U.S. Army Major Fred Santiago from Granbury has a message for students.
“Whether a civilian, or in the military, a college education sets you apart,” he stressed. “You get more promotions, and you can provide better for your family when you have a college degree.”
This comes from a man who briefly quit school as a teenager, unsure what direction his life would take.
With Veterans Day approaching, Santiago has been reflecting on the path that led him to pursue a career in the Army, while securing his college education.
In his sophomore year at Granbury High School, Santiago said he starting losing confidence that he would ever graduate.
“It seemed like everyone knew what they were going to do – going to college or whatever – and I didn’t,” he reflected. “I started missing school, screwing around and got behind in my classes.”
Santiago credits family members – especially an aunt and uncle – along with Marsha Grissom and Mr. Hernandez at Granbury High School for getting him back on track.
“Mrs. Grissom was a counselor then,” Santiago explained. “She kept me from quitting school and helped me to graduate.”
Grissom smiled when remembering Santiago this week. “He was a good kid, and smart. He just didn’t have any confidence. We tag-teamed him to get him to finish school,” she said.
Grissom is now the principal at Premier High School in Granbury.
Santiago recalled, “Mrs. Grissom had faith in me, when I didn’t have faith in myself. Some thought I was a bad kid, and shouldn’t even be in school. But she gave me a chance. She felt I had potential.”
YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW
During his teen years, Santiago worked at Pam’s restaurant. After getting his diploma in January 1990, Santiago worked on gas rigs in the Tolar area.
Coming from a family where many members had military service, Santiago began considering the Army. He enlisted in September 1990.
His first duty station was at Fort Irwin, Calif., where he was a crew chief on the Huey helicopter, known as UH1, a utility aircraft.
After completing his three-year enlistment, Santiago moved back to Granbury. With several college courses under his belt from his time in the Army, he enrolled at Weatherford College for a semester with core classes.
Santiago spent the next two years in the National Guard and was certified as a flight engineer on the big Chinook helicopter.
“I realized that I missed active duty and the regimented life, and I went back in the Army,” Santiago said.
At Fort Polk, La., he worked as an infantry squadron leader on a scout vehicle and deployed to Haiti in 1995.
A CHANGE OF COURSE
A turning point for Santiago came after attending airborne school. While stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. he was in an airborne accident. As a result, he now has a metal hip, metal femur and various pins.
“It changed the way I looked at things. I had been such a gung-ho infantryman. All brawn, no brains may have been a good description,” he said with a chuckle.
“The injury allowed me to reevaluate where I was going in my life. It was more than ribbons, medals and badges. I wanted to focus on school.”
Through his Army career, Santiago continued to take college classes at every opportunity. “Some guys never wanted to take classes, but I raised my hand every time it was offered,” he said of his higher education.
“I did everything I needed for advancement. It was my goal to get a bachelor’s degree,” he recalled.
STUMBLING BLOCKS TO OVERCOME
Santiago said he decided to pursue a career as a warrant officer, known as the technical experts in the Army. “But I was disqualified with my metal rods from the accident.”
He turned in his packet for Officer Candidate School, and was again disqualified on medical.
After twice being disappointed when trying to move his career forward, the Granbury man decided to try and become an ROTC instructor at Tarleton State University.
It was there he learned of another option – a possible waiver on the medical if he went through the ROTC program to become an officer.
He took the risk. Gave up his non-commissioned rank and became an officer in the Army through ROTC in 2002.
In recent years Santiago has twice deployed to Iraq, and not long ago returned from Afghanistan. He’s now ranked as a major, “soon to become lt. colonel,” and has a master’s degree.
“When I first joined the Army, I didn’t want the responsibility to be a leader,” Santiago said. “Now, I absolutely enjoy being a leader!”
He currently has 22 years of service, including the two he spent with National Guard.
MOVE FORWARD, REALIZE GOALS
“The military provides opportunity to achieve personal goals, even if you don’t know what your goals are when you are 18 years old.”
“I never imagined that I would be in this position,” said a reflective Santiago. “I’m responsible for so many people, 18 to 19 years old. Their care is in my hands. That’s how I look at it. Their parents are allowing me to lead their children in these situations.”
Santiago is now living with his wife, Valerie, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He continues his education at the Command and General Staff College. He has five kids ranging from 1 to 18 years old.
With his MBA, Santiago is a college professor teaching business classes for the University of Maryland – where many in the military pursue higher education.
Whether in the military or in civilian life, Santiago said he can’t stress enough the importance of a college degree.
“It definitely sets you apart from other folks.”
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