Following President Donald Trump’s condemnation of NFL players protesting the national anthem, the protests exploded on Sunday, with some teams even waiting in the locker room until the anthem was over before emerging onto the field.
One of those teams who sought to avoid the anthem in its entirety was the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, one of their players, former Army Ranger and offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, bucked the team decision and emerged from the tunnel to stand at attention with his hand over his heart for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” according to The Daily Caller.
Villanueva played football at the West Point Military Academy, and upon graduation served three tours of duty in Afghanistan before returning to the sport. He ultimately gained a position on the Steelers roster in 2015, and though he has displayed bravery in the face of adversity before, it was the event that earned him a Bronze Star for valor that has helped him keep everything in perspective, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
On the night of Aug. 25, 2011, then-Lt. Villanueva led his rifle platoon into an Afghan village to protect locals from the Taliban. He ended up leading his platoon into an ambush attack.
According to a 2014 account of the event by ESPN, Villanueva’s unit became surrounded and began taking fire from all sides. Three men were wounded, and Villanueva helped drag the wounded to the safety of a mosque so they could be tended by a medic while he returned to the fight.
But when Villanueva checked back in later, the medic informed him that they needed to move to a safer location. Villanueva slung one wounded man over his shoulder and helped lead the others to a nearby school, where they waited to be evacuated by a helicopter. He personally ensured the men were placed on board and flown out. Tragically, one man died from the attack. “By the time Villanueva lifted Dietrich onto the helicopter, his eyes were purple. He died a short time later,” ESPN recounted.
“As the platoon leader, I feel responsible for everything my platoon does or fails to do,” Villanueva recalled. “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.”
Nevertheless, his brave actions in the face of overwhelming adversity earned him the Bronze Star for valor. Like many soldiers who’ve earned similar commendations, Villaneuva feels he doesn’t deserve the award as he was simply doing the job he was trained to do, and wishes the entire unit could have been awarded the Star as well.
“In my case, my platoon was hammered time after time. A lot of people were getting wounded, and a lot of people were getting hurt,” Villanueva explained. “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,” he continued. “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.”
Those are the words of a true hero — one who quite likely saved many lives that fateful night even as he risked his own. Such bravery in the face of adversity deserves to be honored and respected.
Villanueva’s actions this past Sunday only reinforce the view held by many that he is indeed a hero.
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