A Bronze Star for a brave heart

Michael Villarroel, D.O.’04, knew the seven-month-old boy was in distress, but, with only a stethoscope at hand, he wasn’t sure why. So he climbed to the house’s roof, lay down to avoid getting shot by a sniper, pulled out his satellite phone and called the only pediatrician he knew – his wife, Sarah Mayfield Villarroel, D.O.’04.

“The baby was only nine to 10 pounds because he was expending so much energy trying to breathe,” says Michael, a U.S. Navy lieutenant who was stationed in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2007. “Sarah steered me toward the proper treatment.”

He and his colleagues flew the baby by helicopter to Baghdad for surgery on a large cyst in his throat. It was a risky, low-to-the-ground flight; sniper fire was a constant concern, but flying at a higher altitude may have endangered their patient. After surgery, the baby was back home less than a week later.

Michael’s role in saving the boy’s life is just one example of his courage, leadership and service during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In Fallujah, he served as sole medical officer for seven separate units of more than 2,000 military members. He coordinated emergency medical care for Iraqi forces and civilians. Trained in hyperbaric medicine and the only dive medical doctor in Iraq at the time, he provided medical and dive support to an underwater construction team and river squadron working to repair a boat ramp at Haditha Dam.

“Diving in the Euphrates River was surreal,” he recalls. “We were outside the wire, outside the camp. You’re pretty exposed, but you just do your job.”

For his effectiveness, leadership and “loyal devotion to duty,” Michael was awarded the Bronze Star Medal last year.

“Lieutenant Villarroel’s commitment and insistence on participating in every emergency procedure involving one of his Marines or sailors resulted in a palpable sense of confidence and reassurance” among battalion members, the medal citation stated.

Michael cherishes the honor but avers, “There are other Marines and sailors who are just as deserving or more deserving. They are doing the hard work and making the difference.”

Both Villarroels – who in February became parents of daughter Emerson James – enlisted in the Navy as DMU students. He’s now stationed at Naval Base Coronado in San Diego; Sarah is completing a child abuse fellowship at the University of California-San Diego. “She’ll be the only pediatric forensics-trained pediatrician in the military on the West Coast,” Michael says proudly.

He’s also proud of his military colleagues. “I love what I’m doing,” he says. “Working with the Marines and sailors, serving them, taking care of your guys – that’s where you get the benefit.”

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