Third-degree burns covered most of Anthony Villarreal's body after his truck hit a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. "They were dragging me on the sand and there was rocks there," Villarreal said. "So when they were dragging me, I felt the rocks against my skin and my legs, and it hurt but I couldn't scream."
Doctors amputated his right arm and the fingers on his left hand. Even after 70-plus surgeries and skin grafts, his face reflects the burns he suffered on that fateful day.
As Villarreal looked back on the day he first saw his face in the mirror, he asked his wife, Jessica, "What did you think about?"
She responded: "I just knew that you needed me and I was going to be there. Were you ever scared that I'd leave you?"
Anthony said, "Yeah, I mean it's kind of hard not to think about that. Because a lot of people, they don't want to be seen with someone that was ugly."
Jessica offered reassurance: "The crazy thing is I'm still more self-conscious about what I look like than you are. But I have grown so much over the past five years. I didn't ever think that I'd be as strong as I am today and most of it is from you. I can't imagine you not being in my life."
Anthony completed the thought: "We've been through so much in so little time. There shouldn't be anything that could tear us apart besides death itself."
As it does every Friday morning, StoryCorps brought this Texas couple's story of unconditional love, uncommon courage and heartfelt emotion to its National Public Radio listeners in the form of a simple conversation between two people. Sometimes it's a couple, sometimes a parent and child, sometimes two lifelong friends, but warmth always emanates with each word.
Even someone who doesn't understand English feels the love.
And as with all StoryCorps moments since its inception in 2003, you listen to the end and then wonder if you have a story from your own life to share.
The answer is yes. We all have a story to share. And perhaps you will get a chance to share that story when StoryCorps comes to St. Petersburg in January.
WUSF Public Media general manager JoAnn Urofsky seized the opportunity to bring one of StoryCorps' mobile booths to the Tampa Bay area when the project called offering an opening. It will begin gathering interviews with a kickoff event on Jan. 6 at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
"We are very excited," Urofsky said Tuesday. "Ultimately, with us celebrating our 50th anniversary, what we do is about touching people. What better vehicle to have than StoryCorps to do that?"
People can begin registering for slots on Dec. 20 by calling StoryCorps toll-free at 1-800-850-4406, or visiting storycorps.org. Expect the slots to fill up fast.
It's best that people come in pairs. Even though StoryCorps technicians will ask questions of individuals, it's not the same as a conversation with someone who knows you well. Often, they ask questions a stranger would never dare.
It has been five years since StoryCorps came to the area, last setting up in Ybor City to record the treasured stories of locals. Only a few, if any, will reach the national broadcast level, and WUSF may edit and air a handful locally.
But the appeal of StoryCorps goes far and beyond people hoping to net a few fleeting minutes of fame. With each person receiving a recording of the story, it offers the opportunity to preserve a slice of family history that can be passed on to the next generation.
Urofsky underscores the value when she wonders if her late grandfather would have told the story of his emigration from Russia if he had access to a StoryCorps booth.
"He didn't want us to know what it was like because it was such a terrible experience," Urofsky said. "But that just makes you want to know all the more."
In the end, StoryCorps inspires through personal connections, engaging touchpoints and the kind of love that can help sustain us through life's more mundane challenges.
Get ready to tell your story.
That's all I'm saying.