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Ken Hendrickson and his wife, Jill, got a picture with former President George W. Bush during the Warrior Open in Irving, Texas.

Big Orange meets former President George W. Bush

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Not everyone gets a nickname from the former President of the United States, but Ken Hendrickson did last week.

Ken - or Kenny, as folks may remember him - is a wounded Navy Seabee veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. In June of 2006, Pfc. 1st Class Hendrickson was riding in a Humvee as a gunner in a convoy security team when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Iraq's Al Anbar region. The force of the explosion catapulted him about 35 feet in the air and approximately 100 yards down the road. Two teammates were killed in the explosion, a fourth member sustained shoulder injuries.

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Kenny was left with spine injuries, a split pelvis, a dislocated right knee, a broken tibia and fibula, and injuries to both of his feet. He was in the Bethesda Naval Hospital for 3 1/2 months, then transferred to the Minneapolis Veterans Hospital where he stayed for another two months before being released.

Ken had a lot of visitors while he was in Bethesda. The visit that meant the most to him, though, was one from President George W. Bush.

Five years later, Hendrickson and his wife, Jill, are back at home. Only now, Hendrickson has not only met the former president, he's played golf with him.

@subhead:Chance of a lifetime

@bodycopy:Over the past few years, Hendrickson has gone through multiple surgeries to correct the injuries he received that day in Iraq. He eventually had to leave his fulltime job due to his injuries. In April 2010, he was retired from the Navy.

These days, Hendrickson still does a lot of therapy. Fortunately for him, golf is a part of that therapy. He's participated in several tournaments for wounded military personnel, and it was at one of those tournaments last summer he learned about President Bush's new tournament, The Warrior Open.

According to a letter from President Bush on the Warrior Open website, the event was intended to honor those who were injured while fighting for freedom. It was a two day, 36-hole competition.

Hendrickson looked into the tournament. He had to fill out an application and write a description of the incident that caused his injuries, the extent of his injuries and how he's recovered. He had to provide a doctor's note verifying he was physically capable of playing. And then, he had to wait.

Nearly 160 wounded veterans from around the United States applied for the tournament, Jill said. Only 20 were chosen, and Ken just happened to be one of them.

"I was thrilled to death," Ken said. "I'd met him before in Bethesda, but I was excited to meet him again."

Ken and Jill received an all-expense paid trip to Bush's hometown of Irving, Texas, where the tournament was to be held. But that was just the beginning of the special treatment they received.

@subhead:The Warrior Open

@bodycopy:It started on their flight down Oct. 8. The pilot of their flight made two announcements that Ken was on board and travelling to be in the tournament. When they arrived in Texas, they were met by a limo driver and taken to their hotel. Not much later, Ken was interviewed by the tournament's staff.

Sunday started with a practice round at the Los Colinas Country Club. Ken showed up in his Warrior Open polo shirt, his orange golf shoes, orange shorts and orange sweatshirt. Even in the pouring rain, the President made it around to golf one hole with each of his guests. It was during their hole together that Bush labeled Kenny as Big Orange. The nickname stuck through the entire tournament.

That evening, the golfers were invited to the Bush residence for a meet and greet with the tournament's sponsors and a few special guests including a couple of golf pros. Former vice president Dick Cheney also attended. It was a nice event, Jill said, but the former President kept saying there was more to come.

"I don't know how he sleeps at night," Jill said. "He was just so excited to have the guys out there."

The tournament opened Monday. Though his caddy, a fellow named Mel Robinson, had been a member of the course for 26 years, Ken didn't do as well as he would have liked.

Again, Bush came around to each hole to support the players. It was nice, Ken said, but it added a little extra pressure.

"You don't want to shank one off into the President," he said.

That evening, the golfers met more sponsors and received many gifts, but the highlight of the night was a private concert by the country music group Rascal Flatts.

Tuesday brought another 18 holes of golf, only this time Ken got hung up on the fourth hole, where he hit water more than once -- in front of the former President and golf pro Ben Crenshaw.

Overall, Ken placed 13th out of 20. But back in Minnesota a couple of days later, he said he wouldn't have missed the opportunity.

"I absolutely love that man. There is nothing I wouldn't do for him. I would put my life on the line for him at any time, on any given day," Hendrickson said. "Everything he does is to benefit the (wounded warriors). That's what makes this so special."

A Rosemount resident and a member of the Farmington American Legion, Hendrickson is hopeful he will have another opportunity to participate in the tournament next year. Not just for the chance to golf with President Bush again, but to spend more time with other wounded veterans.

"To come down and be a part of that is a great honor," Ken said. "The amount of support was phenomenal. Next year my goal is to be one of the best of the best. I want go back there and kick some butt."

Ken was one of two Minnesota wounded warriors to participate in the first Warrior Open. He was the only member of the Navy to participate.

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Michelle Leonard
Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and is the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 
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