By Sgt. Heather Golden, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms
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 the 1st Marine Division's 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.
Normalcy doesn't mean what it once did. But luckily for Anthony Villarreal, normalcy does still 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.
Jessica Villarreal stood quietly, leaning on the wall to the side of the room, her hands folded in front of her. She wore frayed jeans, a white and gray shirt and black ballet flats. No bright colors. No jewelry stands out. She was a wallflower.
Anthony sat in a red leather chair tucked in the corner. He was wearing shorts, and the scars from his more than 70 operations and skin grafts were clearly visible on his face, up his legs and one remaining arm. A Texas Tech University baseball cap was on the table next to him. Texas Tech is a big deal for the couple. They are from the school's hometown of Lubbock, Texas.
His right arm is missing from the elbow down. His left hand is there, but fingerless. This makes for potentially awkward situations when people instinctively reach out for handshakes. It is a fumble that happens all the time. It isn't something that bothers him anymore. He chuckles about it, more closely resembling a big kid with a secret joke than a man with a serious disability.
Seven years ago.
Jessica's first experience with the Corps wasn't as a military wife. It was as a recruit at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. She began to talk about the injury that caused her to prematurely end her Marine Corps career, then changed her mind and offered up an abbreviated version instead.
"Technically I healed before I left, so I have an honorable discharge. To make a long story short, the Marine Corps just wasn't for me, I suppose. Everything happens for a reason."
It isn't really a chapter in her and Anthony's life together, but it is because of this experience that Jessica said she was in the right time, right place, to meet him. She more than once referred to him as "the love of her life" during the interview.
Jessica enlisted out of her hometown recruiting station in Lubbock, and Anthony was also there. The same day he was fresh from his own boot camp graduation and was serving time on recruiters' assistance at the station.
The couple is the same age. They have almost the same birthday, even. At the time, they were 18 years old.
"Anthony was really easy to talk to and he made me laugh. We could be goofy together. He turned out to be my best friend."
Describing her first encounter with him, she said she immediately liked his face. It's the one she still sees when she looks at him now. Comparing old photographs to the Anthony now, the only thing recognizable are his eyes.
At first, Jessica said, they were just friends. They did what "just friends" did hung out at the mall, went out to eat and spent time with friends. But bowling was their thing, and still is.
"Bowling was a place we could have fun and scream from excitement. My mother had an influence as well. She worked two jobs, so she wanted the house nice and quiet so she could sleep."
Anthony eventually had to return to his home base of Twentynine Palms, but not before inviting Jessica out for an extended visit in the near future.
When they officially began dating, Anthony gave Jessica a promise ring with her birthstone in it.
Five years ago.
Jessica accepted Anthony's invitation to visit him in Twentynine Palms.
She said most of their relationship prior to this had largely been long distance. This was the first time she'd seen what would soon be her new home.
"It was nighttime when I first arrived in California. The illusion of dark clouds turned out to be hills, and that is the first thing I saw, coming from the Great Plains."
She also experienced an odd flashback the first time she saw the Combat Center.
"The base gate entrance actually brought back memorizing the acronym for 'MCAGCC' in our (boot camp) knowledge. I laughed when I saw it."
Jessica was here for five months as Anthony's guest. It was long enough that Jessica held down two jobs, at the Big 5 Sporting Goods store in Yucca Valley, and at the Twentynine Palms franchise of Las Palmas Mexican Restaurante. She didn't know she was actually rehearsing for her future life as Mrs. Villarreal.
Once back home in Lubbock, a routine trip that took the pair past the Lubbock County Court House turned into a not-so-routine wedding.
"Just one day we were running errands downtown, and we passed the courthouse and he said, 'Let's get married. Will you marry me, Jess?' I was speechless. I smiled at him as he reached for my hand and said, 'OK.'"
They went from "dating to hitched," as Jessica put it, in 18 months.
A spontaneous proposal might have been romantic, but the wedding itself was not exactly what every little girl dreams of when they are young.
"While growing up, I was filled with perfect fairytale endings, from books and movies. Realistically, unless you are the exception, you never get anything like that."
She was referring to the wedding, but she could have been talking everything the Villarreals have had to keep pushing on during their five-year marriage. Jessica's answer to why they chose a courthouse wedding instead of a traditional wedding was a solemn one.
"We always thought we'd have time to plan after."
Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series about a wounded veteran and his wife.