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Family and food are the best medicine: Highlighting a Michigan Guardsman's Hispanic heritage

“I still feel like my family’s cooking is the best.”

“I’ve been to many countries all over the world,” said Staff Sgt. Alejandro Villareal of Detachment 1, Company C, 3-238th General Support Aviation Battalion based in Grand Ledge, Mich. “I like fish and chips in London and I love the seafood in Venice, Italy. But my family’s cooking can’t be beat.”

Along with being a critical care flight paramedic and serving as his unit’s full-time supply noncommissioned officer, Villareal is also a Hispanic American.

Since 1968, the United States has observed National Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 to celebrate the many contributions and rich culture of American citizens with Latin American ancestry. This month, the Michigan National Guard is highlighting the service of one of its own: Alejandro “Ricci” Villareal.

“I grew up in Muskegon,” said Villareal, who has five brothers and a sister. “We had my grandmother’s house just a couple miles down the street and that’s where we would meet on the weekends. Whenever we met, we usually ate together.”

While the family has ties to San Antonio, Texas, the Villareals originally migrated from Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, Mexico several generations ago. The close-knit family also shares a proud military heritage dating back to the 1940s.

“My dad was in the Marines before I was born, serving in 1969 and 1970,” shared Villareal. “I had a brother and an uncle who both served in the Navy. My uncle deployed to Vietnam.”

“My great-uncle was also present during D-Day in WWII,” added Villareal. “As a private, he stormed the beaches and my family recently found out that a street in France has been named ‘Villarreal’ in his honor. Back then, we still had the double 'r' in our last name.”

This latest generation’s Villareal is deploying in the fall to the Middle East where C-238th will support other units through medevac operations. As a 68W, or health care professional, Villareal holds an additional skill identifier called an “F2,” which means that he graduated from the Army’s paramedic and critical care program.

This competitive program lasts the better part of a year as students complete courses at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, then at Fort Rucker, Ala.

“My favorite memory of serving in the Michigan National Guard is the critical care flight paramedic program,” shared Villareal. “My unit sent me to the University of Texas-San Antonio where I trained at a level-one trauma center and did ride-alongs with their fire department.”

“In coming back to Michigan and working with a medevac unit, my first drill weekend we did patient transfers and treated them in the back of a Blackhawk helicopter,” he added. “It was awesome to be able to utilize the skills I had just learned while in Texas.”

Since the training was in San Antonio, Villareal had opportunity to spend a little time with extended family he had not seen in years.

“I come from a big family,” said Villareal. “Aside from my brothers and sister, I also have ten aunts and uncles with dozens of cousins. Even if I haven’t seen them for a while, we can get together like in San Antonio, share some food and it’s like no time has passed.”

“It’s just a really comfortable feeling.”

When asked his thoughts on Hispanic Heritage Month, Villareal shared, “I think it’s exciting when people want to learn about your heritage. It kind of sparks that interest where you have to really think about what your heritage is and what sets you apart from other people.”

“My family is really proud of our name and our heritage,” added Villareal. “When I’ve traveled and met new members of the family, they’re always very welcoming and we’re really proud to be related to each other.”

He has had a similar experience within his new family, the Michigan National Guard.

“I’ve been really fortunate to be part of some great units,” said Villareal of his ten-year military career. “I’ve always felt really welcomed wherever I went, whether it’s when I’ve gone to a military school or to a new unit.”

When he first joined the military, he was not sure which branch to enter, but he knew he wanted to be a medic. He chose the Michigan National Guard because it provided a better chance to balance civilian and military life, as well as for the educational opportunities.

Not surprisingly, his inspiration was also family related.

“I’ve had several close family members who have passed away, some right in front of me,” shared Villareal. “That was a big reason why I wanted to be a medic. I’ve seen a lot of things happen, especially when I was younger, and I didn’t want to be put in a situation where I didn’t know what to do.”

“Now I really appreciate the fact that I have this training and these skills so I can help people out if something like that happens.”

One of the family members who passed away was his own father, with whom Villareal shared a very close relationship. His father, also named Alejandro, worked at Alcoa building airplanes. Villareal has fond memories of spending time with his father, talking frequently about cooking, sampling food together and trying new recipes.

“Now I’m able to look at the bright side of it. He was sick and suffering. But I was really fortunate to have spent so much time with him,” shared Villareal. “He saw me grow up, finish school, join the military and get promoted to an NCO. So I look at all the great memories we have.”

“I was really fortunate to have him around for as long as I did.”

Villareal’s goals for the future include additional education in medicine. He already has an associate degree and was just accepted into the University of Michigan-Flint where he seeks a bachelor’s degree in applied science. He also plans to apply for the Army’s Interservice Physician’s Assistant Program.

The IPAP is highly selective and would offer Villareal a commission as a 1st Lieutenant in the Army Medical Specialist Corps. The program would take him back to San Antonio for training, a place where he would likely find some welcoming family members.

When it comes to education, just like Sunday dinner with his family, he eats it up.

“I feel like I learn more from traveling than I did from reading books in school,” clarified Villareal. “One of my favorite trips was to Washington, D.C. and seeing the Smithsonian and Air and Space Museum, as well as the Holocaust Museum.”

“Most of my favorite trips involve museums.”

Speaking of trips, Villareal looks forward to his upcoming deployment. It should provide some hands-on experience and opportunity for practical application.

“I don’t think that any medic ever wants to see anybody get hurt,” shared Villareal. “But I think that most of us are happy we have the skills. We hope that we are around if something does happen.”

“We want to give somebody the best chance of surviving.”

Whether family member or service member, Villareal is ready to respond.