HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – When Jose Santoscruz left his home in Puerto Rico at only 20 years old, he didn’t know he would find family spread out all over the United States, Europe and even the Middle East.
But that’s exactly what happened, he said, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1978 and formed lifelong bonds with the men and women serving alongside him.
Santoscruz, who is now an Operations and Plans Specialist for the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, knows the value of family. He grew up taking care of his seven younger siblings and was inspired by the heroic tales of his father and uncles, who fought as Soldiers in World War II, Vietnam, and Korea. Joining the Army was a way for him to help support his large family while following in the footsteps of his elders, he said.
“I always knew I wanted to be in the Army and serve the United States,” Santoscruz said. “And, of course, I needed to help my family monetarily.”
Despite an initial struggle to overcome the language barrier, he said he knew immediately that he had made the right decision to join.
“I couldn’t speak English very well, but the other guys—in basic training and in school—would take time to help me and teach me the language,” he said.
With the help of his fellow soldiers and his family’s legacy to guide him, Santoscruz went on to graduate from Airborne School and join the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As a member of the elite infantry team that specializes in parachute assault, he routinely deployed in support of vital combat operations around the globe.
One of those deployments took him to the Caribbean, during the U.S. invasion of Grenada, codenamed Operation Urgent Fury, in 1983. By this time, Santoscruz had married, and he and his wife were well accustomed to frequent deployments.
He described an incident when he and his wife were at the grocery story and he received a call.
“I left immediately,” Santocruz said. “We were always packed and ready to go, and she thought it was just a regular training exercise. She found out through the news that it was an actual mission.”
His unit was called on to support the Army Rangers, whose mission was to secure the airport and its command and control center.
During a reconnaissance mission the night after they arrived, his commander, Capt. Michael Fritz, was killed and another Soldier, Sgt. Wyn, was captured by the enemy. Santoscruz’s unit was able to rescue Wyn, who suffered a collapsed lung and other serious injuries during the assault.
“He had to be medevacked to one of the Navy ships, but he’s doing well now,” said Santoscruz. “We still keep in touch on Facebook.”
Santoscruz continued to form lifelong relationships as he moved through various positions in the Army, eventually taking on roles that allowed him to share his knowledge with younger Soldiers and help them the way others had helped him. He served as a ranger instructor with the Ranger Training Brigade for five years, company first sergeant at Fort Bragg, and numerous training and command roles at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany.
“Knowing where I came from, going through all the schools and all the people who helped me, it was a very rewarding experience to be able to pass down the knowledge that I had and the skill set to help others succeed,” he said. “A lot of the younger Soldiers I served with or the students I taught are now colonels, generals, and sergeants major.”
In 2003, he put his training skills to the test when he was deployed to Iraq as the command sergeant major of a combat battalion with the 1st Armored Division.
“The battalion I was serving with was mechanized—which means armored vehicles—but we were in an urban environment with people hiding in buildings,” Santoscruz said. “That’s not a good mix because using the armored vehicles would mean destroying the whole city, which wouldn’t have been a good thing.”
A light infantryman by trade, Santoscruz was able to draw from his training and experience to teach the Soldiers what they needed to survive.
Their main objective was, of course, to come back home alive.
This required identifying what kind of enemy they would be encountering and the tactics they would use, he said. “That meant dedicating more time to small-unit tactics, clearing buildings, hand-to-hand combat, and small arms.”
Santoscruz, who deployed twice to Iraq and served 30 years in the Army before retiring as the command sergeant major of the JMRC in 2008, now serves as a federal employee with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“My military experience taught me all the things I need to know to be successful in the civilian world: discipline, being a team player, the patience to deal with day-to-day operations that aren’t that easy,” he said. “We, this family of Army veterans, are a value added to our communities. That’s what our Army heritage is all about.”
The nation celebrated the Army's 246th birthday June 14, but we celebrate Army Heritage Month for all of June. During this annual observance, we acknowledge and applaud the contributions soldiers and veterans have made and continue to make to the nation.