Veteran, corpsman, islander: local Sailor earns top honors
By Cpl. Isis M. Ramirez
| U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific | May 16, 2013
MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII --
A Hawaii-based corpsman has certainly been making an impression on units throughout the Pacific region. Chief Petty Officer Joseph C. Santos, Marine Aircraft Group 24 leading petty officer, was awarded Sailor of the Year for MAG-24 in April, but that was just the beginning.
Santos, a petty officer 1st class at the time, also won the Sailor of the Year boards for 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and III Marine Expeditionary Force, separately. Upon these accomplishments, Santos was selected as the top Sailor for U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, making him MarForPac’s representative for more than 4,700 Sailors. After all of these “green-side” accomplishments, he became the U.S. Pacific Fleet Sailor of the Year, finishing his climb to become of one of the top four Sailors in the U.S. Navy.
Born in Saipan, raised in Guam, and having served in Hawaii and California, Santos is a true Pacific Sailor who has never viewed the Navy through rose-colored glasses.
Unlike many U.S. servicemembers, Santos’ attraction to the Navy has very little to do with travel or pay.
“When I was like 15 or 16, I read a newspaper article about a Navy Sailor hospital corpsman who ran through a minefield to save a wounded Marine,” Santos said. “I thought, ‘man, that is quite a job.’”
The story lingered in the young man’s mind until he was 17 years old, meeting the requirement for an age-related enlistment waiver.
“I remembered that story when I went to the recruiters’ office in Guam,” Santos said, who also remembers the moment the recruiters offered him the choice between two jobs, a cook or a corpsman. “Isn’t a corpsman that guy who ran through a minefield to save that Marine? I want to try being a corpsman.”
In 2004, Santos was part of Operation Vigilant Resolve (commonly referred to as “Fallujah I”) with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. He said his unit saw a lot of action throughout that deployment and had a lot of casualties to show for it.
“I look back at it,” Santos said. “Damn, I’m that guy now. I’m not running through a minefield, I’m running through a road with (improvised explosive devices). ... I’m living that moment today.”
It was during this deployment that Santos was injured and awarded a Purple Heart. As he healed physically, the anger and hatred he was exposed to in Iraq never subsided.
“You hate (the enemy), hate this country, hate your job, hate your leadership - eight months of listening to that on a constant basis changes the way you think,” Santos explained in his calm, matter-of-fact tone. “When you come back ... you become this different animal. You’re not that Sailor everyone thinks (you are). You’re kind of intimidating, kind of scary. You’re reckless after a combat (tour).”
Santos explained that in 2004, transitioning between a deployed environment to garrison was difficult.
“I was angry at the way we did business,” Santos said. “It wasn’t like in combat. Here is your mission, here is how to do it, let’s go. Coming back to a process, I wasn’t all about the process. I wasn’t thinking about the bigger picture. I was so closed-minded. That’s what made me angry.”
Santos received psychiatric treatment in Barstow, Calif., in order to learn how to cope with his emotions and channel energy. Santos calls it “hippie stuff,” but he admits that it worked for him and re-energized his love for the Navy.
“I love it,” Santos said. “I love what I do. I love the job. I wouldn’t change it for anything. This is probably the best job the Navy has.”
When Santos recalls the Sailors he went up against for the Pacific Fleet Sailor of the Year award, he notes how much more robust their programs and units were compared to the 22 Sailors under his charge.
With zero boards under his belt, it was likely his combat experience helped him stand out among the others, but Santos insists the largest contributing factors to his award are the other Sailors in his unit.
“(I was awarded) because of my Sailors, all the hard work they did,” Santos said. “Their output, their work was so amazing, and it was recognized throughout (MAG-24) and (1st MAW). That’s why I got Sailor of the Year. I didn’t get it because of my accomplishments. I got it because of my Sailors’ accomplishments.”
Master Chief Petty Officer Chris Aldis, MarForPac command master chief, agreed that Santos’ Sailors played a part in his ability to be the “360 degree Sailor,” but that Santos earned the recognition primarily through his actions.
“He was filling an E-8 billet as an E-6,” Aldis said. “And not only filling it, but doing an exceptional job. He was running the whole show at MAG-24.”
His past accolades, including a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with a Combat “V,” extensive hours of community service with children on base, higher level education and physical fitness performance throughout the past five years, all made Santos stand out.
Santos’ achievements have culminated with him traveling to the Navy Yard in Washington D.C., where his family from Guam attended his meritorious promotion to chief petty officer May 16.
“He and only three other people in the Navy will be promoted like that,” Aldis said. “I’ve been training (petty officers) to become (chief petty officers) for 13 years. You can see certain people are just natural leaders, people are drawn to them. They’re a servant leader, they give themselves. Santos has that … his personality just stands out to you. He’s open, caring, decisive - all of the qualities you’re looking for in a leader.
“I think he’s been a chief his whole career. He was just waiting for the promotion.”