Gary Villalobos left his civilian life to join the United States Army. By 2005, he found himself in Tal Afar, Iraq, as Sgt. First Class Villalobos. It was there he learned the true meaning of fear — and what it takes to overcome that fear to try and save one of his own.
"What I think about when I think about my four deployments in Iraq, I'm glad I was part of it," Villalobos says. "I took part in something greater than myself, something significant. But most importantly, you know what I think about is the hundreds of people, the hundreds of soldiers that I connected with at a different level. Shared hardships really bring people together."
Villalobos in Iraq.(Courtesy Gary Villalobos)
Now-Master Sgt. Gary Villalobos came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1970, moving into a small shack near the beach behind his grandmother's house in California. By the time he graduated from high school, he had a job that wasn't going anywhere. It was just after the 1991 Gulf War and young Gary watched as that war's heroes were greeted triumphantly upon their return to the U.S.
So, he went to an Army recruiter. Twelve years later, the United States invaded Iraq and, in 2005, Villalobos was in Tal Afar for only a month before he found himself directing Iraqi soldiers with the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry to take on an insurgent group and capture their leaders.
Villalobos and Army officer Lt. Col. Terrence Crowe took 14 Iraqi Army troops on a patrol to capture those leaders, stepping into an alleyway — an alleyway that was also an ambush killzone.
The Army officer took the full brunt of at least four AK-47s, not one shot hitting above his waist. .
Villalobos tried to suppress their fire but the incoming sounded like it was coming from all sides. Gunfire poured in on Villalobos and the patrol as he tried to make sense of the ambush. He suddenly realized he had an edge and chucked his only grenade as hard as he could into the ambush. The firing stopped and he was able to pull his officer out.
The enemy melted away.
Back to FOB Sykes, Villalobos learned Col. Crowe didn't make it.
U.S. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Terrence Crowe.
Crowe and Villalobos went on numerous patrols together and became quite close. They went on nearly every mission together. Crowe was a native of Upstate New York and was a talented carpenter in his civilian life.
"He treated me with dignity and respect," Villalobos says. "Part of the reason I feel guilty is because I was not in the front, where I should have been. He should have been in the rear, or at least the middle... but not point man."
Villalobos was awarded the Silver Star for making sure he pulled Crowe out of the ambush. To him, it's the most important award, representing the sacrifice that Colonel Crowe made.
"I don't see it as something I earned... I just wanted to get Colonel Crowe out of there," he says.