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thedrifter
02-15-09, 08:05 AM
Looking for a few more to proudly serve

February 15, 2009

BY WILLIAM LEE, Staff writer


In a six-month stretch, Eric Villarreal went from hanging with his buddies on the streets of Chicago Heights to handing out water to desperate residents of East Timor.

After joining the Marine Corps months after graduating from Bloom High School in 1998, Villarreal found himself touring the world and having eye-opening experiences.

"I was excited to go to another country, help out and see different countries, but you know why you're there," he said.

Seeing exotic locales not long after walking city streets made him appreciate home even more.

"Six months after high school, I'm doing humanitarian missions, passing out food and water," he said. "You look back and see what you were doing. You also see all of the freedom and liberties we have here and take for granted."

After visiting different countries, a six-month stint in Bahrain at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom and nearly six years in Hawaii, the staff sergeant has returned to his hometown, inviting young men and women to join the Marine Corps.

Villarreal, 28, the middle of three children raised in Chicago Heights, fights through the double whammy that comes with his job: being a recruiter and being a Marine recruiter.

The good news is that many recruits are knowledgeable about their decision and need little encouragement because of previous family service.

"The Marine Corps is more like a generation-type thing," Villarreal said. "People who come in here, their grandfather was a Marine, their father, uncle, brothers, it's that type of community," he said.

This was the case for a cousin who recently signed up and is en route to boot camp.

Still, Villarreal says recruiters affect the lives of everyday people who walk into his office at 205 W. Joe Orr Road.

"This is probably one of the most unselfish things anyone can do," said Villarreal. "People have this persona about the Marine Corps, but once people's minds open, it's pretty rewarding. People are calling here crying because it has helped a family member."

Villarreal takes special pains to show the advantages of military service to the young men of Chicago Heights, a town plagued by drugs and gang strife.

"Any chance we get to get young, healthy guys with a good head on their shoulders, we talk to them about their opportunities, whatever they want to do," Villarreal said. "Every opportunity is there for you, education, a job - everything is there for you, if you take it," he said.

Most people, Villarreal said, would be surprised how many people are turned away because they aren't able to keep up with the Marines' rigorous demands.

The married Villarreal hopes to stay in the service for another 10 years before moving into public relations and planning.

William Lee can be reached at wlee@southtownstar.com or (708) 633-6747.

Ellie