The Other Reasons #6: Erik Villaseñor

This is the sixth post in an indefinite series. Everyone knows that 9/11 was the horrible mechanism that initiated our descent into a war fought by a small subset of Americans. But how well do you know the men and women who have joined the fight? Do you imagine they are wildly different from you? While 9/11 ties veterans together on a thin connective string, many more reasons drove us to join this war, and those are the ones that tie us to you. You can look in the mirror and know that a few sliding doors could have found you leaving home to wander off to the edges of the world with us. And you can see that these reasons are exactly what will help us inform a version of America we’ll all share together. These are stories about why we left to fight, and why you know us better than you think you do.

These are Erik Villaseñor’s Other Reasons.

I am a first-generation American. Both of my parents immigrated from Mexico with their families at a young age. My father came in 1960 at the age of three, and my mother in 1975, at the age of seven. My grandparents settled in Southern California in search of a better life to raise their growing families. I’ll never forget my hispanic roots, they are part what makes me who I am and has helped shape my perspective on my life as an American. In my immediate family I’m the oldest of three siblings, my parents’ first-born. We are part of a larger, always growing, extended family. To help put it in perspective, I am one of twenty-eight first cousins on my father’s side and one of twenty-three on my mother’s. Suffice to say I come from a large close-knit Latino family.

There are many reasons why I decided to join the Army during a time of war, some are easier to articulate than others. One of the main reasons being so that my family wouldn’t have to, I would take that burden for them. I joined because I felt the need to serve the country that welcomed my family and allowed them to come here to chase their own version of the “American Dream.”

I was thirteen when I saw the first plane crash into the World Trade Center on the morning news. It was the start of my freshman year of high school. Ironically, my first class of that day was U.S. History.  The gravity of these events took hold as we watched the towers collapse into an all-consuming, dark cloud of dust and ash. Reality hit as kids were frantically pulled from class by their parents, some being rushed away in tears. We sat and watched a revolving news reel of destruction from the relative comfort of our classroom nestled in the bosom of southern California. I had no connections in New York. Hell, at that point, I never even left the bubble of Orange County, but by the end of the day I felt numb and sick to my stomach.

After graduating high school, I had no plans to continue my education, which I saw little value in. When asked the inevitable “Now what?” question, I would squirm while trying to give an answer. But then, one lazy summer afternoon, I received a phone call from the local recruiting office asking to speak to recent high school graduate, Mr. Erik Villaseñor. My mother was not at all pleased by this. “Good luck getting into the Army, aren’t you flat-footed?” she said.

I however, was open to hearing about what the Army could offer. It’s not like I had anything else going on, plus I would turn eighteen in a few short months. After going through the process, I had a contract put together. Remember that bit about not caring about my education? Well, let’s just say the Army made it really simple in picking my job: Infantryman, tanker / tank mechanic or a cavalry scout. In a time of war, I chose Infantry. For some reason, I wanted to be with the boots on the ground and experience combat firsthand.

As new immigrants to America, my family did not have a tradition of serving in the military. The only person to put on a uniform was my uncle José Villaesñor. He was drafted into the Army in 1968 to serve in Vietnam, along with thousands of other young men. My uncle could’ve defected or protested the war, but he chose to serve this country. My family is proud of his service.

To this day, I remember staring at his Army photo on my grandmother’s mantle, wondering what it was like to go to war. I would put on my Uncle’s Army issue field jacket and play “war” in the yard. It was OD green with the last name “VILLASENOR” stitched above the breast pocket, the hem reaching well past my knees. Its heaviness provided protection when crawling through brush, climbing trees or building forts. I felt invincible with that jacket on. When I was thinking about joining the Army my dad took me to speak to my uncle Joe. He lit up a Marlboro Red and with smoke coming from his nostrils he said, “Mijo, if it’s in your heart to join, if your country needs you, then go.”

I left for Basic training on my eighteenth birthday. The flight from LAX to Atlanta being my first time on a plane. I knew I made the right choice during the Night Infiltration course, a training exercise where recruits low crawl under live machine gun fire and simulated explosions. Full of machismo and testosterone, the taste of battle of was enticing to me. This is what I signed up to do. To shoot guns and throw grenades, to clear houses and fight the enemy. Just like the men I watched in the films Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan. I joined to test my mettle in combat situations. I was genuinely curious of how I would react under fire. Would I freeze, or fire back?

Ask and you shall receive…

After Basic, the Army quickly give me what I was looking for. I was assigned to the “Lethal Warrior” Battalion part of the 2nd Infantry Division, who had orders to leave for Iraq in six short months. We spent fifteen-months in the Dora district south of Baghdad fighting local insurgents, dodging IED’s (five hitting my truck), and policing the area.  A year after that deployment, the Lethal Warriors deployed to Kunar province where Baker Company was assigned to the infamous Korengal Valley. Where my platoon mates and I spent close to 10 months defending OP Restrepo and going on rigorous patrols in the unforgiving terrain. We would be the last Army unit to occupy a post in the Korengal, we shut it down.

Upon reflection, the Army provided me with a greater sense of purpose that was missing in my life. Through my experiences in combat I quickly discovered that another reason for joining was the very men who served with me. Without the brotherhood and camaraderie, one could easily get lost in the fog of war and not make it back. The men I fought alongside with in the deserts of Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan helped forge a new meaning of family and brotherhood. Going through intense, often traumatic, experiences with a small group helps build an unbreakable bond (see Sebastian Junger’s Tribe). The survival of the group becomes paramount, enabling Soldiers to go to extremes such as running through a hail of bullets to save a fallen comrade. That is why I joined. To surround myself with people who would un-hesitantly do that for me, as I would for them.

Erik Villaseñor is a former US Army Infantryman who hunted IED’s in the streets of Iraq and shot at ghosts in Afghanistan’s “Valley of Death.” He now leads a much more civil life in western Colorado where he is a full-time graphic designer, husband, and father of two young children. When he’s not changing diapers or pushing pixels on a screen, he might be found getting his kicks exploring the local mountain bike trails or continuing his service to his country and community on the board of directors of Huts For Vets, a local non-profit that takes combat veterans into the wilderness to find peace and healing. Erik aspires to live a life that honors the courageous men he served with as well as the sacrifice of their fallen brothers. He hopes to continue writing and sharing his story to help both veterans with their transition out of the military and to communicate to civilians what goes on inside the mind of a combat infantryman, overseas and at home.

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