me out the blue and I recognized the voice and we just met up as friends, but then things took off," Gaby said.

They were married about five months after reconnecting and just before he went off to boot camp.

During Jerry's convalescence, Gaby joined him at a Marine base near San Diego where doctors were trying to restore use of his arm. Finally, a surgery to repair nerve damage was suggested. He went for it.

"It worked," he said, moving his fingers and swinging his arm. "They said I should live a normal life."

But not a military life. While the surgery had gone well enough, his arm was still too damaged for him to return to active duty; he was discharged a couple of months shy of a full four-year ride in June 2006.

"It's my trigger finger," he said. "It doesn't work like it should."

Which is OK with Jerry, because the only trigger he wanted to pull after four years in the Marines was the one on a soda gun at a bar.

And now he does it at his bar.