SAN JUAN, Texas - Master Sgt. Pablo H. Villescas was serving
with the Army Reserve in Afghanistan when that country held
its first free, direct elections in 2004.
More than three-quarters of Afghanistan's registered voters
cast ballots in the election.
"The people were so happy to finally have a voice, to finally
have a say in which direction their country should go,"
He added that some Afghans were also killed so they couldn't
In the United States, where there are few, if any, barriers
to the polls, voter registration and voter turnout is low. In
the 2012 U.S. presidential election, only 53.6 percent of
eligible voters cast a ballot, according to the Pew Research
"It really bothers me when people don't vote," Villescas told
The Valley Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Brownsville.
"A lot of people have given their lives so that we can have
that opportunity and it is not appreciated."
The Fourth of July is a day of celebration, but it is also an
ideal time to reflect on our freedoms and the sacrifices our
service men and women have made to sustain them - men like
Villescas, 60, serves as the administrator of the Basilica of
Our Lady of San Juan del Valle-National Shrine, where he has
been employed for 45 years.
"I started working here in August of 1970," said Villescas,
now retired from the reserves. "I was in high school and my
first job was as a dishwasher in the cafeteria."
From there, Villescas was promoted to cashier and then worked
in the gift shop, the mailroom and the hotel, just to name a
few of his posts. Later, he began learning the administrative
side and was responsible for purchasing and acquisitions.
"Even before he stared working here, he was an altar server
at the church and a student at the school so that means he
has spent his whole life here," said Father Amador Garza,
rector of the basilica. "He's an invaluable resource because
he is the institutional memory for the basilica after all
these years here.
"When Bishop (Daniel E. Flores) asked me to be the rector, I
knew right off the bat I wanted Pablo to be the
Villescas was named administrator in 2010, after his last
overseas tour with the Army Reserve. He manages a staff of
95. The basilica welcomes more than 25,000 pilgrims a week.
Villescas' family was instrumental in establishing a shrine
to Our Lady of San Juan in the Rio Grande Valley. In the
1940s, Villescas' grandparents, Bernardino and Bernadina
Villescas, petitioned Father Jose Maria Azpiazu, a priest of
the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, to build a shrine
for those who could not travel to Mexico.
Villescas said he believes Mary kept him safe during his
"There were times when I thought I was going to die," he
said. "Through all of those incidents, I was able to come
back home. I feel like la Virgen protected me. She has always
been our family's patron saint."
A native of San Juan, Villescas is the fifth of Fortino and
Ninfa Villescas' 10 children. He and his wife, Olga, have
been together for 20 years. He also has three daughters, a
son and eight grandchildren.
Villescas joined the Army Reserve in 1977 and has served four
tours overseas. In 1992, he served in Operation Desert
Shield/Desert Storm in Kuwait. In 2000-01, he served in
Operation Noble Eagle in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Villescas served a tour in Afghanistan in 2003-04, spent
2005-06 at Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood working
with wounded and ill soldiers and served another tour in
Afghanistan in 2009-10 before retiring from the Army Reserve
in June 2013.
It was his father who inspired him to retire.
Through his father, Villescas learned how much heartache the
family members of those who serve in the military endure.
"My father was sick and in the hospital and he asked me,
'When are you are going to get out?'" Villescas recalled.
"'Well, I'm tired,' my father said. 'I'm tired of worrying
about you, I'm tired of lighting candles for you.'
"It was painful for me to leave the Reserves, but the way it
was requested, I couldn't say no to my father. This applies
to all service men and women... All your loved ones are
worried until you get home safely. More than 10,000 candles
are lit at the basilica on any given weekend and I know many
of those are for our military."
His experience with the Catholic Church and the military have
impacted his life's work.
"In large measure, he owes his life to the church and to the
Army," Father Garza said. "They were the ones that shaped him
and have molded him into who he has become. His whole life
has been at the service of these two institutions, which have
given him the sense of commitment and the sense of discipline
that he has."
Ybarra is assistant editor of The Valley Catholic, newspaper
of the Diocese of Brownsville.