Army Sgt. 1st Class Joselito O. Villanueva had a close call last spring while riding in a convoy transporting Iraqi prisoners to a collection point, an incident that earned him his first Purple Heart.
A platoon leader with Charlie Company, 9th Engineer Battalion, 1st Infantry Division, Villanueva was traveling in a Humvee that rolled over an improvised explosive device, killing one of his men and injuring him.
"A piece of shrapnel about the size of a half dollar blew through the back of his neck," said 1st Sgt. David L. Morgan, to whom he reported. "He's lucky it didn't kill him."
Villanueva, a former Los Angeles resident, was killed by a sniper Monday during an ambush in Balad, Iraq. He was posthumously awarded a second Purple Heart and a Bronze Star to add to his other commendations, including two National Defense medals, four good conduct medals and four Army achievement medals.
Morgan said the officer known as "Sgt. V" was part of another convoy conducting a routine patrol about 8:30 a.m. when an Iraqi national was erratically driving his truck, which rolled over. When Villanueva and others stopped to assist, they were fired upon. Only Villanueva was hit.
In a telephone interview from the battalion's home base in Schweinfurt, Germany, Morgan said news of Villanueva's death was difficult to take.
"I kind of treat them all like my sons. You get a bond, a friendship, a trust. When you lose one of your own, it hits you very hard," said Morgan, who is wrapping up a two-week leave before shipping out Monday morning for a return trip to Iraq. "I had to go out walking for a couple of hours. I had to cool off."
Villanueva, 36, was a combat engineer whose job involved working with an armored division to defuse explosives, set up mine fields and use munitions to tear down obstacles to troop advancement. Villanueva joined the Army in April 1993 and began his Iraq tour in February.
"He was well-trained and believed deeply in what he was doing," said Sgt. Michael Anderson of Ft. Schweinfurt, who once served under Villanueva. "He was always there for his solders and his friends."
Morgan said a "ramp ceremony" was staged last week by those in Villanueva's platoon -- half a dozen carried his casket into a transport plane while other members saluted or presented arms. A formal ceremony, with full military honors, will be held on base Thursday, he said.
Villanueva, who was not married, will be buried in Southern California. He is survived by his parents, Edito and Pilarita Villanueva of Van Nuys. Information about local funeral services was not available.