Marine Veteran Reclaims His Life After Combat Injuries
There was a moment, soon after realizing the extent of his burn wounds and combat injuries, when Anthony Villarreal didn’t expect anyone to stick by him, including his wife.
He would look at himself in the mirror and couldn’t see the strong and handsome Marine who went to war. He didn’t recognize himself.
“When I woke up from an induced coma, [the hospital staff] told me to brace myself,” Anthony said. “I went from being about 185 pounds and strong, lifting weights, to a 95-pound stick, with burns, missing fingers; I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was in a dream, and I would wake up soon.”
A Flood of Questions
Questions flooded Anthony’s mind. “I couldn’t stop thinking about my wife, and how I was going to be able to work now that I’m injured. Where are we going to live? How am I going to make money? Am I going to survive?” Anthony recalled. Soon the mounting questions started to feel like a pile of bricks.
Anthony’s resilience and the love of his wife, Jessica, and other family members lifted him up. He also sought help for his mental health after he returned home from long hospital stays, multiple surgeries, and physical rehabilitation that included learning to walk again. But, at first, his natural tendency was to be left alone in the dark.
“I was so afraid of what I looked like to people around me,” Anthony said. “I didn’t want them judging me just by my looks.”
Hear Anthony Tell Part of His Story in His Own Words.
The fear of his image changed Anthony’s relationship with his family and his wife – and he kept his distance for a while. “I just didn’t like the way I looked, and I assumed that was all [Jessica] was thinking [about]. And I couldn't get that out of my head. I couldn’t kick it for the longest time.”
Now, Anthony is able to go out in public on his own and with his family confidently. He shops at local stores, goes to veteran events, and openly shares his story of resilience with wisdom and an eagerness to support other veterans struggling.
Walking the Long Road Ahead – Together
Anthony’s wife, Jessica, is a fellow U.S. Marine and had broken her foot during the last two weeks of boot camp. She knew what it felt like to have dreams shattered by injuries, and she believed that, if the tables were turned, she would want Anthony by her side.
“He’s like my best friend,” she said, holding back tears. “The thought of leaving never crossed my mind,” Jessica said. At first, being a caregiver was overwhelming for Jessica. She admits to pushing others away and trying to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders.
“There were a lot of obstacles I had to face in learning to be a caregiver and making sure that he had everything he needed,” Jessica said. “I was young, and I hadn’t found my voice yet.”
In the hospital in San Antonio, both Jessica and Anthony met other veteran families and learned about Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) from a visitor who brought a WWP backpack.
Anthony remembers the visit from WWP felt like “someone out there was watching over me, helping me out.”
Later down the road, the couple reached out to WWP and started participating in events and meeting other veterans and their families. WWP even sent them and a group of warriors on a trip with Vail Veterans Program, a WWP community partner that is focused on providing innovative outdoor programming that helps improve the lives of veterans and their families.
“I was still shy at that time because of the way I looked,” Anthony recalled. “I just went to see what [they] had to offer. I had the time of my life, met other veterans, some of whom were missing limbs, some who were burned, some that had PTSD and TBI, and they were out there having fun with their families.”
Anthony said he let his guard down and began feeling more comfortable with the group. He bonded with other veterans and went snowboarding for the first time – with Jessica by his side.
Letting the Light In
Spending time with other veterans was an eye-opener for Anthony. He learned there are others who struggle with PTSD, TBI, and physical injuries just like him.
He worked alongside these veterans to adopt tools he could use to counter his negative thoughts, stay positive and continue his mental health journey. He also reached out to WWP when things got tough with his marriage, recognizing a referral to couple’s therapy may be helpful in continuing healthy conversations.
These days, Anthony and Jessica enjoy time with their two children and find joy in everyday chores and schoolwork. Jessica and the boys help Anthony with things like cooking, folding laundry, tying his shoes, and making time for family fun.
“I love to play video games and watch movies with the family,” Anthony said. “I’ve become involved in hunting and my oldest son wants to join me, so that’s really cool. I continue to learn more about being a mentor and help veterans who are still struggling.”
Anthony’s life inspires others to persevere and shines a light on the continuing needs of injured veterans.
Learn more about programs and services WWP provides at no cost to veterans and their families.
Contact: Raquel Rivas – Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.426.9783
About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.
Read the full version of this story in Homeland magazine.