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.