Camp Pendleton, Calif. --
The bus was filled with laughter as Marines with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit made their way toward a pool to participate in an annual swim qualification.
All the Marines were relaxed while on the bus except for Sgt. Juan Villegas, an embarkation/logistics specialist and El Paso, Texas native with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. He sat still, not saying a single word. The concerned look on his face combined with his seemingly uncomfortable posture was justified, considering Villegas had not completed a swim qualification in seven years due to exemptions.
There are three levels of qualification: basic, intermediate and advanced.
Villegas knows he is not the best swimmer, and greatly struggled the last time he had to swim qual.
“On the bus, some of them were laughing because they knew he couldn’t swim,” said Cpl. Mitchel Zgorzynski, a training non-commissioned officer with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Aurora, Co, native who also participated in the swim qualification. “He kind of smiles a little, but you can tell it affects him.”
After a long ride, the 11th MEU finally arrived at the designated pool where they would participate in yet another training event. As they exited the bus, Villegas remained deep in thought as he continued to stare off for extended periods of time.
They lined up along the pool ready to participate in the first evaluation, which was the 25-meter freestyle swim.
"While I was in the pool, I could hear everyone cheering and trying to motivate me,” said Villegas. “That being said, I knew I had to do this by myself, so it’s nice that they did that, but I was in my own world.”
Most of the Marines present swam 25 meters with relative ease. Three Marines took longer than everyone else including Villegas as he struggled to touch the wall.
Villegas said that the technique he used to swim had made him tired midway through the 25 meters.
While everyone else moved forward with the rest of the qualification, Villegas was attempting everything twice as a result of not being able to complete the evaluations the first time.
“There is this song called “Water” that I play in my head when I’m swimming,” said Villegas. “I don’t know why, but that’s what pops into my head when I swim.”
After a long morning of swimming, Villegas had finally completed his first swim qualification in seven years. While changing into something dryer, Villegas received many pats on the back for a job well done.
“I needed to do this because I want to be able to teach my daughter how to swim,” said Villegas. “When my family is at the beach, I usually don’t go in the water, but accomplishing this gives me the ability to go out there and give my daughter what I didn’t have growing up.”
After changing into dry clothing, MEU personnel boarded the bus and headed back to their headquarters. The bus was filled with laughter again, and this time Villegas joined.