Roy Exum - Why Al Took A Stand

Tuesday, September 26, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

“Help me, sir!” 18-year-old Jesse Dietrich cried to his lieutenant. “Please sir, I need help …” the Private First Class begged as blood streamed from where the kid had been shot in the chest during an intense Taliban ambush. The platoon leader had just dragged the 18-year-old by his backpack down a dark alley in withering gunfire, all the while returning fire over the fallen soldier in accursed Afghanistan. After kicking a door down in a vacant Kandahar mosque and leaving Jesse with a medic, the lieutenant raced back into the fire fight, this before carrying two more of his soldiers, both shot in the legs, to safety.

When the evac helicopter set down, Dietrich’s eyes had turned purple. Within minutes he was dead and the lieutenant would never forget every second of what happened. “As the platoon leader, I feel responsible for everything my platoon does or fails to do,” he would later say. “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.”

That was on Aug. 25, 2011. Yesterday that same lieutenant’s football jersey became the top-seller of all NFL jerseys in the United States after he stood alone in Sunday’s sun to sing the National Anthem. Alejandro Villanueva, after three tours in Afghanistan, is a former Army Ranger who today plays football for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team had agreed not to come onto the field until after the traditional salute to America and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was miffed, “I was looking for 100 percent participation, we were gonna’ be respectful of our football team … To be quite honest with you, I didn’t appreciate our football team being dragged into politics this weekend.”

But the other Steeler players understood Villanueva’s stand. “Al is a unique circumstance, what he's been through, some of the things he's talked about before," guard David DeCastro said after the game.

"I've got a lot of respect for Al. I wish there was a different way to do this thing. We've got some people who look at the National Anthem as patriotism, soldiers, all the stuff that it means, and obviously, people are upset, and I understand that,” DeCastro added. “I just wish both sides understand that they want the right thing, but doing it through the National Anthem, I wish there was a different way."

Defensive end Cam Heyward told another reporter, “I don't want to go into that, but we support our guy Al. He feels he had to do it. This guy served our country, and we thank him for it."

Alejandro Villanueva has quite a story. His dad and mom are from Spain and, as a high-ranking officer in the Spanish Navy, his parents were on an assignment in Meridian, Miss., where their son was born. Alejandro attended a U.S. Department of Defense high school in Belgium and his best friend was Joe Pittman, whose father was an officer in NATO with Villanueva’s dad.

Joe was sent to a military academy in the United States on his way to West Point and was a good football player. He quickly told Army coaches about Alejandro, who had played little football but at 6-foot-9, 280-pounds sure had the ability. The next thing you know Joe and Al are at West Point playing defensive back and tackle, respectively. In Al’s final season, he was the captain of the team, had become a receiver where he led the team in catches, and is still the tallest player in Black Knight football history.

After his first tour in Afghanistan, he joined the Army Rangers and, completing his third tour, had attained the rank of a captain when he left the Army. At that, he paid $245 to try out for the NFL combine and the fact he was a decorated Army Ranger helped his chances.

He got a bare bones, no-bonus contract for one year with the Philadelphia Eagles, was traded to the Steelers and, after earning the start as Ben Roethlisberger’s “blind side tackle,” Villanueva just signed a four-year contract extension for $24 million. Interestingly enough, he is widely admired in the NFL for his military service and was immediately contacted by various media sources right after Colin Kaepernick kneeled last year to start the divisive protest.

"I don't know if the most effective way is to sit down during the National Anthem with a country that's providing you freedom, providing you $16 million a year ... when there are black minorities that are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan for less than $20,000 a year," Villanueva told ESPN last August after Kaepernick’s demonstration.

"It's his decision. Obviously he has brought up the issue in a great way. But I think if he encourages other players or other people in the stands to sit down, it's going to send the wrong message. (This is why Villanueva’s jersey has become the sixth most requested jersey this year – in just 24 hours!)

"Kaepernick has to be a little more careful and look at the big picture of the things that he's doing, because as a service member, I have to understand it. But he's an athlete, he's got a huge platform, he has to see the impact he has on other people's lives."

Then Villanueva offered this surprise. "I will be the first one to hold hands with Colin Kaepernick and do something about the way minorities are being treated in the United States, the injustice that is happening with police brutality, the justice system, inequalities in pay," Villanueva said. "You can't do it by looking away from the people that are trying to protect our freedom and our country.

"We have a lot of different ways of approaching things -- through our government, through vote, through donations to platforms who are doing great things," Villanueva said. "Whenever you include an entire country in one of those protests, I think you might mislead some people who truly wake up every single morning trying to give everything, including their lives, to protect this country. It's a little bit unfair to group everybody under that category."

On Aug. 25, 2012, Alejandro Villanueva drove to Mansfield, Texas – just south of Fort Worth – and on the first anniversary of Jesse Dietrich’s death, the Army Ranger spent the day with the fallen soldier’s family. He explained what happened. “He told us he had to drag Jesse down that alley by his backpack and shoot over his head. That’s the saddest thing in the world,” Dietrich’s aunt recalled the visit to an ESPN reporter.  “He has to live with that.”

Villanueva earned the Bronze Star for valor trying to save Jesse’s life, but doesn’t much care for it. Instead he wears a bracelet on his wrist bearing Deitrich’s name and the date of the 18-year-old’s heavenly birthday.

“The whole National Anthem thing, I actually don’t do it for America or whatnot,” Villanueva explained in another story. “I do it because that flag that I see when the National Anthem is being played is the same flag that soldiers I served with and I wear. We do it for each other when we serve in every single war that our country is ever going to be in - because of the man to the left and right. Not for other reasons, not for the political ideas of one man, not for the sentiments of a political administration.

“Just for the guy from the left and right,” he said once more. “I think that after this year has been settled, if somebody has a different opinion, I’m not in the business of convincing America to be more patriotic.

“If this is what America wants to be, let it go.”

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