Buzzword becomes real life

  • Published
  • By Ashley M. Wright
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Resiliency, defined by Webster's New World College Dictionary, is the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. To many, it is a buzzword only. To one Tyndall Airman, it is his life.

The first few years of Master Sgt. Jose Santiago's, 325th Communication Squadron NCO in charge of quality assurance, Air Force career were littered with numerous challenges.

A native to Isabela, Puerto Rico, Sergeant Santiago joined the Air Force 12 years ago--barely. The first obstacle he overcame was being a non-native English speaker.

Sergeant Santiago arrived at the local recruiter's office because he wanted a future.

"I always saw myself doing something bigger," he said.

However, his test scores in English did not reflect his enthusiasm. Devastated, Sergeant Santiago felt certain his Air Force career was over before it began. Then, a long distance phone interview with an officer in charge of recruiting in Georgia, changed his life forever.

"I was allowed to join the Air Force with one condition; I would stay out of trouble," Sergeant Santiago said.

After arriving at Hurlburt Field, Fla. as an aircrew life support apprentice, the young Airman 1st Class, found his second obstacle to overcome. Four months into his Air Force career, he was in the wing commander' s office answering for a DUI.

"When I went to see the wing commander, he asked one question: how would your family feel if you returned home with a DUI," Sergeant Santiago said. "That broke my heart. After I left that office, I became someone else."

Despite losing a stripe, that someone else is now a master sergeant at Tyndall who just put in a package to become a first sergeant.

Sergeant Santiago's desire to help other Airmen learn from his experience came at one of his darkest hours.

The sergeant struggled with a failing physical assessment test, failing technical school during retraining for a dream position as a computer programmer and losing a job he came to love as a personnelist when the Air Force down sized the career field in addition to tough deployments.

During a divorce a few years following the DUI, the sergeant found himself at the bottom facing criminal charges that were later dismissed.

"The command chief told me, 'Remember, one day you will be helping Airman in the same shoes,"' Sergeant Santiago said. "When I met Chief Page, he put everything together."

The now retired Chief Master Sgt. Stephen Page met Sergeant Santiago when he was working at the Air Force Personnel Center, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.

"[Sergeant Santiago] has been through a lot; through it all, he is constantly giving and he is an architect of change," said Mr. Page.

Facing these tough challenges, one thing kept the sergeant going.

"My son. I want him to be proud of me," Sergeant Santiago said. "I didn't drown in my cup. I saw the bigger picture."

With a mentor and purpose, Sergeant Santiago turned things around. He reapplied himself to seek his dream job in communications, lost six inches on his waist scoring an excellent for the past six years of his PT test and earned degrees from the Community College of the Air Force in aircrew life support systems, human resources and electronic systems technology.

In the eight years he has known Sergeant Santiago, Mr. Page spoke to how the sergeant's perseverance inspired him.

"He was a good NCO despite the bumps along the way," Mr. Page said. "He was able to work through the pain and overcome."

Now serving in his dream communication job, the sergeant volunteered for a one-year deployment in Afghanistan with the Army.

His justification was simple.

"I want to be the leader that talks the talk and walks the walk," he said. "I could not ask my Airmen to do anything I was not willing to do myself."

While on deployment, the Master Sergeant earned his bachelor's degree in leadership and was accepted for a master's program in homeland security at Pennsylvania State University.

"[Getting the acceptance letter] was unbelievable," the sergeant said with a smile.

However, his deployment was not all smiles. The job in Afghanistan involved mainly convoy work and training Afghan local police during the height of the "green on blue" attacks where trainees were attacking the trainers.

Despite making good friends in the local population and earning a military outstanding volunteer service medal for humanitarian work bringing school supplies to children and needed items to hospitals and homeless shelters in Kabul, the constant pressure and high stress took its toll on Sergeant Santiago.

When he returned to Tyndall, his family noticed he was not the same.

Changing from the 100 mph life in a deployed location to regular military service, hit him hard, Sergeant Santiago said.

Knowing help was needed, the sergeant took advantage of a resource on base to help him deal with his struggles: Mental Health.

"Jose is one of those guys," Mr. Page said. "A lot talk about a warrior. That man has dawned the cloth of a warrior. He is an Airman's Airman."

Sergeant Santiago believes his experiences in the Air Force, both good and bad, will add to his ability to help Airman whether he gets the first sergeant slot or not.

"I can speak to those experiences," he said. "I want to be available to speak to those kinds of issues our Airmen are facing. When Airmen hear those words, it adds creditability."