One on one with Army veteran and Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva

Matt Saintsing
August 01, 2018 - 2:41 pm

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

You probably know Alejandro Villanueva as #78 and offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But he's also a West Point graduate, Army Ranger, and three-time Afghan war veteran. He recently sat down with Connecting Vets for an interview on life in the NFL, how that compares to being in the 75th Ranger Regiment, and yes, we talk about the kneeling policy. 

Answers have been edited for clarity and length only. 

Q: You have a rather unorthodox pathway to the NFL. When you graduated from West Point, it seemed there was a divergent fork in the road where you were a top draft prospect, but you went on active duty in the Army, what was your thought process like, did you choose the Army over the NFL?

A: Well, that’s a really interesting topic because there’s a lot of things that went into that decision, which really wasn’t a decision at all. It’s more of a mandate.... The policy of the academy when I graduated was you needed to serve at least two years to play in the NFL. In 2010, when I graduated, I wasn’t able to go to the NFL, but I was able to participate in a training camp with the Cincinnati Bengals. They did not know that I was not eligible to play in the NFL. So, I just informed them after the training camp and then I served my time in the military until 2014 when I was with the first Ranger Battalion. I got back home early from my third deployment and my military career was not going the way I wanted it, and I had the chance to try to play football again. 

Photo by Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Q: How does being a being a professional athlete compare to being in the Ranger Regiment? Are there skills you learned, either in Infantry Officer Basic Course (IOBC), airborne school, Ranger School, or on a deployment that gives you an edge playing the game?

A: I think there are basic things... You don’t mind, to an extent, going away and spending a lot of time away from your family or loved ones. You can adapt. You have no issues making friends because you always have a new roommate in the military or always have a new group of people. So, those things impact your comfort level. 

At the end of the day, the NFL boils down to performance on the field. It is an industry based on performance alone. In the military, sometimes, performance is tough to measure. There are so many variables that go into becoming an officer, and the decisions, it’s extremely complicated. If you’re a platoon leader in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division, for you to be successful, you must be able to overcome maybe potentially strategic failures of General officers... The Taliban has more land now than when we were there. So, it becomes very difficult to measure success. What you measure is values, you measure character, you measure the way that you interact with others. So, based on that you create sort of this holistic approach to make sure people are going to do the right thing in combat. That’s a more complex and more difficult way of measuring people. Becoming an officer in Ranger Regiment, becoming a squad leader in Ranger Regiment, doing anything in the Ranger Regiment is a lot more difficult than the NFL. The only thing you’re measuring in football is how many yards you get per game on Sundays, whereas a soldier in the First Ranger Battalion, for example, you’re measured on absolutely everything that goes into your character, everything that comes out of your mouth is being evaluated. That determines who is allowed to continue in the organization and who isn’t. 

Q: You said that since the Taliban controls more territory today than when you were there, that’s kind of like saying, "what did we fight for?" Do you struggle with some of the things you’ve done and your past service and what the United States is doing around the world today? 

A: I think I have maybe. I’d be lying to you if I told you I’ve never questioned it, that I’ve never thought about it. But I’ve always been filled with pride by the reason why I went to Afghanistan, that there was an American out there fighting, and I didn’t want them to fight alone. 

At the end of the day, people are fighting for the men and women to their left and to their right. 

Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Q: Thinking about parallels between the Army and professional sports, the Army is a top-down organization, it’s very hierarchical. It strikes me it’s similar in the NFL. But what is different is a lot of people with big personalities who are all playing at the top of their game and frankly, there’s just a lot of money that just isn’t in the military. Was there a bit of an adjustment navigating those waters?

A: Not when you realize the way the game works. Just like everything else. The same way as when you get out of the military, you realize how the economy works, you realize how society and corporate America works, and you realize how everything works. And everything out of the military works with money, it’s the only thing that rules everything in the NFL. If you’re the best quarterback in the NFL, short of a few crimes and felonies, you always have a lot of money and a lot of attention, because the demand for a great quarterback is so high and it can almost overcome anything. People are willing to do anything for a great player, and in that sense, it becomes less of a team sport and more individuals trying to establish and create a good business environment around them. 

Q: I saw a Sports Center video where you mentioned the true meaning of Memorial Day, and you referenced a soldier, Jessie Dietrich, who was killed in combat. Can you tell me about the kind of guy Jessie was or some other people who you served with?

A: In the case of my platoon, well, I hate to call it “my platoon,” because that’s kind of possessive, but the platoon I served with, first platoon Alpha Company 87th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain, was the experience I dreamed of always having. People from all different areas of the United States with completely different backgrounds, different beliefs and religions, different languages, and they are just wearing the same flag in the same unit fighting for each other. 

It was a very humbling experience, and during that year, I had the opportunity to meet Jessie Dietrich. He was a soldier from Fort Worth, Texas, so he belonged to the group of soldiers who are in love with the outdoors, who are very brave, and they knew that the expectations of serving in the military were something that brings a lot of pride to their families. And because of that, you never had an issue with those types of soldiers in combat, so it was very humbling for me to have the opportunity to serve with somebody like Jessie. 

Q: I have to ask you about the NFL kneeling policy, and your thoughts behind it. I’ve known you’ve said that you don’t think the protests are disrespectful, but I’m curious if it takes on a special meaning given that you’re the only combat veteran in the locker room. 

A: Well, I’m usually very reluctant to talk about the national anthem policy, because it is not a simple…I hate to boil it down to a sentence or two. It’s very difficult to sit down and really think of sentences that can be quoted and are 100 percent infallible with no further context needed. 

It doesn’t bother me that other NFL players exercise their right of freedom of speech because it’s something that’s in the Constitution and it’s something that we fight for. We have a system in America that is based on liberties and based on freedoms. So, that part of me doesn’t bother me, because I have no other choice. 

Photo by PA Images/Sipa USA

I’ve also been to military funerals where the Westboro Baptist Church has flags tied around their feet, and obviously, it isn’t pleasant to see, it’s not something you want to experience, because it is painful that they are celebrating the death of a soldier, of a friend. But somehow, I know that’s defended by this country. I believe in the system, live in the system, the system sent me to fight, I fought for the system, and therefore it is something I know that is protected. 

I don’t think that NFL players who are kneeling are trying to deliberately send a message to veterans. The problem sometimes is that it’s very tough for some veterans to understand why it’s happening... I grew up in a military town near a naval station, and I spent my adult years in the military at West Point, so personally, I don’t like to see people kneeling down for the national anthem. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to start lobbying against players, because it is a much bigger issue. 
And, maybe this is because of my education at West Point, this is something the military has nothing to do with. Let civilian people deal with their issues, but the military is always going to be there to serve the nation. It’s not the other way around, the military isn’t in power in this country. I have a tough time seeing how kneeling for the national anthem helps any other causes, but it’s not me to judge how anybody else feels. 

But it is better to try to deal with issues together, rather than take sides. 

Q: Whenever you're the only veteran in a group, you get essentialized and people always try to define you. And you have to fight on a certain level to get people out of the mindset that I’m a large group’s mouthpiece. Is there any of that in the NFL, your team, or in the industry at large? 

A: For sure. A lot of people are curious, some more than others. I think to a certain degree that’s it’s very hard to have a casual 15-minute conversation about the war in Afghanistan and to try to explain to them everything from zero. You have to explain who al Qaeda is, who are the Taliban, what is the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan, what is the role of India, who are the Pashtun, what is the threat that Iran poses to the Middle East. It’s very difficult to explain all of those things to somebody in a quick conversation. So maybe what you do is provide anecdotes and personal experiences what war is really like, so you paint a picture of what people sacrifice on behalf of their nation. Basic stuff, like not having access to showers all the time, not access to good food, or not having a telephone to call your spouse or kids. I think that’s part of what I try to do the most. 

There are coaches and players who go deeper and ask about the nature of the missions, the real impact or changes that we saw while there. Maybe what my personal thoughts are what steps the military can take to solve issues or what it would be like to fight another country. From that aspect, you can give your humble opinion. 

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