Inspired by 9-11, Mountainside man becomes cyber warrior

Photos Courtesy of Nick Perez-Santalla
Nick Perez-Santalla and his family honored by the New York Yankees at Steinbrenner Field before a spring training game in Tampa, Fla.

MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ — As Nick Perez-Santalla sits in his office in the Pentagon, it sometimes dawns on him how his life has come full circle.
The attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 felt personal, considering there had always been a feeling of awe and pride associated with being able to look out from a spot on U.S. Route 22 not far from his home in Mountainside and catch a glimpse of the Twin Towers rising in the distance.

Maybe it was personal, if you consider his dad, Javier, worked there when they were bombed in 1993.
That earnest, eager Union Catholic High School senior who was inspired to enlist mere weeks after the attacks on 9/11 has grown up to become U.S. Army Master Sgt. Nick Perez-Santalla, a communications specialist who has spent a year in Iraq and has been deployed to Afghanistan five times.
When he shows up to work every day at the Pentagon, the emotions he felt after those attacks are sometimes stirred and he’s reminded why he has dedicated his life to defending his country.

On this Sept. 11, he said he plans to take some time out to quietly reflect on the events of 17 years ago and to consider how fate has brought him to work in one of the buildings that was attacked on 9/11.

“I thought about it recently,” Perez-Santalla said. “I saw one of those 9/11 patches in the shape of the Pentagon and the 11 on the inside was formed by the Twin Towers. I said, ‘Man, that’s funny. My father worked in that Trade Center and I’m now working in the Pentagon because of that day. That’s pretty, I don’t want to say it’s pretty cool. But it’s pretty cool.”

Photos Courtesy of Nick Perez-Santalla
Nick Perez-Santalla with former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. McMaster resigned as National Security Advisor earlier this year.

Perez-Santalla was 10 when the Towers were attacked in February 1993. A Ryder truck filled with explosives detonated in the underground garage, killing six people and injuring many more.

There was no word from his father, who was a senior executive at Cantor Fitzgerald and worked in the North Tower. This was the days before cell phones, so the family was resigned to sit and wait for what seemed like an eternity. When he came through the front door later that night, he was still covered in black soot from the attack.

When terrorists commandeered two passenger jets and used them to knock down the Towers eight years later, Perez-Santalla and his classmates were quarantined in the gym. He looked at the fear on their faces and knew he had to act.

“Maybe it would have been different if it was a one-time event,” he said. “But it was like, ‘Again? Oh, no absolutely not.’ I became Captain America.”
Perez-Santalla found himself halfway around the world, in harm’s way time and time again.

“You constantly had to keep your guard up, especially if you were on one of those three-day drives from Beirut to Kuwait,” he said.
As Perez-Santalla put it, “Anything could come from anywhere at any time.”

His role in installing communications lines and providing tactical intelligence to the commanders in the battlefield didn’t go unnoticed. The Army began to ask him to assume more and more responsibility.

Perez-Santalla was assigned to Allied Forces Southern Europe with the 2nd NATO Signal Battalion in Naples, Italy from 2006-2010. In 2011, he served with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C., and was selected for an assignment with the Joint Special Operations Command, where he supported the study and interoperability efforts of joint special operations and exercises with radio frequency management.

While assigned to JSOC, Perez-Santalla was selected to attend the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs, where he received his Master of Arts in Strategic Security Studies in 2014. His thesis focused on national security impacts of federally reallocated radio spectrum from the Department of Defense to private industry and was published in the summer edition of the Army Communicator Magazine that year.

In 2016, he was assigned as the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of satellite operations at Headquarters, U.S Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla. While serving in Tampa, he was requested by name to assist with the Army’s newly established Cyber Directorate in the Pentagon, which focuses on Cyberspace Operations, Information Operations and Electronic Warfare.

Perez-Santalla’s expertise as a frequency manager has made him valuable in cyber and informational security.
He understands that the notion of a silent, invisible threat scares some more than, say, a column of tanks moving across a battlefield. He likens it to something out of Hitchcock film and notes that there’s plenty of books that have been written that suggest the next world war will be “fought in the cyber domain or won’t be fought on the battlefield, with ones and zeros or radio frequencies.”

“I sleep well at night knowing that there are thousand-pound brains and very capable people throughout that are able to handle those problems,” Perez-Santalla said. “They war game all that and they know the solutions. Hopefully I’m part of that somewhere. That’s why I can go home and not be worried about it and know that there’s tons of talent out there.”

When Perez-Santalla does go home after a 12- or 13-hour shift, he jumps right in to help his wife, Iolanda, and their three kids: Aurora Liberty, 8, James Justice, 6, and Ryan Freedom, 2.

He said Aurora is beginning to understand that her dad is a hero, resplendent in his Air Assault Wings, Combat Action Badge, Space Badge and Bronze Star.

“She understands that a little more than the others,” he said. “When Veterans Day and stuff comes up they tend to focus on that a little bit more like, ‘Bring a photo of your daddy to school.” She kind of understands it.

“She is my daughter and she gets emotional, too. When I have to go away on a work trip, she gets emotional. But I always come home, thankfully. She gets it and I think she appreciates it. After all, her middle name is Liberty.”