Severely Burned Marine Finds Strength In Nascent Marriage

Nov 9, 2013
Originally published on November 9, 2013 9:24 am

In June 2008, Marine Cpl. Anthony Villarreal was driving back from a mission in Afghanistan when his truck was hit by a roadside bomb. He was 22 at the time and recently married to Jessica, who was just 21.

Villarreal suffered third-degree burns over most of his face and body and was very severely disfigured. His right arm and the fingers on his left hand eventually had to be amputated.

"I remember trying to breathe. I just felt, like, real hot — like I was on fire. They were dragging me on the sand and there was rocks there ... and it hurt, but I couldn't scream," he says. "And so I remember just laying there, feeling the hot sun and then feeling the wind from the helicopter coming in. And the doctor said, 'You'll be home soon.' "

Back home in Texas, the doctors asked Jessica Villarreal to identify her husband, as if he "had died or something." Jessica could only see Anthony's eyes and lips, since he was covered in bandages.

"And then they showed me the extent of the burn, how it went straight to the bone," she says. "They told me, 'We can't salvage the tissue,' so I had to sign papers saying that it was OK for them to amputate."

Anthony woke up after three months of a drug-induced coma and had to "learn everything that a baby has to learn."

"I didn't even recognize myself," he says. "After the first time I saw myself in the mirror, that's when I just broke down. I really thought that my life was over. Kept thinking, what was I going to do? How am I going to get a job?"

Jessica was steadfast: "I just knew that you needed me and I was going to be there."

But it was hard for Anthony to avoid thinking she might leave him.

"Because a lot of people, they don't want to be seen with someone that was ugly. What was it, like 70-plus surgeries, skin grafts? I really didn't want to leave the house," he says. "I just thought to myself, man, people don't know how to ask questions. They just want to stare and point."

He's thankful his wife stuck by him.

"The crazy thing is I'm still more self-conscious about what I look like than you are," Jessica tells him. "But I have grown so much over the past five years. I didn't ever think that I'd be as strong as I am today and most of it is from you. I can't imagine you not being in my life."

Today, the couple is attending college together.

They've been through "so much in so little time," Anthony says. "There shouldn't be anything that could tear us apart besides death itself."

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Yasmina Guerda.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DON GONYEA, HOST:

This Veteran's Day weekend, it's time to check in with StoryCorps and the Military Voices Initiative, honoring those who have served in post-9/11 wars, and their families.

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GONYEA: In June 2008, Marine Corporal Anthony Villarreal was driving back from a mission in Afghanistan when his truck was hit by a roadside bomb. Anthony suffered third-degree burns over most of his face and body. He was severely disfigured and his right arm and the fingers on his left hand eventually had to be amputated. Anthony was 22 at the time and newly-wed to Jessica, who was just 21. When the couple sat down for StoryCorps, Anthony remembered the moments just after the explosion.

CORPORAL ANTHONY VILLARREAL: I remember trying to breathe. And I just felt, like, real hot, like I was on fire. They were dragging me on the sand and there was rocks there. So, when they were dragging me, I felt the rocks against my skin and my legs and it hurt, but I couldn't scream. And so I remember laying there, feeling the hot sun and then feeling the wind from the helicopter coming in. And the doctor said you'll be home soon.

JESSICA VILLARREAL: I remember when I first saw you. The doctors wanted me to identify you, like you had died or something. You were covered in bandages and I can only see your eyes and your lips. And then they showed me the extent of the burn, how it went straight to the bone. They told me we can't salvage the tissue, so I had to sign papers saying that it was OK for them to amputate.

VILLARREAL: When I woke up from that three-month drug-induced coma, having to learn everything that a baby has to learn, I didn't even recognize myself. After the first time I saw myself in the mirror, that's when I just broke down. I really thought that my life was over. Kept thinking what was I going to do? How am I going to get a job? What did you think about?

VILLARREAL: I just knew that you needed me and I was going to be there. Were you ever scared that I'd leave you?

VILLARREAL: Yeah. I mean, it's hard not to think about that, because a lot of people, they don't want to be seen with someone that was ugly. What was it, like 70-plus surgeries, skin grafts? I really didn't want to leave the house. I just thought to myself, man, people don't know how to ask questions. They just want to stare and point. I'm just glad that you're here to help me.

VILLARREAL: The crazy thing is I'm still more self-conscious about what I look like than you are. But I have grown so much over the past five years. Didn't ever think that I'd be as strong as I am today and most of it is from you. I can't imagine you not being in my life.

VILLARREAL: We've been through so much in so little time. Shouldn't be anything that could tear us apart besides death itself.

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GONYEA: Retired Marine Corporal Anthony Villarreal and his wife, Jessica, remembering the explosion that almost took Anthony's life in Afghanistan five years ago.

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GONYEA: Today, the couple is attending college together. Their conversation was recorded in Lubbock, Texas, as part of the Military Voices Initiative, and like all StoryCorps recordings, it is archived at the Library of Congress. You can download the StoryCorps podcast at npr.org.

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GONYEA: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.