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    A Filipino-American Sky Soldier Celebrates Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

    Three Generations of Military Service

    Photo By Capt. Joe Legros | The Villarama family has been serving in the United States military since 1955. From...... read more read more



    Story by Capt. Joe Legros 

    173rd Airborne Brigade

    Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have a long history of service to the U.S. military. Spc. Henry Villarama is a Sky Soldier with the 54th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade, and is a proud third generation Filipino-American who upholds this strong legacy.

    “My family has a long heritage of warfighting as American soldiers,” shares Villarama. “Beginning with my grandfather who retired as a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy, my father followed in his footsteps, serving through Desert Storm and retiring as a colonel in the U.S. Army.”

    Just as the destiny of the Villarama family was shaped by the fortunes of war, the 173rd Airborne Brigade has also been shaped by operations in the Philippines in World War II. It is, after all, from this nation that the nickname “The Rock” was earned by the 503rd Infantry Regiment.

    That nickname came from the retaking of the Philippine island fortress of Corregidor from the Japanese in February 1945. This Rock Island had been captured three years earlier during the same WWII campaign that saw the Battle of Bataan. Bataan was used as a springboard to overtake Corregidor, and over 60,000 Filipino and American soldiers were forced to surrender their possessions and walk over 60 grueling miles into captivity during the infamous Bataan Death March.

    Redemption had to wait three long years, but for recapturing Corregidor, the 503rd Infantry Regiment was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and its own Pvt. Lloyd G. McCarter earned the Medal of Honor for his actions during this battle.

    However, the Philippines has contributed much more than a lasting nickname for Sky Soldier battalions and a memorable venue for some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Islands during WWII. The Philippine men and women who have chosen to fight alongside, and as American service members, continue to enhance our warfighting success today.

    Growing up, Villarama would hear stories from his grandmother about their family’s humble beginnings and the hardships they faced in the Philippines. She lived in a village that was bombed and occupied by invading soldiers during WWII. It was during this occupation that their lives were changed forever.

    “Life was tough for my grandparents during the war,” explains Villarama. “The mother and sister of my grandmother were both killed by gunshot wounds incurred while occupying forces were bombing her town of Santiago in the Isabela Province. My grandfather’s town was also occupied, but thankfully no family members were killed in the process.”

    The occupation of the Philippines during the war stayed with Villarama’s grandfather, Victor, long after the war ended, compelling him to join the military. He made the courageous yet difficult decision to leave his wife and two-year old son by traveling to the U.S. in the late 1950s, enlisting with the U.S. Navy.

    Retired Chief Petty Officer Victor V. Villarama served as a cook aboard the U.S.S. Lexington during the Vietnam conflict. The Lexington holds special significance as it was the U.S. Navy’s flagship during the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the Battle of Leyte in WWII during the summer and fall of 1944. Nearly thirty years after the Lexington helped liberate his island, Villarama would call the former flagship home for three years.

    Villarama’s grandfather gained valuable wartime experience during this time, but he also achieved something he had desired for many years.

    He attained U.S. citizenship as a result of military service. Although naturalization acts had existed previously, the Act of May 9, 1918 specifically identified "any native-born Filipino” with three years of service in the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps or Naval Auxiliary Service would be eligible for citizenship.

    It took many difficult years before the family was reunited in the U.S. where social tensions were high by the time the Villaramas met again.

    “My father left the Philippines when he was twelve years old, heading to the U.S. to meet his father, my grandfather, for the first time in ten years,” Villarama explains. “This was also the first time my grandmother and the eldest of her three daughters left the country. They relocated to the U.S. during the 1960s which was a difficult time and place for many minorities.”

    Despite initial obstacles, the family grew stronger and the grandfather’s legacy of service inspired Villarama’s father to join the military as well in 1981. After 30 years of honorable military service, Col. Henry F. Villarama retired from the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 2010, having lead the way in multiple capacities. He is currently a Department of Defense contractor.

    Col. Villarama shares, “As a young Filipino officer I had to be proficient in the English language quickly to be an effective leader. But from my culture I had everything else: courage, discipline, dedication and persistence.”

    These leadership qualities are pillars of success within the U.S. military. Amongst the Villaramas, these characteristics have been passed down through three generations dating back to 1955. Col. Villarama is proud of his family’s continued military service.

    “My son in the 173rd Airborne Brigade is the continuation of our family’s contribution to our great country,” says Col. Villarama. “This is also proof that our military has the capability of winning the hearts and minds of a liberated country.”

    This generation’s addition to the Villarama story finds Spc. Henry Villarama serving as a Sky Soldier in Vicenza, Italy. It is obvious that he has inherited his family's strong lineage of leadership.

    “I was enrolled in Boy Scouts throughout elementary school and the Navy Sea Cadets throughout middle school,” says Spc. Villarama. “Then, just like my father, I served as the commander of the Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program for two years in high school.” Coincidentally, it was the same high school where his father had commanded years earlier.

    Although he attended the Army R.O.T.C. program at the University of West Florida, Villarama withdrew and eventually decided to enlist in the U.S. Army.

    Prior to arriving in Italy, Villarama served as a Special Operations Forces communicator at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and has completed two combat tours to Afghanistan. He has been with the 173rd Airborne Brigade since March 2017, a paratrooper primarily serving as a 25N, or Nodal Network Systems Operator/Maintainer. Villarama also has the added responsibility of being the Unit Public Affairs Representative for his battalion, promoting their lethality, agility, and combat readiness to the world.

    Many of Villarama’s official photos have been picked up and broadcast internationally by the U.S. Army, U.S. Army Europe, and the U.S. Department of Defense Social Media sites.

    “Before I became a Sky Soldier, I was a nightlife photographer in the Washington D.C. area,” shares Villarama. “I’m grateful I can utilize this talent in a positive way to help promote my brothers in arms. I’m proud of the training we do, and the world should know we are a strong, lethal force.”

    Reflecting on his family’s legacy of service in the U.S. military, Villarama expresses that positive results can come from experiences that were initially difficult and painful.

    Experiencing war in their villages, and the desire to provide a better life for his family is the driving force that lead to Villarama’s family leaving the Philippines. However, this hardship meant that the Villarama family would immigrate to the United States, starting a new life and new generation of Filipino-Americans, as American citizens.

    “We should not take our citizenship for granted,” says Villarama. “I’m not just a Filipino serving alongside American soldiers. I am an American soldier. I just happen to have a proud Filipino heritage as well.” His father and grandfather would agree.

    It is for this reason that the Department of Defense, the United States Army, and the 173rd Airborne Brigade celebrates this heritage every year during the month of May.

    Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month stands as a reminder of the strength the military has gained, and will continue to gain through a high-quality diverse all-volunteer force.

    As Villarama often says in his 54th Bde. Eng. Bn. Facebook posts, “We’re ready, fast and lethal - prepared to bring the fight to the enemy - tonight.” Those words do not just come from a Filipino-American.

    Those are the words of an American Sky Soldier.



    Date Taken: 05.21.2018
    Date Posted: 05.21.2018 09:35
    Story ID: 277712
    Location: VICENZA, IT 
    Hometown: WASHINGTON, DC, US

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