NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas (KXAN) – There are too many phone calls to keep up with for the veteran whose story circulated on Facebook last week as someone who just wanted someone to talk to.
“Say good morning!” Ernestine Hernandez said to her husband Tuesday morning in their New Braunfels home. “Hello, sir. How are you?” Lee said into the cell phone his wife held to his ear for him.
Since the end of last week, this has become the couple’s routine in the morning or evening, depending on when Lee is feeling up to it.
“Good morning! How are you today?” a voice said back. “I’m doing fine. How are you doing?” Lee responded into the phone.
“Thank you for your service, man,” one caller told him from somewhere in the world. “From one veteran to another, thank you,” another said.
Sgt. Lee Hernandez answered his call to serve; Ernestine answers hers by answering yours.
“You want to take a phone call from New York?” she asked the Army veteran. “You see, Lee, you wanted a phone call now you got so many phone calls your phone just can’t stop ringing.”
Lee retired from the Army after close to two decades and a tour in Iraq. “The military was his life,” Ernestine said. “He loved the military.”
Last year his health got bad; doctors aren’t sure why, she said, but now they just want him to be comfortable. “He’s had three brain surgeries, a lot of strokes.”
The 47-year-old is in hospice care, often alternating between a wheelchair and a recliner in their living room. On good days he’s able to walk around and go out to restaurants with his wife. On worse days, his speech is difficult to understand.
“Little by little I have to let him go,” Ernestine said.
Last week, Lee was hoping for someone — anyone — to call. He asked his wife to give him his phone in case anyone did.
“So he had it in his hand just like this,” Ernestine showed KXAN. “He put it to his ear, and he stayed like that for two hours, and nobody called him.”
He thought no one wanted to talk to him, she said, and it “broke [her] soul.” She reached out to a support group on Facebook, and a friend there shared the story and a phone number, asking just a small group to call and talk to Lee.
The story was shared and shared. Within 24 hours, people from all over the world proved Lee wrong.
“This lady’s all the way from Spain,” Ernestine told Lee, opening one of a handful of letters that had come to their home in the last day.
People started calling, texting, and writing letters — and they haven’t stopped. “Thank you for your courage and strength in serving,” Ernestine read from one of the letters.
Lee got more than 150,000 text messages in less than a week — so many the phone won’t let the couple read them. Whenever Ernestine opens the messaging app, she’s greeted with a blank screen.
They’ve gotten so many calls the phone is unusable. The ringtone glitches and overlaps itself, and most of the time doesn’t display an incoming call. The few the couple was able to answer Tuesday morning before Lee went to rest were the lucky few whose calls made it through.
“It can hardly keep up,” Ernestine said.
The couple is now taking messages on a Facebook page dedicated to Lee set up by a supporter. Ernestine posts videos of her husband there and people have been sharing their own stories of their service and how Lee has helped them.
Close to 20,000 people were members as of Wednesday morning.
“I know in his heart he knows that people really do care about him,” Ernestine said.
But in her heart sits a heavier truth.
“After all this is done,” she said, “there’s a reality that I’m still losing my husband, you know. He’s slipping right through my fingers and there’s nothing I can do to save him.”
“If I could have my husband back one day, just one day,” she said, tears coming to her eyes. “You know, it’s very difficult.”
Monday marks the couple’s 14th anniversary; Ernestine will be celebrating with a new version of the guy who answered his call — while she keeps answering ours.
“I enjoy everything that you all have done for me,” Lee said quietly before putting the phone up for a while so he could rest, “and I appreciate it.”
“Thank all of y’all. Thank all of y’all.”
If you’d like to wish Lee and Ernestine well, you can reach them on the Facebook page linked above, or send a card or letter to P.O. Box 200265, San Antonio, TX 78220.