Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. --
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 was what retired Cpl. Anthony Villarreal’s life is going to be like 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 Anthony Villarreal, normalcy does mean 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.
Five years ago
The first few days after they were married, as impulsive as it was, Jessica said they knew they hadn’t made a mistake. They “were inseparable” and had an “on-top-of-the-world kind of feeling,” she said.
They immediately started spreading the good news. Their families’ feelings were mixed.
“We got every reaction in the book. Negative and positive,” Jessica said. “Anthony called his mother right away as we were walking out of the courthouse. She disagreed with us getting married so young. My family, on the other hand, was overwhelmed with joy. My family supported our relationship right from the beginning.
“It was something Anthony and I leaned on, those blessings from my side of the family,” she said.
Two months later, Jessica moved back to California. The move was easier than expected. They had already been planning on her possibly moving in with Anthony soon. And, of course, they had each other.
“Anthony put it like this to encourage me. He said he would take care of me, and he wanted me close so nothing bad would ever happen to me. He loved me.”
Their timing in applying for base housing couldn’t have been more perfect.
“Normally the wait is six-to-eight months,” she said.
Anthony was somehow blessed with a one-month wait.
“I guess it was meant to be,” Anthony said.
However, the adjustment to married life was not as easy, especially for Anthony. He had a hard time accepting they’d have to be a team, that he couldn’t be the knight in shining armor he wanted to be for Jessica.
“He couldn’t afford his phone bill, but said he needed one so that his command could keep in contact with him. Once he told me that, I went job hunting,” she said. “Responsibility was like an instinct for me. I was going to take care of this man, no matter what.
“Finances was something he had trouble communicating with me. He did not want me to have a worry in the world. I told him it wasn’t fair to carry it all on his shoulders, which he did frequently. He finally spilled the beans about being behind on his truck payment. Once I got my first paycheck, we started to catch up on payments as much as we could. It was difficult at times.”
However, these first trials also showed the couple they weren’t alone. A few friends saw a need, and stepped in.
“A few times we did not even have money for groceries. Thank God for Anthony’s former (barracks) roommate,” she said. “Oscar Garza, without hesitation, said, ‘I’ll help.’ Of course, it took a hard hit toward Anthony’s pride, having to ask for help.
“I was blessed to meet up with one of my boot camp buddies, Rebecca Darling-Lopes. After a while, she found out we didn’t have any furniture. She gave us a couch that wouldn’t fit in her off-base house. A couple of days passed, and Oscar asked if it was okay to put some things from his room in the barracks in our house. He said we could use his television set, his stand, his Wii and his games as long as we took care of it.”
Despite the hardships, Jessica still described those early first days together as “blissful.”
“We had each other, and that is all we needed.”
They spent those days “working on communication, taking turns cooking and helping each other clean the house,” she said.
They were both well aware of the inevitable separations they’d have to face within a military marriage. They had already stayed together through Anthony’s second deployment and through a long-distance dating relationship. Anthony enlisted help in the form of a new four-legged friend for Jessica. They rescued an abused 6-month-old beagle puppy to keep Jessica company when the Marine Corps pulled Anthony away.
Their first major separation after she moved to California was Anthony’s month-long Enhanced Mojave Viper cycle.
“We talked to each other on the phone as often as was allowed. He said he could see the light flickering as I turned off and on the light switch from the front porch. He was in the hills somewhere. He was just happy that I was closer to him.”
Jessica used that month away from Anthony as a chance to make friends with the other wives in Anthony’s unit. These relationships would later help her through the turmoil of living through his injury.
Jessica described this time apart as practice for Anthony’s upcoming deployment, although she admitted there was really nothing that could really prepare her for those months.
Four years ago
“It was the beginning of April 2008 when he deployed,” she said. “He prepared his sea bags the night before, set our alarms and woke up super early, as always.”
That was the start of their final hours together before he left for Afghanistan. It was his third deployment, and their first as a married couple. They had been married less than a year.
Once at the unit’s meeting point, they walked around for an hour, greeting other families. Jessica said she repeated the names of the other Marines in her head over and over in an attempt to match names to faces. She remembered hearing other families say “see you laters” instead of “goodbyes” and being saddened by the realization that some of those families would lose their sons and husbands and brothers before the unit came home.
The final hour before the buses were scheduled to arrive, Anthony and Jessica sat in their truck just being together.
“We had a lot to talk about,” she said. “I asked him how long the deployment will be, me already knowing the answer. He responded anyway. We held each other most of the time, our hands intertwined, staring at the barracks and cars and families.”
The two had weathered Anthony’s second deployment when they were still dating. But Jessica said this one was more real because this was the first time she was there to see him off.
“Seeing the white buses arrive, my heart sank. This was it. Soon someone would knock on the window and say, ‘Time to go.’ I remember it being chilly. The wind was blowing, which made it extra cold. Families stood in a group waving, some holding onto outstretched arms, trying to get that last touch.”
The next day was quiet. Jessica called her mom to tell her Anthony was gone. The morning after that, Jessica picked up her older sister, Renel, from the airport. She said goodbye to all her Marine wife friends, and Jessica and Renel drove back to Texas together.
“I had never been by myself. I was always with my mom or Anthony. It was a scary thought being in California by myself. I decided to visit my dad in San Antonio for the duration of the summer. I was planning on coming back to Lubbock to start college.”
Neither anticipated Anthony’s very early return home a few short months later, after his injury.
“God sure had a completely different path for me that year, one that would change our lives and my family’s lives forever,” she said.
Once back in her childhood home, Jessica kept busy with a job at an Academy sporting goods store and devised ways to stay close to Anthony. She described the experience “like school was out, the summer started and we did not get to see much of each other anymore.”
“I always felt an emptiness in my heart. I was missing him every day. Every night I prayed. I even went as far as sending my guardian angel over to him, to protect him.”
They talked “a little here and there” on their newly created Facebook account and wrote often. She used MotoMail whenever she could get to a computer because the letters would reach Anthony quicker than traditional post.
“I remember writing to him saying ‘Happy Birthday love. One month passed.’ I still continued to write to him. Nothing beats a handwritten letter. I even attempted to spray the paper with my perfume and made my own confetti. I always put tape to secure it. He told me how hot it got over there, and I was not confident the envelope glue would stick through those temperatures.
She signed her letters “With love, Wawow’s Princess,” referring to a nickname Anthony’s Marine friends had given him. She said Anthony always called her his princess.
Frequent care packages were another way she sent her love.
“I would spend a portion of my paycheck all on sending packages. I would send big, family-size cans of beans and Fritos, beef jerky. For his birthday and Easter, I sent him a piñata chick hatching from an egg, stuffed with candy. He asked for pictures of us so he could hang them up, baby wipes, socks, candy and canned fruit.”
The two tried to keep the routines they’d started earlier in their marriage alive, as much as Anthony’s access to phones or the Internet would allow.
“We would sing our favorite songs, and when it was nighttime, he would sing me to sleep,” she said. “Praying together was a big deal for me, so we often prayed over the phone.
“Any time he could get to a computer with reliable signal he would phone me. It was not often enough. He called once a month.”
As it happened, the two only shared two phone calls before Jessica got a very different phone call in June 2008, this time from someone in Quantico, Va., telling her Anthony was badly injured and coming home.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series about a wounded veteran and his wife. Check back next week in the Observation Post for the last installment of Anthony and Jessica’s story.