Marine Corps

September 20, 2012

Love and War Part III: Final

Sgt. Heather Golden
Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms

Retired Cpl. Anthony Villarreal and his wife, Jessica, share a kiss during a recent visit back to Twentynine Palms. Anthony lost 80 percent of his skin, his right arm and all the fingers on his left hand during an improvised explosive device attack in Afghanistan in June 2005. Since then, the couple has weathered through more than 70 surgeries and Anthony’s neverending struggle to live as normal a life as possible.

Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms , Calif. — Four years ago, June 2008

Jessica was with her father in San Antonio, Texas, 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 to.

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.

“My eyes wandered around, doing my best to memorize buildings and street signs, so if I had to make the trip myself, I would know where I was going,” she said. “I was in a daze. I had to make myself as prepared as possible.”

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.”

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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 base’s Marine detachment 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 read to help her cope. Jessica started reading it aloud while she visited Anthony so he could hear her voice.

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