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SSG Javier Villanueva, left, chats with NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie driver Kevin Conway prior to Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga.

FORT BENNING, Ga. - A Fort Benning Soldier severely wounded in Iraq six years ago got a pit-row peek at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in Atlanta last weekend.

SSG Javier Villanueva, 41, was picked by ExtenZe Racing to be the honorary crew chief for rookie driver Kevin Conway during Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga. He was selected an "ExtenZe Local Hero" for the sacrifice he made on behalf of the country and the courage he displayed in overcoming an injury that resulted in partial paralysis to his left leg.

Before the race, Villanueva met eventual winner Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya, who came in third.

"It was a very exciting event, more than what I expected being my first time going to a race," Villanueva said. "They were pretty humble, from (Conway's) family to his crew chief and those that work with him. They were all great. They were thankful for what we do in the Army. This was their way of thanking the services for going out there and defending our country and providing the freedom we have."

As a sergeant in 2004 with A Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry - a Stryker unit out of Fort Lewis, Wash. - the San Antonio native was working a security detail assigned to protect a commander surveying neighborhoods around Mosul in northern Iraq. The unit was talking to local residents about their fears in regards to insurgents. At the last stop of the day, Villanueva's detail was ambushed and the Soldiers engaged the enemy. During the skirmish, Villanueva was hit in the left leg by a high-velocity round fired from an AK47.

He was immediately evacuated to a medical center in Germany, where he was stabilized and then flown back to a U.S. hospital. Doctors tried to repair his injured leg, but the damage could not be fully reversed and Villanueva's left leg was paralyzed from the knee down.

The Purple Heart recipient spent more than two years struggling through rehabilitation to regain mobility. He's undergone 16 surgeries, the most recent coming in January, when he received an implant to alleviate some of the pain in his leg.

"My leg is as good as it's gonna get, which enables me to walk around, but doesn't let me run," Villanueva said. "Along with all those surgeries, the outcome is my nerve is damaged pretty bad, and I have severe chronic pain in the knee and lower leg."

But six years after being wounded, Villanueva has managed to remain in the Army. He's served for 18 years, including the past 18 months at Fort Benning, where he works for the 1st Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment's Headquarters and Headquarters Company.

Villanueva said he's not a huge NASCAR fan but watches race highlights and has some knowledge of the sport. His wife, Catressa, and their four children - son Tristen and daughters Victoria, Morgan and Nevaeh - joined him in Atlanta.

The Soldier got a tour of the garages, attended the pre-race driver and crew chief meeting, observed some NASCAR inspections and sat atop the pit box with Conway's crew chief, Peter Sospenzo, during the race.

"I got to hear everything that he and his crew chief talked about," Villanueva said. "It was pretty awesome when I was up there listening to what they go through."

The program is a great way to honor inspirational individuals, Conway said in a news release.

"I am truly humbled by our ExtenZe Local Heroes," said Conway, driver of the No. 37 ExtenZe Ford Fusion, who finished 31st Sunday but remains in the running for NASCAR Rookie of the Year. "They inspire me when I am out there racing to win. Staff Sergeant Javier Villanueva really put himself on the line for our country ... It's really gratifying to be able to acknowledge and honor Staff Sergeant Villanueva."

Villanueva said he and his wife have benefited significantly from Operation Homefront Georgia, which provides emergency and morale assistance to troops and families during deployment and works to aide wounded warriors when they return home. Catressa applied through the organization for the chance to make him an honorary crew chief.

"We really had a great time up there," the staff sergeant said. "I'll definitely watch races the rest of the season, and see how (Conway's) doing. Hopefully, he'll keep doing better and get that checkered flag."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16