Wheaton mourns Joel Gomez, an Iraq War hero

  • Joel Gomez gets a hug from family friend Michelle Senatore during a medal ceremony at Cantigny in Wheaton in 2005.

    Joel Gomez gets a hug from family friend Michelle Senatore during a medal ceremony at Cantigny in Wheaton in 2005. Daily Herald file photo, October 2005

  • Joel Gomez

    Joel Gomez

  • After months of rehabilitation, Sgt. Joel Gomez, left, makes his way into his new home in Wheaton.

    After months of rehabilitation, Sgt. Joel Gomez, left, makes his way into his new home in Wheaton. Daily Herald file photo, September 2005

  • Joel Gomez of Wheaton, gets his Iraq Campaign Medal from LTC George Glaze of the Army Saturday at Cantigny in Wheaton. Over 50 family and friends came to see Joel get his due respect.

    Joel Gomez of Wheaton, gets his Iraq Campaign Medal from LTC George Glaze of the Army Saturday at Cantigny in Wheaton. Over 50 family and friends came to see Joel get his due respect. Daily Herald file photo, October 2005

  • Sgt. Joel Gomez from Wheaton, who was paralyzed while serving in Iraq, presents the lineup card to umpires with Sox first base coach Rafael Santana before the start of the Chicago White Sox final home game of the 2004 season.

    Sgt. Joel Gomez from Wheaton, who was paralyzed while serving in Iraq, presents the lineup card to umpires with Sox first base coach Rafael Santana before the start of the Chicago White Sox final home game of the 2004 season. Daily Herald file photo, September 2004

  • Daily Herald file photo, August 2004The Cubs Corey Patterson signs a ball for Sgt. Joel Gomez as he takes in the Cubs game in August 2004.

    Daily Herald file photo, August 2004The Cubs Corey Patterson signs a ball for Sgt. Joel Gomez as he takes in the Cubs game in August 2004.

 
By Jonah Nink
Daily Herald correspondent
Posted11/23/2022 5:30 AM

Army Sgt. Joel Gomez, an Iraq War veteran and Wheaton native whose community rallied around him when he returned home, died Tuesday due to complications from the injuries he suffered during the war. He was 42.

Family friend Michelle Senatore said that she first met Gomez when he returned to his hometown in 2004.

 

"My son, he met him before I did," said Senatore. "(He) played football at Wheaton Warrenville South, and Joel went and gave the guys a pep talk before their game. And let me tell you, they won that night."

Senatore would meet Gomez herself at a city council meeting only a few short hours later. Senatore was invited to the meeting by former City Council member Tom Mouhelis. She said it was a tradition to host returning veterans at the meetings.

After the meeting, Gomez asked Senatore, herself a daughter of a Vietnam veteran, if she would listen to his story.

"If you have family in the military, that is one of the biggest honors because they don't share their stories," Senatore said. "They just don't."

A traumatic spinal cord injury suffered during a combat mission left Gomez a quadriplegic. He was treated in an army hospital in Germany before eventually returning home.

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The small apartment that his family lived in quickly proved inadequate for Gomez and the equipment he needed to live; at that point, doctors thought that might only be a year.

The news was a tipping point for the Wheaton community, who decided to fight at home for the man who had fought for them overseas.

"I don't care if he's only going to live a year.,' He and his family are not going to live like this in this apartment," Senatore said.

In the fall of 2005, Gomez and his family moved into a new, fully-accessible home. They didn't pay anything. Instead, friends from Wheaton and beyond, with guidance from Senatore and other community leaders like Manny Favela -- Burrito Parilla founder and retired CFO for McDonald's Latin America -- donated their time and money to construct the home.

Assisting his family in day-to-day caretaking was Elva Cuahquentzi. Senatore said that the two forged an immediate close bond and weren't separated until Cuahquentzi was forced to return to Mexico to resolve an immigration status issue in October.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Joel didn't want her to go, and she of course didn't want to go," Senatore said. "But we all knew that, once she left, it was not going to be good."

Without Cuahquentzi's care, Gomez was moved to a nursing home and later died after being hospitalized during his stay.

"She's been gone a month; she's kept him alive," said Senatore. "And within a month he's gone. It's devastating because, really, our system failed him and failed her."

Senatore said that the community will remember him most for his warmth and humor.

"He loved the Wheaton community," Senatore said. "He was hilarious -- just one big, giant personality. On the serious side, he would always offer somebody words of encouragement."

When thinking about how best to remember veterans, their lives and their stories, Senatore recalled some advice she received after her first conversation with Gomez.

"The first thing I did when I got home was I called my father," said Senatore. "I said dad, I got this privilege from this young man who's paralyzed from the neck down in Iraq. He told me his whole story. (My dad) says 'What an honor. Don't you dare forget him.'"

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