Decorated Afghanistan War veteran and Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva spoke as part of the Center for Leadership and Ethics’ Courageous Leadership series March 12 in Gillis Theater. A video of his remarks is available on VMI’s YouTube channel.
Villanueva is a graduate of West Point, and he played defensive and offensive positions for the Black Knights. Villanueva commissioned into the Army in 2010 alongside Army football teammate and Lexington native Chase Prasnicki, who died in Afghanistan in 2012.
He deployed three times to Afghanistan, reaching the rank of captain before joining the NFL in 2014. He served with the 10th Mountain Division and the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. During his first tour in Afghanistan, he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal with V device for rescuing wounded soldiers under enemy fire.
While not a regular public speaker, Villanueva made the rare address both because of his regard for VMI’s cadets and because Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin began his coaching career at the Institute in 1995.
“When it comes to the military, I can never say no,” said Villanueva. “I was a cadet just like you guys nine years ago.”
In addition to the military connection, Villanueva shared his personal ties to Lexington and the Institute.
“This is an extremely honorable privilege for me to be here today. Coach Tomlin mandated me to be here, but it is also where one of my best friends is buried from the military academy. He was a teammate of mine and his father works here,” said Villanueva. “This is a very special place for me.”
Villanueva presented his remarks in terms of personal accountability, with culture, ethics and leadership being key components. Illustrating that concept, he shared an experience at the Pir Mohammed School in Kandahar Province. After Afghan National Police forces fired on and disabled the motorcycle of a suspected insurgent, Villanueva was ordered to conduct a battle damage assessment in what he and his soldiers suspected was an ambush.
The soldiers under his command were unwilling to conduct the assessment and suggested Villanueva tell his commanding officer that they checked out the scene without doing so.
“I never thought I would encounter a situation like this where I had to choose between my men and my mission,” said Villanueva.
Villanueva ultimately decided to tell his soldiers that he would conduct the battle damage assessment on his own, leading members of the Afghan National Police.
“I said ‘I’m going to go down by myself. If anyone wants to come with me, they can come with me,’” said Villanueva. To his surprise, two of the soldiers who were unwilling to go moments before joined him.
As soon as the three soldiers left their secure compound alongside three members of the Afghan National Police, the insurgents opened fire. Villanueva and his soldiers returned to the compound safely.
In this and other experiences, Villanueva noted that West Point’s honor code had served him well – along with other lessons inculcated by four years at the U.S. Military Academy.
Villanueva also shared his thoughts on “attention economics,” the level of focus that individuals devote to various areas of their lives. He observed that a Spartan military lifestyle helps pare down trivial concerns and allows for greater attention towards attaining goals.
“You eat the same meals every day of the week. … You get the same haircut. You wear the same clothes,” said Villanueva. “You’re prioritizing your future. You’re prioritizing who you want to be, and you’re showing that on a daily basis.”
Villanueva made national headlines in 2017 when he was the lone member of the Steelers to appear at the entrance tunnel as the national anthem was performed at Soldier Field in Chicago. The rest of the team did not take the field in order to avoid the controversy around players kneeling during the anthem. He revisited that episode to highlight the theme of personal accountability.
“I was told that I would be watching the anthem with my teammates to my left and my right, but, when it came down to it, they were nowhere to be seen,” said Villanueva.
He had received hundreds of text messages by the end of the game and was on the front page of newspapers across the country the next morning. “Everybody’s pressuring you to take a stand, to voice a message.”
Villanueva made the decision to step back from the controversy, falling back on his training as an Army officer not to advocate a stance on political matters.
“I did what I thought was right based on the culture I received,” said Villanueva.
Before speaking, Villanueva toured post, spoke with members of the football team, and observed Supper Roll Call. Villanueva remained in Gillis Theater following his talk to autograph cadets’ covers, Steelers memorabilia and even a pocket Constitution.
Maj. John Robertson IV VMI Communications & Marketing