U.S. marine felt 'unstoppable' until Afghanistan changed everything

(Reuters) - Anthony Villarreal remembers waking up with what felt like an anvil pressing down on his chest.

"It was hard for me to catch my breath. I thought maybe I had the wind knocked out of me," the 35-year-old war veteran said.

Villarreal, a corporal in the U.S. Marines, was on his last patrol in Afghanistan in 2008 when his armored Humvee hit what the military calls a 'triple stacked IED' (improvised explosive device) – basically several mines piled on top of each other.

It was part of the Taliban's response to the U.S. military's parade of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles.

Pinned against the steering wheel, Villarreal realized he needed to get out of the vehicle immediately. It was the moment all marines spend years training for - to act quickly in the aftermath of an attack with no time to think or speculate.

Villarreal hurled himself out the vehicle door and onto the sand, ignoring the searing pain in his arms and hands as he dragged himself across the ground.

Villarreal, who served with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, had arrived in Afghanistan's Helmand Province three months earlier. After two grizzly back-to-back tours of Iraq, he said he felt "unstoppable."

"You believe nothing will happen to you. And then when it does, you know, you learn to live a little bit slower," he said.

Villarreal spent the next three months in a medically induced coma and the next two years undergoing more than 70 surgeries and skin grafts. His right arm and several fingers on his left hand had to be amputated.

As U.S. forces begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan on Saturday, Villarreal says he's worried about service members who are still in the country, as the diminishing U.S. presence could embolden Taliban insurgents.

Violence in Afghanistan has escalated in recent weeks since U.S. President Joe Biden announced the U.S. would withdraw troops by Sept. 11 to end two decades of foreign military presence.

That decision angered the Taliban, who had signed a deal with former U.S. President Donald Trump that specified troops would be gone by May 1.

Villarreal says he considers himself lucky to have not been killed in combat.

"Now, when you get those stats from World War One and World War Two, with my injuries, you know, I just think, wow, I survived a lot."

(Reporting by Deborah Gembara; editing by Diane Craft and Rosalba O'Brien)

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