On June 20, 2008, in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, Anthony Villarreal’s life changed in an instant when a roadside bomb blew up the truck he was driving, setting off a secondary explosion from his vehicle’s ammunition.
“More than 30 percent of my body surface was burned. My right hand had to be amputated and my left fingers as well. I had third-degree burns everywhere. I was in a coma for three months, and it was like I was having an out-of-body experience – like watching yourself sleep. I didn’t think I had lived through it. In a way, I didn’t.”
Anthony’s journey back to life started with two grueling years at Brooke Army Medical Center and more than 70 surgeries.
“Before I discovered Wounded Warrior Project, I was shy and timid about my looks and appearance. I withdrew from people and was always cautious about my surroundings, never doing much. Now, it’s like I’m carefree. I’m more outspoken and outgoing than ever before.”
Anthony credits his emotional breakthrough to the self-confidence he’s received from the support of his fellow injured veterans.
“We can relate to each other. We don’t judge each other, and it makes me feel pretty awesome that my experiences can help others deal with their experiences. I understand unbearable human suffering. When you can shoulder that burden for someone else, the good feeling you get is like walking on water.”
However, Anthony is quick to point out that the bad days can still overwhelm the best of warriors.
“It’s one of those things that if you don’t have it, you can’t understand it. You’re very aware of your surroundings, attentive to everything. Even little things can spark an episode. Think of having your worst day and multiply it by 10. But it’s every day, not just one day. It keeps happening, and there is no way to stop it. A warrior’s family takes a lot of the impact. PTSD affects your relationships."
Anthony credits Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) for helping him rebuild the connection with his family. He and his wife, Jessica, continue to strengthen their marriage by participating in WWP family events.
“The spouse retreats really help my wife,” says Anthony. “They provide a shoulder to lean on, allowing caregivers to share bonds and common experiences. A lot of people don’t recognize the spouse and how they are going through a traumatic event too.”
That’s why Anthony says he enjoys sharing his experiences. People often tell him that his story has enlightened their understanding of what military families go through.
“You can only imagine a warrior’s disappointment to come home after sacrificing so much for their country, for people worldwide, and feel like they aren’t supported. I’m here to tell you, there are people who care. I joined the military because I wanted to give back. What amazes me is how many have given back to me – their time, emotions, and wisdom – all because they want to show thanks for my service and sacrifice. We’re all in this together. It makes me want to help my country