In three chaotic, confusing minutes in Afghanistan earlier this year, a lot changed for Master Sgt. Pedro Villa, a U.S. Air Force reservist.
In the midst of overseeing building construction in May at a coalition base, Villa, 47, said a mortar launched from outside flew over his head and landed 30 feet away.
“It was like getting hit with a 6-foot-tall sandbag,” said Villa, who lives in the Sacramento area and does his reserve duty at Beale Air Force Base. “At first, I thought something had blown up in the building.”
Four mortars rained down on the base in three minutes, and Villa explained how after the first one, the person firing it gets a better idea of the angle needed to launch one for the most effect.
But as his fellow civil engineers began hustling for a nearby bunker, Villa said, he began to look for anyone who was missing and found a service member who had an injured arm. Villa applied first aid until medics arrived about 20 minutes later.
Fellow Beale reservist Tech. Sgt. Kobee Bonner, who was nearby at the time, said he saw a safety report afterward on the incident.
“You’re thinking, ‘I know this guy!’” he said of the report. “You wonder, ‘Are people OK?’ It’s very general what they give you.”
It wasn’t until the next day when medics determined Villa had some injuries from the attack: a concussion as well as shrapnel in his back. For those wounds and others, Villa received the Purple Heart, as well as cheers at Military Recognition Night earlier this month at a Sacramento Kings game.
After the attack, Villa, a native of Sonoma County, had what he said was one of the toughest phone calls he had ever made to his wife back home to share the news. Within days, he was back at work on the building on which he was overseeing construction.
“I had to complete what I was there for,” Villa said, adding he threw himself into work to avoid thinking about another attack. “I tell everybody I was built for this stuff.”
Months later, after he had returned to California and his “day job” as an engineer for Union Pacific, Villa said he had heard conflicting information about whether he would get a Purple Heart but said he still finds it surreal to have gotten one.
His initial reaction was to wonder why he was receiving so much attention, Villa said. After thinking about it further, he sees it another way.
“It isn’t for me. It’s representative of all the military,” Villa said.
Ben van der Meer is a reporter with the Marysville Appeal-Democrat.