CALUMET CITY | The families of two Indiana National Guardsmen from the Valparaiso unit will benefit from this year's Guns N Hoses Poker Run on Saturday.
The annual event, which will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., is organized by Calumet City firefighters to honor local first responders and military personnel.
This year's event will help the families of Sgt. Willie Cook, of Gary, who was gunned down in February in East Chicago while shielding his 3-year-old son when bullets riddled his car. The event also will honor Spc. Doug Rachowicz, of Hammond, who was the lone survivor when he and four men from his unit were hit by an improvised explosive device in January 2012 in Afghanistan. Rachowicz was severely injured and has endured several surgeries.
“It’s always kind of been an event to celebrate the lives of those who have gone above and beyond,” Calumet City firefighter Sam Vega said. “We feel compelled to help because it hits us close to home. We look up to these guys and those who served overseas especially.”
The fifth annual event is the brainchild of Vega, also an Indiana National Guardsman, and his co-worker Jim Hilliard. They wanted to combine a love of motorcycle riding and their desire to help honor some local heroes in law enforcement, firefighting, EMS and the military.
The first year's recipient was the family of South Chicago Heights firefighter Ronnie Battio, who also worked part time with the Air Angels medical transport team. He died when the helicopter in which he was riding while transporting a critical infant, crashed, leaving behind his wife and six children. Each year since, the group has helped the family of another fallen hero.
When Vega told Rachowicz that he’d like to help his family through the fundraiser, he learned about Cook.
“Rachowicz mentioned Sgt. Cook and said, ‘Don’t do it for me, do it for him.’ That shows you how selfless he is and what a brotherhood it is. You could tell that from their time together, he really loved Cook,” Vega said.
“We said, ‘How can we do it for one and not the other?' so this is the first year we are doing this for two instead one,” said Calumet City Lt. David Zielke. “This has probably been the hardest year as far as getting donations and selling tickets because of the economy. It’s been harder than in previous years.”
Tickets for the run are $15 per rider. Those who aren’t motorcycle riders can also make donations by stopping by between 9 and 10 a.m. on Saturday at the Calumet Harley Davidson, 10350 Calumet Ave. in Munster, as the bikes leave for the run. Donors also can meet at the end point at White Rhino Bar & Grill, 1010 Joliet St. in Dyer, around 3 p.m. T-shirts are available for $15. There is also a raffle for a Harley Davidson Sportster or $10,000. Those tickets are $25.
“I’m very grateful,” said Cook’s fiancee, LaQuana Norwood, who is the mother of his two sons. Cook also has a daughter named Destiny.
“A lot of people have been stepping up to help," Norwood said. "It’s nice to see how much people want to help. It’s a good thing that’s come from this tragedy, and I’m very thankful.”
Both of Cook’s young boys, ages 3 and 8, enjoyed touring the Calumet City fire station Monday, trying on fire gear and riding on the engine.
“Things like this are good for them,” Norwood said. “It keeps them active. They don’t have that father figure anymore.”
Vega said that aside from providing some financial assistance to the families, the gesture is to “make sure they aren’t forgotten.”
All the firefighters involved — Vega, Zielke, Hilliard and firefighter Sean Fortson — were in awe at Rachowicz’s insistence that Cook’s family be helped.
“That spirit is what America is. A lot of people forget that,” Vega said.
For more information, to buy tickets or to donate, call (708) 891-8145 or (708) 372-7287. A trust fund for the Cook family has been set up at www.gofundme.com. Find the page by searching "Sgt Willie Cook.”