When you’ve practically lost yourself to a wartime attack, been set on fire, clawed yourself free of wreckage without all your limbs intact, your face, arms, legs, even your eyelids are burned away, and you have no idea how you lived through all this, you can’t just come home. This is retired Cpl. Anthony Villarreal’s life after a hidden pressure plate in Helmand province, Afghanistan, blew apart his vehicle June 20, 2008, with him still inside it. At the time, Anthony was deployed with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.
Normalcy doesn’t mean what it once did. But luckily for Villarreal, normalcy still means coming home to a loving wife, one who stayed despite the trials she knew they’d face.
It’s been four years since the attack that almost cost him his life. This is his story as told by her.
Jessica was with her father in San Antonio when she got the call that changed her life, the one telling her Anthony was injured and on his way home.
Military officials reached Jessica’s mother first, and passed on a number for her to call. Her mother insisted on talking to her father instead, which is when Jessica knew something was wrong.
“My mother couldn’t even talk to me,” Jessica said. “As I followed him toward the living area, I was trying to eavesdrop. All I heard was, ‘…got burned…’ My first thought was my sister’s kids burned themselves with the iron or the oven. My dad buzzed me away with his hand, so I went back to my room to finish folding my clothes. Soon after, my dad walks in my room and said, ‘Anthony is hurt. He was burned. Your mother gave me this number. You need to call it immediately.’”
The number connected Jessica to someone in Quantico, Va.
“I stated my name, told her Anthony Villarreal is my husband, and will you please tell me what is going on.”
The woman on the other end of the line told Jessica that Anthony had been injured two days prior, but she did not know how badly. She asked Jessica to call back in a few hours, and she could tell her exactly where he was being transferred.
Anthony was scheduled to arrive at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, right up the street from where Jessica was staying. Her father drove her to the base that same day.
The nurses walked Jessica through to the area where Anthony would be. Jessica said she walked that route repeatedly so it would become instinctual.
“Once he was there, I knew my mind would go blank. I wanted to memorize the place.”
Four years ago: Midnight, June 23, 2008
A little more than a day and a half later, Jessica arrived back at the hospital and was taken to Anthony’s room.
The doctors guided her in, and first needed her to ID him as her husband. He was completely wrapped in dressings, still in a medically-induced coma. He stayed in this coma for three months.
“The first two things I saw were his eyes and lips. And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s him.’ That’s all I could see. He looked like a mummy.
“The room felt like a sauna. His dressings needed to be moist at all times. I had to wear a full germ-blocking apron, hair net, mask, gloves and shoe booties to prevent any outside germs. Anthony was exposed, as they put it.”
Although Anthony was still in a coma during these early months, Jessica wasn’t alone. The hospital staff, a base chaplain and the Marines attached to the unit all added themselves to Jessica’s support system.
The nurses made sure Jessica was just as well taken care of as if she was a patient herself.
“They instinctively took me under their wing and even went so far as telling me to go eat.”
The chaplain, Chaplain Vandress, gave Jessica a book to help her cope. Jessica started reading it aloud while she visited Anthony so he could hear her voice.
The detachment Marines tracked Jessica down at the hospital within hours, and gave her a folder full of information about the base and hospital. Their office was soon her safe haven.
“The Marine detachment was always there if I ever needed anybody to talk to. I went to their offices whenever it was not visiting hours.”
Jessica said she took these months one day at a time.
“I did not even think about future events I couldn’t control,” she said. “The hardest part was having to sign for the amputation of his left fingers and right hand. The doctors gave me time to think about it. I asked many questions and prayed I would make the correct decision.”
Jessica was at the hospital every day, 30 minutes prior to visiting hours at 6 a.m.
She started learning how to take care of Anthony while he slowly learned how to walk again.
“I saw the nurses apply the bandages quite often. The nurses had to undo his dressing, bathe him, which involved painful scrubbing, and then reapply his dressings. Sometimes the bandages would come loose, and in the attempt to fix it properly, I started asking questions. The nurses taught me how. After that, I wouldn’t let anybody else do it.”
The practice turned out to be helpful even after Anthony’s stay at the hospital was over.
“It did not dawn on me that Anthony would need it after he got out,” she said. “Anthony needed to have clean bandages every day. So we had to get up early and take care of him. I was going to protect him.”
Jessica said this ordeal has built their marriage up to beyond where they had imagined it could.
“We know now how to take care of each other,” she said. “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have. My choice was simple. I was not going to give up.”
The pair soon discovered their marriage, and Jessica’s determination to push through everything, was a minority attitude. Other wives were not handling the recovery process as well.
“With that kind of pressure, it does not take long for someone to show their true colors,” Jessica said. “I was acquainted with a wife who took a completely different path. Just being around her for a small amount of time was so negative. She was set on leaving. You are who you surround yourself with, and I was not going to let myself get dragged down.”
Anthony heard the same stories during group therapy sessions. He started to worry, but not for long.
“Doubt crossed his mind about if this could happen to him,” she said. “I assured him that I loved him, and that I wasn’t going to leave. It never crossed my mind.”
Anthony was released from in-patient care in October 2008, just a few months after the attack. The doctors and nurses joked, saying, “Marines heal faster.” His therapy lasted another two years after that.
In December 2008, after more than 70 surgeries, Anthony was well enough to travel back to California for his unit’s return from Afghanistan and for their memorial ceremony.
Three years ago:
Jessica started going back to school when Anthony’s medical appointments slowed to every other day. She scheduled classes for days when Anthony didn’t have therapy, and she only scheduled a few at a time.
“I was worried to leave him at home, and have a meal pass by.”
Going to school gave Jessica an idea, one to help Anthony build his confidence and independence.
“It took some work to get Anthony in school again. I made him go with me to schedule my classes at South Plains College. My counselor convinced him to take a couple classes; one with me, one without me at similar times, so we could be close by.”
Thanks to the school’s disabled program, volunteers were available to help him fill in his Scantron answer sheets for tests.
One year ago:
With therapy and surgeries out of the way, Jessica and Anthony started focusing on normal, everyday worries, like housing and finances. Neither situation was good. The pair considered moving in with one of their parents.
All that changed when they were invited to a luncheon held by Operation Finally Home, a program that provides mortgage-free homes to wounded veterans. They thought they were going just to learn about the program and meet organizers. They had no idea they had already been chosen as the first Lubbock recipients of a new, fully-furnished home.
The organization, in partnership with the Texas Home Builders Association and various donors, started on a 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath home with customizations that allowed Anthony to open doors and get around unassisted.
“I met with designers and decorators and furniture folks,” Jessica said. “I had never picked out furniture before, dishes, vanity appliances, or color schemes.”
The home meant more to the couple than simply having a house. For them, it meant independence and security. For Anthony, it meant being a “regular, responsible adult.”
They were the first to move in on their street. Since then, the neighborhood has grown.
“It’s normal, I suppose,” Jessica said. “Friends come over often. We invite them to swim, and we make dinner. We all pitch in. It’s a good time.”
Jessica and Anthony are still students. This year is the first semester Anthony has a schedule that doesn’t include Jessica as a classmate.
“This is a big deal for him because he has been taking care of himself while he is at school. We got him an iPad to write notes on, a tape recorder, anything and everything we could to make his note taking easier.”
He’s also learned how to be himself again.
“Anthony can do many things on his own,” Jessica said. “He can drive. I recently taught him how to drive standard. With every obstacle, somehow we have come up with how to adapt and overcome any little thing to help him be independent.”
One of those obstacles the pair still faces together is reactions to his appearance.
“At the beginning, I think it broke his heart a little when children did hide,” Jessica said. “This was the stage when he was still getting used to his new reflection.”
“I used to be very protective of him. Now I just smile. People are curious. Some ask, some do not. Anthony has a natural way of decreasing awkwardness. He is a natural with the kiddos. He would lean down and say hello, make that kid smile.”
Jessica said there are no more plans for any future surgeries, although they have had plenty of options for nose reconstruction. Anthony said he did not want to risk any further complications. Jessica said she does not feel he needs to change.
“Anthony looks handsome the way he is.”
Life has calmed down considerably since the attack. They live a quiet life, spending time with each other, their friends, and their three dogs, April, Chewy and Mongo. It is a change the Villarreals welcome.
“Life’s definitely slowed down,” Jessica said. “I believe we have settled wonderfully. Our unique and blessed situation is about as normal as it is going to get.”
The day of the attack changed both their lives, and almost cost them each other.
But in the end, it didn’t.
And for Jessica that is the very best part of their story.
// By Sgt. Bobby Yarbrough
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