Angel Rodriguez surprises boss Thomas Estes with Patriot's Award
SARAH GANZHORN Angel Rodriguez, left, an investigator for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, secretly nominated his boss, Thomas Estes, for a Patriot's Award last year from the U.S. Defense Department's Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve program. Rodriguez just ended a year-long tour of duty in Afghanistan and is back on the job in Northampton. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON GCo Angel Rodriguez says he knew the minute he met Thomas Estes that he would be a great boss.
In fact, Rodriguez, who works as an investigator for the Committee for Public Counsel Services - better known as the public defender's office - puts it even more strongly.
"It didn't take long to fall in love with this guy," he said last week about Estes, who directs the district court division of the office where Rodriguez has worked since 2007. "He's not just a boss. He's like a mentor, a big brother."
And over the past few months, since learning he would be mobilized for deployment Sunday to Afghanistan for his first tour of duty with the U.S. Army National Guard, Rodriguez has leaned on Estes more than ever.
"I've had to attend like three months of schooling," said the 39-year old Enfield, Conn., resident, who has been a member of his state's Guard since he was 18. "Thomas has been absolutely flexible, always there. He's just a wonderful man."
When Estes told Rodriguez that he was throwing a going-away party for him Friday, Rodriguez decided to turn the tables on his boss - who has also become a close friend.
In June, he had secretly nominated Estes for a Patriot's Award from the U.S. Defense Department's Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve program. Last year, more than 16,000 such awards were given out nationwide to employers nominated by members of the National Guard and U.S. Army Reserves.
On Friday, Rodriguez surprised Estes with a framed award certificate and pin. He arrived for the backyard party at his boss's Wilson Avenue home in his camouflage uniform, accompanied by Earl Bonett, vice chairman of the state Guard and Reserves employer support office, and representatives of local veterans organizations.
"This is the service member's way of thanking you for supporting him while he's serving his country," Bonett told Estes, as he presented the certificate. "As a boss, you are also serving when you support him."
"We're going to miss him," Estes replied, looking across at Rodriguez. "This is a bittersweet thing."
Bonett explained that the Patriot Award and other programs of the office have become more important in the years since the 9/11 attacks, as the U.S. military has relied more heavily on the National Guard and Army reservists.
"So much more is being asked of them," he said. "This program is a way to recognize employers who make that part of a serviceman's life that much easier."
Estes said the award reminded him that the ways he had tried to help Rodriguez indeed had made a difference. Even small tokens of support made him feel less helpless about seeing a trusted employee and friend heading off to do military duty overseas.
He said it was heartening to realize that his support for his employee may have eased a difficult transition by taking something off his plate.
"It's empowering," Estes said. "I feel like I am doing something to help."
For his part, Rodriguez said being able to give his boss some recognition, "means I can go with my mind clear. I feel good knowing this happened."
Eye to eye
The two men come from different backgrounds.
Estes, 45, is a Virginia native, a law school graduate and experienced public defender. Rodriguez, whose parents are Puerto Rican, grew up in Hartford, Conn., and attended Manchester Community College hoping for a career in law enforcement. He worked for years as an investigator for the insurance industry before being hired by Estes' office in 2007.
Still, in interviews before Friday's party, the two men described how much they have in common.
A love of basketball, for one. The two play regular games together at the YMCA of Hampshire County.
They also share a passion for the often demanding work of defending low-income clients.
"What I love about this job is the people," Rodriguez said. "The people in the community. I'm the line between the attorneys and the people."
Estes said he's rarely seen a more effective investigator. "People just love to talk to Angel," he said. "And he's just so tenacious. He really believes in the cause. Our clients are poor and they need our help."
Have they ever had a serious disagreement - in or out of the office?
"Not once," Estes said. "Angel's very easy going. We have that in common. We just see eye to eye."
Rodriguez will be at the U.S. Army base in Fort Hood, Texas, before heading to Afghanistan for a yearlong tour as a convoy commander.
He leaves behind his 12-year-old daughter, Leilani, and six siblings, all of whom live in Connecticut. Rodriguez is separated from his wife.
While he admitted feeling nervous about his first military tour, Rodriguez said he's up for the assignment in Afghanistan. "It's a challenge and I like a challenge," he said.
Estes confided that knowing his friend is headed to a war zone "gives me heart palpitations.
"I don't want him to change," he added. "I love Angel the way he is."
More than how much they'll miss each other, the true mark of the two men's friendship is what they say they've learned from one another.
Estes said Rodriguez has given him "a deeper and richer respect for the people serving in our military.
"Angel has also impressed on me what you can accomplish when you work hard," he said.
Rodriguez said Estes has "taught me to be a better leader" - skills he will rely on while serving in Afghanistan.
"He's taught me how to manage people and handle situations, and he's always been there to help me," Rodriguez said.
With the party swirling around them Friday, the two men paused to pose for a picture, their arms flung across each other's shoulders. After the shot had been taken, they stayed that way silently for a moment, before rejoining the other guests.