- Ashley Fox
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It was near dusk in Kandahar Province when an Afghan schoolteacher snapped.
The Taliban had previously accused him of being an informant for the American military, pulled his teeth out, bloodied his face and threatened to kill his family. He exacted revenge on Aug. 25, 2011.
Atop a hill in southern Afghanistan, the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army received a call that someone -- the teacher, as it turned out, who was indeed an informant -- had opened fire on a group of approximately 25 Taliban militants meeting inside a mosque in a nearby town. A handful were gravely wounded in the spree, and the Taliban began evacuating the others by taxi. Lieutenant Alejandro Villanueva, a 23-year-old former Army football player and rifle platoon leader of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, gathered his troops to act on the call.
Villanueva's unit was part of a quick reaction response force charged with protecting Afghan civilians. About two dozen soldiers pulled on night optical goggles and ran down a rocky road to an intersection where the mosque and a school were located, intending to kill or capture the remaining Taliban militants.
They found nothing. Surprised, Villanueva called an Afghan elder forward and asked where everyone went. As the elder began to explain, Villanueva and his troops were ambushed by as many as eight Taliban militants in a spray of bullets.
Spc. Martin Piggott was shot in the kneecap. Sgt. Roy Dutton was shot in the back of the leg. Army Pvt. 1st Class Jesse Dietrich was shot near the armpit.
Under heavy fire, Villanueva pulled the wounded Dietrich down an alley and into a second mosque, where a medic took over. Villanueva returned to fight, but when he came back to check on the injured soldiers, the medic told him they needed to move the wounded to a safer location. Carrying Piggott on his shoulders, Villanueva took the three to a nearby school, where they waited for a helicopter that would transport the wounded to the city of Kandahar.
"Help me, sir," Dietrich cried to Villanueva.
"He was pretty scared," Villanueva said. "He kept asking for help."
By the time Villanueva lifted Dietrich onto the helicopter, his eyes were purple. He died a short time later.
"As the platoon leader, I feel responsible for everything my platoon does or fails to do," Villanueva said. "I failed to keep Jesse Dietrich safe, and you know, it was just tough. ... I keep thinking of other ways I would have done it, but it was a very tough mission and the enemy beat us that day. It was just a really bad night."
Villanueva was later awarded the Bronze Star Medal for valor. He should be proud of the medal, but he is not, in part because Dietrich is dead.
Almost three years later on the other side of the world, the 6-foot-9, 277-pound Villanueva signed a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, who envision him as a defensive end in coordinator Bill Davis' 3-4 scheme. Villanueva is a military man first, but he is chasing his dream of playing in the National Football League by using leave time from the Army.
Villanueva is a mountain of a man, chiseled from his time as a member of the elite Army Rangers, with whom he served in two of his three tours in Afghanistan. He played four seasons at West Point, becoming the team's leading receiver as a senior.
But long before all that, he was a gangly 15-year-old rocking a mullet and capri pants.
Joe Puttmann remembers the first time he saw the boy who would become his "giant amigo." Puttmann and Villanueva were Americans attending SHAPE High School, an academy run by the U.S. Department of Defense in Casteau, Belgium.
Villanueva played rugby but got recruited to play football, a sport he knew nothing about. His learning curve was steep. In one of his early games, the opposing team was in victory formation and the referee was late blowing the whistle to end the play. Villanueva had been coached to play through the whistle, so he hammered the quarterback -- and was ejected.
Puttmann's father worked with Villanueva's father at NATO, and their families became good friends.
The next year, Puttmann went off to prep school in New Jersey. He had been recruited to play football at Army, and he put Villanueva, then a senior, on the coaches' radar.
Puttmann and Villanueva kept in touch, and during that school year, Villanueva told Puttmann he was also interested in attending West Point.
"He's super smart," said Puttmann, who played defensive back at Army alongside Villanueva, "and the joke was always that my dad catfished his dad into sending Alejandro there so I wouldn't fail."
Villanueva's parents, Ignacio Villanueva and Matilda Martin, are natives of Spain, as are Villanueva's two sisters and brother. Alejandro Villanueva was born in Meridian, Mississippi, when his father was stationed there while serving in the Spanish Navy.
Unlike many cadets entering West Point, Villanueva did not need a year of prep school because his grades were exemplary. As a freshman in 2006, he was a backup defensive end and played primarily on special teams. Early in his sophomore season, offensive line coach John Tice lobbied to have Villanueva play offensive tackle. Tice once saw Villanueva walk 30 yards on his hands and knew the caliber of athlete Villanueva was.
Villanueva made the move to left tackle later that year and became the starter at that position as a junior in the Black Knights' triple-option offense.
"The transition from defense to offense and learning the offense was never an issue," Tice said. "The mental errors were at a minimum."
Before Villanueva's senior season in 2009, new head coach Rich Ellerson moved Villanueva to wide receiver, and he led the team with 34 receptions for 522 yards and five touchdowns while serving as the team's offensive captain.
Tice, who played and coached in the NFL for 17 seasons, said Villanueva would "fit in well [with the Eagles] given his adaptability and work ethic."
"He's a leader," Tice said. "There are all kinds of leaders in the business world and sports world, but the ultimate leadership has to be leading soldiers in combat. If you can handle that, you can handle anything."
'It's not fake bullets'
To enlisted soldiers in the military, new lieutenants from West Point have a reputation for being "ring knockers." They think because they were trained at the Army's flagship institution, they can knock on any door with their graduation ring and automatically command status.
But when Villanueva arrived in Afghanistan and took over a 38-person unit, he wasn't like that. He was willing to listen. Villanueva relied heavily on 32-year-old Jeremy Simon, an experienced squad leader.
They were based in an agricultural area of Kandahar Province where Afghans grow grapes, pomegranates, watermelon, poppies and marijuana. Villanueva's comrades called him "Lieutenant V" or simply "V." The locals, who initially were afraid of Villanueva's towering physique, referred to him as "the giant."
"They definitely knew when he was coming," Simon said. "You'd hear them on our radios talking about him."
When American troops first arrived, Simon said, residents in the nearby town were welcoming. The Americans rooted out a Taliban cell, but another cell moved in, and attitudes changed because civilians were fearful of Taliban retaliation if they cooperated with U.S. troops.
They had reason to worry. Taliban militants pulled a 14-year-old local boy out of his house, wrongly accused him of being an informant and killed him. Likewise, they threatened to kill anyone who talked to the Americans.
The first few months of Villanueva's deployment were relatively quiet, but in the weeks before Dietrich's death, Villanueva's unit faced frequent gunfire, including the night before, when there was an incident at the same intersection where Dietrich was shot.
Dietrich was the first soldier the company lost, and it hit Villanueva hard. That night, he sat with Simon discussing the assault.
"He would talk about how upset he was and basically trying to figure out what exactly happened," Simon said.
"Lieutenant V, he was trying not to lose soldiers," said Spc. Mario Ruiz, who was on the perimeter of the clash and said the platoon was taking fire from all directions. "He was trying to control that situation. I don't care what kind of training you've had, it doesn't replicate that. It's not fake bullets. It hits and you're out."
Nearly a month later, on Sept. 20, Villanueva's platoon was on a mission to root out the new Taliban cell. As the highest-ranking enlisted soldier, Simon went to tell a comrade they were about to leave their position when he was shot in the arm, abdomen and chest.
With Simon rapidly losing blood, Villanueva directed his troops to cover fire, tend to Simon and then retreat. Villanueva's was the last face Simon saw before the helicopter flew him to the city of Kandahar.
"I know V was kind of stressed out a little bit that day, to say the least," Simon said. "I remember there was a change in the look, because at that point he realized he had to do more himself, and me and him had been working pretty close together for a couple of months."
Simon was in Kandahar for a week before being flown to a hospital in Germany, where he repeatedly suffered cardiac arrest. He was on a ventilator, went into septic shock, had pneumonia and "was all sorts of a mess," he said. A doctor was about to pronounce Simon dead before shocking his heart one last time.
"I came back," Simon said.
So Villanueva never had to give his troops a speech about Simon dying. He didn't have to send Simon's boots or dog tags home for a funeral. Simon, who was presented with a Purple Heart by President Barack Obama after returning to the U.S., now lives with his family in St. Joseph, Missouri, where the Kansas City Chiefs hold their training camp every year. Although Simon loves the Chiefs, he and a few Army buddies are planning a trip to Philadelphia for the Eagles' training camp this summer.
"He didn't take the easy way out," Simon said. "He was offered a spot to sit behind a desk and instead chose to fulfill his NFL dream. ... I'm proud he's made it to the NFL. I'm proud he didn't take the easy way out."
'When it's your time, it's your time'
Growing up in Mansfield, Texas, just south of Fort Worth, Jesse Dietrich was a band geek. He believed there wasn't a tree he couldn't climb or a fish he couldn't catch. He was a homebody who loved to eat ravioli out of the can and could make anyone laugh by speaking in silly accents.
Dietrich enlisted in the Army at 18 to support his girlfriend and young son, and he knew the risks, said AuNeta Southern, Dietrich's aunt, who raised him.
At Christmas in 2010, before his deployment to Afghanistan, Dietrich told his aunt where he wanted to be buried if he were killed in action. He told her how he wanted his son and girlfriend cared for. He gave her his will. Southern didn't want to hear it, but she listened to her nephew and promised to fulfill his wishes if it came to that.
In Afghanistan, Dietrich was a jokester and "a smartass," said Ruiz. Ruiz was also from Texas, and the pair grew close. Dietrich invited Ruiz to his wedding and talked at length about his son.
"He was so excited about life," Ruiz said. "He had a lot of plans."
Dietrich spent his downtime sharpening knives. He liked to go shirtless, and when he wasn't wearing a helmet, he had a cowboy hat on.
Dietrich never told his aunt how dangerous it was for his platoon in Afghanistan. He told her if he were going to die, it would be from boredom. But in reality, the situation had grown dangerous in the weeks leading up to that fateful August night. Dietrich, Ruiz and two others from the platoon had already been near an IED explosion in July, although no one was injured.
Two weeks before his death, Dietrich asked his aunt to send him cans of ravioli, but she never got around to it. When Southern arrived in Dover, Delaware, to retrieve her nephew's body, the Army provided her and her husband with a private meeting room, complete with a kitchen, to decompress and grieve. They told them to make themselves at home.
On the table was a can of ravioli. Not a cheese plate or a fruit basket.
"I just lost it," Southern said. "If that's not that boy's way of showing you he's OK, I don't know what is."
On the eve of the first anniversary of Dietrich's death, Villanueva visited Southern at her Texas home. They made the two-hour drive to Dietrich's grave, and Villanueva, who wears a killed-in-action bracelet bearing Dietrich's name, recounted how he died. To that point, Southern had not known for sure.
"They didn't want him blown to bits," Southern said. "It was [Villanueva's] first assignment, the first person he lost. He kicked in a door and used it as a triage place. He had to drag him down that alley by the backpack and shoot over his head. That's the saddest thing in the world. He has to live with that.
"We are Christian people. When it's your time, it's your time. It doesn't matter. You can have on armor, but when it's your time, it's your time. But he has told me that that bothers him."
So does that damn Bronze Star.
'We truly fell in love'
After that first tour in Afghanistan, Villanueva joined the Army Rangers and served two more tours there, both of which are classified and he cannot discuss.
But in between, during a visit back to the States, he reconnected with someone. She is beautiful, with curly brown hair and piercing brown eyes. Her name is Madelyn.
Helene and Casey Muldoon have three children: Joe, who is 27 years old and was an officer in the Army before being wounded in Afghanistan; Luke, 25, who is an officer in the Air Force; and Madelyn, 23.
Joe Muldoon played football at Army with Villanueva. Muldoon would bring Villanueva and Puttmann to his parents' home in Bowie, Maryland, for holidays. Helene Muldoon called them her "West Point sons." Thanksgiving and Easter, they were always at the Muldoons' house, eating feasts prepared by Joe's parents.
Back then, Madelyn was just the little sister in braces among all these boys.
She grew up, graduated from Marist College and had just taken a job in the spring of 2012 when she visited with Villanueva, who was home from Afghanistan. Before then, there had been no romantic interest on Madelyn's part, but that soon changed.
"Something was different," she said. "We truly fell in love."
Madelyn and Alejandro had just begun their romantic relationship when Joe Muldoon, who was still deployed in Afghanistan, was in a vehicle that exploded. There were multiple casualties, including 1st Lt. Stephen Prasnicki, who played alongside Villanueva and Muldoon at West Point. Muldoon broke his back and injured his left arm. The lone survivor, he was eventually transported back to the States for medical care.
After Muldoon arrived at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Madelyn went to visit him. While she was there, her phone buzzed. Muldoon saw there was a text message from Villanueva, and he knew his friend and his sister had become an item.
"Ali knew he was going to date and marry my sister all along, but he was always afraid of me," Muldoon joked.
The couple got married in November in a small ceremony in the Muldoons' backyard. They are planning a bigger wedding in May 2015.
"Getting to the NFL has been a challenge and an adventure," Madelyn said, "but at the end of the day, he's most proud of what he's done on the battlefield."
'You'd like to have him on your side'
Before Villanueva graduated from Army, he worked out for the Cincinnati Bengals. Then after his first deployment, he performed at a West Point pro day and tried out with the Chicago Bears. But Villanueva was still under commitment to serve. He wanted to serve.
He came home early from his last deployment with the Rangers and told his new bride he had to try one more time to make it to the NFL. They had moved to Savannah, Georgia, and he was stationed at nearby Hunter Army Airfield.
On nights after work, Villanueva would work out at nearby Savannah State University, and Madelyn would time him running sprints and performing cone drills. He didn't have a trainer. He didn't have a coach. He didn't even have an agent.
In March, Villanueva paid $245 to attend a regional combine in Flowery Branch, Georgia, and he became one of 240 players -- from a pool of more than 3,000 who worked out at 10 regional sites -- invited to April's super regional combine in Detroit, where he met with Eagles representatives.
Earlier this month, the Eagles asked Villanueva to come to Philadelphia for a private workout. He impressed them enough to earn a contract, albeit with no signing bonus. Nothing guaranteed.
There is plenty of uncertainty. Villanueva is waiting to see whether the Army will release him from active duty. If that does happen, he will have to serve for a time in the reserves. But if the Army releases him and the NFL doesn't pan out, Villanueva said he likely would apply to graduate school to pursue an MBA. His short-term future is very much up in the air.
"When you're deployed, you don't know what can happen, but you know exactly what can happen," Villanueva said. "You know you can go on a mission and not come back. You know you can go on a mission and come back in half. You know the things that can happen. Now, I don't even know what can happen."
Given that he hasn't played football in five years, Villanueva is a long shot to make the Eagles' roster. But Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly loves his makeup.
"When you talk the character component with him, being a captain in the Army Rangers and serving in Afghanistan ... I can't tell you how impressed you are with him as a person," Kelly said. "He was a guy that if you're going to take a shot at somebody, then you'd like to have him on your side."
Villanueva brought his KIA bracelet to Philadelphia. Not a day goes by that he doesn't think about Jesse Dietrich or Aug. 25, 2011. He's played the scene over and over in his mind and still can't come to grips with it.
Villanueva doesn't think he's suffering from post-traumatic stress, but that Bronze Star upsets him because Dietrich is dead, and it happened on his watch. To Villanueva, the whole platoon deserves the medal. They all performed valorous acts.
"In my case, my platoon was hammered time after time," Villanueva said. "A lot of people were getting wounded, and a lot of people were getting hurt. When you have leaders that are still carrying the team and still pushing, they'll find an opportunity to say that night, 25th of August, this guy was overwhelmed, and he reacted by putting his own life at risk.
"But if you truly think about it, that's what I was supposed to do. Because what was I going to do, leave the guy out there? Am I going to just sit [while] an 18-year-old is screaming for help, and I was the guy who brought him out there? Am I just going to sit back and not do anything? Because what you're supposed to do is go get the guy and help him."
Which is exactly what Villanueva did.
Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva is pursuing his NFL dream with the Philadelphia Eagles after three tours in Afghanistan, Ashley Fox writes.