KILLEEN — Two Fort Hood soldiers drove new cars off the lot last week courtesy of Automax and the Association of the United States Army.

Fort Hood’s Noncommissioned Officer of the Year, Staff Sgt. Waylon Wren, and the Fort Hood Soldier of the Year, Sgt. Alexis Estrada, were each given the use of a car for a year. Both received Volkswagen Jettas, valued at $25,000 each.

The giveaway began nine years ago when III Corps’ command sergeant major approached Automax about doing something to recognize the outstanding soldiers for their achievements.

Bradley and A.G. Whitis, owners of Automax, agreed to donate a car to each soldier for a year.

“We do this every year to show our respect and adoration for the U.S. military,” said Danny Hawkins, Automax customer service director. “We are the only Automax to recognize and appreciate soldiers in this way.”

Estrada, 5th Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, described his feelings of the gift as “amazing.”

“I got to pick it (the car) out,” he said. “This one really caught my attention. I am going to go home to California.”

Estrada, who was recently promoted to the rank of sergeant, went on to win the III Corps Soldier of the Year, competing with contenders from Fort Bliss, Fort Sill, Okla., and Fort Campbell, Ky. He credited his achievements to his competition sponsor, Staff Sgt. John Samudio.

“It was like being a coach of someone in the Olympics or watching a child walk for the first time. It is hard to put into words,” Samudio said.

Wren, 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, was jubilant about the new car.

“This is pretty exciting,” he said. “The community is awesome in supporting soldiers at Fort Hood. We are grateful they are here (for us). Automax was helpful through the whole process. This has been an awesome experience.”

Wren’s acting command sergeant major was excited to see the soldier do so well.

“I am very, very proud,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Phifer. “I was elated when he won and very ecstatic about the accomplishments of Staff Sgt. Wren. When I met him, I knew he had (the ability). He has lived up to it 200 percent.”

More than 100 members of the Texas AUSA Chapter will travel to Washington, D.C., next month for the AUSA annual meeting.

Both Wren and Estrada will attend and have the opportunity to have dinner at the home of Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Ray Odierno.

The Fort Hood AUSA Chapter will receive top honors, being named the largest chapter in the Army, having taken the award away from Fort Bragg, N.C., which claimed the honor for more than three decades.

The Fort Hood chapter also will be honored with the “Best AUSA Chapter of the Year” award from among large installations worldwide.

Herald/Wendy Sledd

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