Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Andrew Villegas and his wonderful three children who joined our interview session and I was most impressed with their polite demeanor.
Recruiter’s Broken Promise
Andrew was born July 26, 1985 at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital and grew up in Pacoima, California graduating in 2003 from Granada Hills High School. During his senior year, Andrew planned to attend Universal Technical Institute after graduating however he changed his mind after meeting several military recruiters on campus. When Andrew announced he would enlist, his mother strongly objected. Following much discussion, Andrew’s parents finally consented so he enlisted in the US Army Reserves June 26, 2003. Meanwhile, Andrew’s new Army recruiter friend promised he would become a mechanic following his infantry training.
On July 10, 2003, Andrew reported to LA’s Military Entrance Processing Center and the next morning he was bussed to LAX for a flight to Fort Sill, Oklahoma for Basic Training. Afterwards, it was to Fort Bliss, Texas for Advanced Infantry Training. Next he went on leave of absence returning home for the 2003 holidays; afterwards, he reported to the 250th Transportation Company in El Monte, California. Due to a paperwork snafu, he and 14 other soldiers were told they weren’t in the system and they were ordered to Iraq. The Army pulled soldiers from across America to form the 736th Transportation Company at Fort Bliss. From January to March 2004, they trained for convoy operations and vehicle patrol tactics. Afterwards, the 736th traveled 20 hours to Kuwait via Dallas, Texas, Maine, and Ireland.
It Will Get You Killed!
Once in Kuwait, Andrew’s assignment was convoy security which required three weeks of training. Andrew said, “A senior NCO told us to forget everything you learned at Fort Bliss. It will get you killed!” Soon, they convoyed to Camp Cedar II at Talil Airbase in Southeast Iraq for yet more training. Andrew said another NCO stated, “Throw out everything you learned in Kuwait ‘cause it will get you killed!” From April 2004 to March 2005, they provided convoy security delivering supplies from Kuwait to all parts of Iraq. Initially, things were fairly calm but one year after enlisting on June 26, 2004, calmness abruptly ended. On the morning of June 25th, Andrew’s unit departed Camp Cedar II for Kut Al Hayy Air Base to load explosives, munitions, and weapons captured from Al Quada forces. They filled four tractor trailers and departed for Camp Duke approximately 20 Km from Najaf, Iraq. Najaf is the 3rd holiest city in Iraq and considered sacred by Shi’a Muslims.
Twenty vehicles and troops camped at Camp Duke before departing the next morning back to Camp Cedar II. On the morning of June 26th, they headed towards Najaf which they normally drive around but the Camp Duke Marines assured them it was safe to drive thru the city saving 3 hours travel time. Eighteen year old Andrew had rear security in the last truck manning several automatic weapons including a 249 assault automatic weapon capable of firing 1,000 rounds per minute. At 11:00am, their convoy came to a roundabout and spotting barricaded side streets, they went on high alert. Instantly, Andrew heard pop – pop – pop as he spotted an Al Quada fighter running and firing an AK47 from his hip. The convoy crept along into the market place as locals gestured them to go back but it was impossible to reverse their 20 truck convoy. Forced to a dead stop, Andrew recalled “time just slowed down”. Finally they inched forward and then all hell broke loose with Al Quada fighters on roof tops, in alleys and doorways pouring AK47 lead, RPG’s and hand grenades at them. As US soldiers frantically returned fire taking out a number of Al Qaeda fighters, the scene became utterly chaotic. Miraculously not one US soldier was hit, though their trucks were damaged.
Miracle in Najaf
Andrew’s convoy finally made it to a nearby Special Forces base where they repaired their trucks. To Andrew’s great relief his convoy departed to Camp Cedar II the next morning via a longer route. Andrew said during that firefight, “enemy rounds were clicking all around me and it’s a miracle I wasn’t killed”. Andrew received The Army Commendation Medal for Valor for his bravery that day. To Andrew’s chagrin, the remainder of his tour of duty was spent conducting night convoy missions. In May 2005, after experiencing numerous IED explosions and many buddies receiving Purple Hearts, Andrew’s duty ended and he returned home through Dallas, Texas. As his airplane approached the terminal building fire trucks saluted by spraying water over his plane. A huge throng of soldiers, USO members and Texan citizens showered them with a heroes welcome. Andrew and his buddies felt very proud.
Andrew returned to Fort Bliss, Texas where a Pastor’s dim-witted psychiatric treatment consisted of “Now don’t go home and shoot your wife or rape your dog”. Soon, Andrew’s unit departed for Bakersfield, California receiving yet another impressive welcome home. He went home to Pacoima and remained with Inactive Reserves. In July 2009, Andrew returned to Active Duty. He and his unit, the 348th Transportation Company, deployed from Phoenix, Arizona to Fort Hood, Texas. Then to Afghanistan arriving at Camp Leatherneck in August as Sergeant E-5, Scout Gun Truck Commander supporting combat troops. Andrew led every convoy taking point encountering numerous IED’s and home made explosives.
Andrew reported to Fort Bliss September 2010 remaining with Inactive Reserves and was Honorably Discharged July 29, 2016. Andrew’s awards includes Combat Action Badge, 4 Army Commendation Medals, Global War Expeditionary Medal, Armed Forces Service Medal w/M Device, NATO Afghanistan Medal, Army Achievement Medal, National Security Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, and 2 Overseas Service Ribbons. Andrew is very proud of our patriotic community, his service and his family, which he recently surprised by purchasing his first home.
Bill Reynolds is one of the “Boys of ‘67,” Charlie Company, 4th/47th, 9th Infantry Division and director of veterans affairs for The Signal.