Veteran Wants To Be Remembered As Patriot, Good Son
By PAM CLOUD | Times Record, Fort Smith, Ark. | Published: September 2, 2013
FORT SMITH, Ark. — Though his own memory is beginning to fade, he wants others to remember him as an American patriot and a good son.
Just one day after his 85th birthday, Firmo Santiago sat down at the Fort Smith home he shares with his son and niece’s family to share his recollections of his Army service.
Born in 1928 in Coamo, Puerto Rico, Santiago was the fifth child in a family of 12. His mother worked hard to raise the large family.
“I call it la casa of my mother,” Santiago said with tears in his eyes as he picked up a black-and-white photograph of his childhood home and looked at the writing on the back. “It was the home of my mother, not my father. My father was an alcoholic.”
Santiago only made it through ninth grade in Coamo before he began working. He was recruited at a young age by the American Army there.
From Camp Tortuguero to Fort Buchanan in San Juan, Santiago was trained as a sniper and shipped out to help fight the war in Korea.
“I went into combat in Korea,” Santiago said, looking over pictures of himself in his military uniform scattered across the coffee table.
He was severely wounded in Korea, injuring his leg. Santiago was taken to a military hospital in Japan, where he stayed for almost a year.
“I was badly wounded from the waist down,” Santiago explained. “I spent one year lost in action.”
Commanders notified his mother that he had been killed, he said.
“One priest from the Catholic church saw me in the hospital and wrote a letter to my mother that I was alive,” he recalled.
Three of Santiago’s brothers also served in the military — Paulino, Francisco and Adrian.
“I was the only one in my family of 12 that gave my father and mother money from my allotment,” Santiago said. “All I kept for a long time was $10 to take care of myself; the rest went to my mother.”
After about six months of rest and recuperation at home in Puerto Rico, the young Santiago was eager to get back on the battlefield.
“I want to kill the enemy of the United States — and I did kill a lot,” Santiago said, the spirit of a loyal soldier evident in his dark eyes. “I wasn’t afraid of anything.
“I was a sniper,” he added. “I don’t miss when I shoot — and I still don’t miss.”
He talked about setting booby traps to catch the enemy using artillery bombs and land mines.
Santiago was sent to Fort Chaffee for a period of time.
“I was teaching them how to be soldiers,” said Santiago, who could speak seven languages — English, French, Vietnamese, German, Spanish, Korean, Russian and a little Japanese.
It was in Fort Smith that he would meet the woman who would become his wife. Santiago wed Leona Morris in 1957.
“The guys at the base told me I had married the most beautiful woman in Fort Smith,” Santiago said, looking at a picture of his young bride, who was working at a local pharmacy when they met. The couple would spend time stationed in Germany before they adopted an infant son, Francisco, from Puerto Rico in the mid 1960s.
Santiago saw two tours of duty during the Vietnam War; a small box holds medals, ribbons and commendations from both wars, including a Purple Heart.
He spent most of his time at Fort Chaffee, instructing young soldiers.
“They tried to make me an officer and I refused,” Santiago said. “I wanted to be with my own soldiers.”
He arrested his own soldiers when he caught them smoking marijuana, and he chained prisoners to a train seat returning from Leavenworth, Kan.
“They always put me on very dangerous guard because I follow the book,” Santiago said.
While he was tough when he needed to be, he also had a sense of humor when it counted the most.
He picked up a 1960 photo that showed him with a bandaged finger. The caption read: “Me and my big finger; it don’t stop me from having a cool German beer.”
When Chaffee discovered he didn’t have a high school diploma, they required him to get a G.E.D.; they suggested he study for it. He demanded to take it then — without studying — and passed with the equivalency of a freshman in college.
Santiago received calls from Washington, D.C., with offers to protect highly ranked officers; again, he refused, although he did serve as bodyguard to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Gen. Maxwell Taylor when they made visits to Fort Chaffee.
After 21 years in the military, Santiago retired as a sergeant. He chose to stay in the Fort Smith area; he worked as a carpenter, claiming he could build a house that would withstand a tornado.
“The trick is in the nails, not the wood,” he explained. “Never put a nail straight; put it at an angle.”
After Leona died from complications of pneumonia last year, Mary Ann Ruppel started looking after her uncle and his son.
“I was taking Spanish in school,” Ruppel recalled of her handsome uncle during her childhood. “He would come to class and speak in Spanish. He was my ‘show and tell.’”
Santiago said he has lived a good life — an interesting life filled with danger, intrigue, success and sorrow.
“I want to live 100 years or more,” he said. “I’m 85 already.”