Alejandro Villanueva Reflects on Time as U.S. Army Ranger
Before he was protecting Ben Roethlisberger's blindside as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Alejandro Villanueva was serving the United States of America in Afghanistan.
A member of the 10-Mountain Division serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Villanueva spent five years as a member of the Army as he attempted to make his way into the NFL.
After failed tryouts with the Cincinnati Bengals and Chicago Bears, both as a tight end, Villanueva served three deployments before earning a contract as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
In a video with The Player's Tribune, Villanueva discusses his time in the military and everything he carries from his five-years serving as an Army Ranger.
"Being out of the military for five years now, the things that you do remember are not the firefights, not the scary moments, not the bombs that you blew up," Villanueva said. "It's the soldiers you were serving with, the relationships you have with them. It's a very romantic, beautiful time of anyone's life.
"You're 16, 17 asking 'what am I gonna do with myself?' Then the military option comes around and it's an area where you can fight for each other, an area where you can devote yourself to others."
Villanueva said he wasn't always looking to join the military, but he knew he needed to be part of something "bigger than myself."
"It truly was the best decision that I've made in my life," he said. "It all starts with basic l introduction. They teach you how to do the basic things; shoot, use radios, use equipment. And obviously, you develop a lot of commodity. I became close with a lot of my classmates. You're willingness to fight for each other is a lot more valuable than how fast you can run two miles or how many push-ups you can do. It's never about you, it's never what it is that you bring to the table. It's more what is it that you can do for others and how are you going to sacrifice yourself for others."
Villanueva compares leaving for deployment to stepping into a live NFL game for the first time.
For a player who entered college at Army playing three positions - tackle, wide receiver, and defense - after being recruited as a tight end, then finding his ground as a tackle nearly four years after leaving school, Villanueva knows more than many how uncomfortable change can be.
"You're the new guy, in a new country," he said. "You've heard about all these things many of times and just like in a football game, you've done it in training but at some point, you have to do it in real life. It's the first time you started getting used to the feeling of war.
"I was able to do it with the help of unbelievable NCO's, whom they cared about me like another member of the platoon."
It didn't take him long to find his footing while overseas. It only took him three months to move up the ranks of his platoon, but he credits the help of a close Staff Sargent for the success he found then - and now.
"Three months into the deployment, I became the platoon leader. I was extremely fortunate to have someone like Staff Sargent Simone, who was an experienced NCO, who's been deployed before, who had kids so he had that little responsibility. And he was able to grab my hand and give me the things I had to do.
"Today, he's the same guy that's given me advice before every Sunday."
Villanueva's longest deployment last 12-months, his first tour as a member of the 10th Mountain Division. During which, he discovered the sense of care that came when you're putting the people around you above yourself.
"Finding friends that are going to talk to you every morning, they're going to care about what you have to say, they're going to care about the names of your kids," he said. "You see those common traits in every single person who volunteers to serve in the military."
A journey that has led him to a Bronze Star Medal and to Pittsburgh as a member of the Steelers. Looking back, a journey Villanueva wouldn't change.
"When you're in the military, you're getting to know people you've never met," Villanueva said. "You're in different backgrounds, different states, and everyone is going through the same hardships and that helps you a lot.
"The best stretches I've had in my entire life. Every single time I have the opportunity to thank anybody who's joining the military, I always take the time to thank them for their service, for their sacrifices and their families."