‘Soldier of Christ’ journeys from battlefield to parish

SPRINGFIELD, NJ — For one soldier, war led to him fighting a different kind of battle – as a soldier of Christ.

Although Fr. David Santos nearly died several times while serving in Iraq, he looks back on his years in the military fondly. That’s because it was while fighting in the 173rd Airborne Brigade during the height of the Iraq War that he grew deeper in his Catholic faith, strengthening his relationship with God as he prayed for survival. By the time Santos returned to the United States, he was eager to serve the church as he had served his country.

Santos says his path to the priesthood began when his parents first came to the United States.

“My parents emigrated from Portugal in 1973 with my identical twin brother and my sister,” said Fr. David in an interview with LocalSource on Friday, May 31. “My father served in the Portuguese army, so he was in Africa, in Guinea. So military service was pretty present in our family growing up. We moved to Kearny in Hudson County. When I was growing up, there was a big Portuguese community there. My parents went from Portugal to Newark, then to Kearny, where my brother and I were born and raised. It’s a big soccer community.”

Before the priesthood, Santos went into the military first, straight from college.

“The morning of 9-11, we were attending Rutgers Newark at the time and we heard on the radio what happened,” said his twin brother, Brian Santos, in an interview with LocalSource on Wednesday, June 19. “Our parents lived in Kearny at the time, so we went outside and we could see the towers from there. I saw tons of smoke. I saw the second plane go into the tower. That was the impetus for us joining the military. We were exploring the military before that but that kind of fast-forwarded everything.”

Fr. David agreed with his brother that Sept. 11 was the push they needed to join the service. “(After 9-11), my brother and I and a couple of friends went to Jersey City to load things on boats for Manhattan. There was this euphoric sense of patriotism that moved us. We had considered the military, but this encouraged us.”

In an interview with LocalSource on Wednesday, June 12, their former commander, retired Army Col. Mike Manning, said, “Father Dave and his brother, who’s a state trooper, and another kid from Kearny, Tony Suso, came up after 9-11 to our unit in particular, the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The reason they came to us is Tommy O’Hare, who grew up in Kearny. He knew Mike Sweeney, a brother in law. He brought the boys up.”

Of course, joining up with the 173rd Airborne Brigade wasn;t quite as easy as the commander made it sound.

“We were going to join the Marines and we spoke to a friend in the family, Tom O’Hare,” said Brian. “He would be my future team leader. We called him up and Tom said come to the Airborne Rangers. We went up to Rhodes Island, interviewed (and) took a PT test.

“When we went up to MAPS, where the military investigates you, my brother and I were discovered as color deficient. We spoke to our recruiter and he said don’t worry about it; enlist into an (administrative) position and we’ll get you over there. We saw something about Pope John Paul II and we decided to trust in the recruiter. We enlisted 71 Lima; it’s the MOS that they attach to the job decision. I think it’s 42 Alpha now. We were down at Fort Jackson in South Carolina and we kind of stood out (because) we were motivated. My brother and I and two other guys, the drill sergeants pulled us aside and brought us to the medical section and we passed. They helped us out because they saw we were motivated.”
This motivation was noticed by everyone, including their new commander.

“What was strong about both the guys, they come from this amazing family, the children of immigrants,” said Manning. “They have this incredible work ethic. These guys have incredible faith. It was a huge part of who they are. There was this insatiable need to serve. First-generation Americans. It was an elite unit that doesn’t exist anymore, long-range surveillance detachment. 56 paratroopers.

“What’s striking about Father Dave then and now is character. Combat is hard. You’re being challenged in a lot of ways. It can be morally ambiguous as well. When you’re in a high-stakes environment where you’re trying to perform a mission and people are trying to hurt you, you have to defend against moral drift. Our guys served admirably, with great effect.”

Manning explained that their formation was composed of six six-man teams. At times they’d have two teams working together. They worked at times very clandestinely to do surveillance. They’d go out for 24, 48, 72+ hours in Iraq.

“They were superhuman,” he continued. “Given the high levels of threat, the heat, incredibly arduous, soul-sucking environment, you’ve got to defend against losing yourself. We leveled our values. Having a guy like Dave Santos in your formation is a gift. You want to be able to trust your people.”

Their former commander explained the nature of their assignment in Iraq.

“We were a division asset,” he said. “We moved four times over the course of the year, which is very unique. This is rare. They were killing us on the roads, so my guys did counter-IED work. IEDs are improvised explosive devices. We’d be sent to these areas where Americans were getting crushed. Whether we were working clandestinely, covertly or overtly. The unit call sign was ‘MURPHY.’ We had shamrocks painted on all our vehicles. The Iraqis knew you did not want to get into a fight with the guys with the green flowers.

“It was very dangerous work. You had to try out to be in the unit. Being a long-range surveillance soldier, these were the top 1% guys.”

After 11 months of service, Fr. David was back in the United States, a different man.

“When I returned from my deployment, I did another semester at Rutgers and, that summer, I decided to pursue the priesthood,” he said.

“I went on a retreat in the late 1990s and I was fascinated by the priest,” Fr. David continued. “He was very energetic. He was holy. He was very involved with young people. He did a lot of great work in the Portuguese community and in Newark. I was just fascinated. He and I became good friends. I became more involved with this youth group as a leader. Before I enlisted in the military, he asked me what I wanted to do with my life. At that time, I was already considering the priesthood. His name was Antonio Bico. We called him Father Tony or Father T or Father Bico. I told him I was thinking of being a soldier of Christ. It started to grow on me. During my time of deployment, I was growing in my faith. They would tease me, but for the most part, they were very supportive.”

While he was serving in Iraq, something happened to Fr. David that convinced him this was the path for which he was chosen.

“He had this transformational experience,” said Manning. “Fire forms the diamond for all of us. One of the things happens in combat, you either succumb. You don’t remain the same. You either come out better or worse. He had that wonderful value that his parents gave him. He brought others with him by living his Christian values in very difficult circumstances.

“A sizable subset of the unit was principally Irish, Portuguese, Dominican, Perto Rican that lived our faith. There was this very good priest, Monsignor Donahue, we’d see him once every two months. And Dave, Brian, Tony and others availed themselves of the sacraments. Dave developed a beautiful relationship with Monsignor Donahue.”

Manning then began to tell a story about Fr. David seeing a booklet on soldiers becoming a chaplain, but added that his brother, Brian, could probably tell the story better.

“He said it was a magazine,” Brian recalled. “I remember it being a poster. But whatever it was, we were attending Mass, which is rare to find (when serving in Iraq). I remember it as a poster, with advertising an ordination or a soldier getting ordained. And my brother was just staring at it. The name of the soldier was Santos. He was saying, ‘I’m getting these thoughts about what I should do. You’ve got to help me out.’ Either a newly ordained soldier or a soldier who had decided to go into the seminary.”

“I was (considering) the priesthood, too,” continued Brian. “I think it’s the idea of service that connects both. It’s doing the same thing in different ways. Trying to help people, trying to keep them safe, trying to secure their livelihoods. I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I came back, serve as a police officer.”

“My plan was to do some federal law enforcement,” said Fr. David. “That was the trajectory that I was on. But when I came back from my deployment, I thought of the priesthood as a possibility. I went into the seminary in the fall of 2006. I was there for two years, getting a bachelor’s degree. Archbishop John Meyers invited me to study in Rome. I studied in Rome for five years.”

While Fr. David might have always had a destiny in the priesthood, Manning insists it was something that was always in him, even when he served in Iraq.

“Dave Santos is a young man with great values, incredible work ethic,” said the former commander. “He has this incredible, immersive experience in combat. He’s an old-school leader. Dave was a combat infantryman. He’s experienced war very personally. Then responding to this call, I’m going to be a priest, that’s what you get. Everything he does is driven by his values. He’s a shepherd.”
Brian agreed that serving in the military changed all of them for the better.

“It’s defined me in so many ways: My personality, my character and how I see the world,” he said. “I’m super close to people that I had those experiences with. We just had our 20th anniversary (of serving) two weeks ago. We were a small unit, 56 guys, and we met up in Rhode Island.”

“You couldn’t pick guys out and make them mesh,” added Brian. “It was a very unique ensemble. We were together for probably a year before deploying, (doing) various training. It was a great experience.”

“I saw him this past weekend,” said Manning. “We try to get together every couple of years. We got together in Providence, Rhode Island. I teach engineering leadership at Northeastern University.”

“It was a very formative and proud time of my life,” said Fr. David. “I loved the military. It was very close to my heart. It was one of my greatest gifts to serve in the Army for this country. But I love serving as a priest even more.”

Now, more than 10 years after becoming a priest, he sees himself as a different kind of soldier – one devoted to Christ.

“He has always demonstrated the qualities and characteristics of what it takes to be a great leader and a priest and shepherd,” said Manning. “He has a tremendous amount of humility.”

“That’s what we want and need in our priests and our leaders.”

Brian agreed with his former commander and said there were too many coincidences to not feel as though his brother was fated for the priesthood.

“When my brother went to Seton Hall seminary, he went to Rome for six years,” said Brian. “He gets selected to go over there and when he gets there, he gets a mentor and David’s wearing a Ranger hat and the mentor, spiritual advisor, served in the Rangers in the ’90s.”

Fr. David says he’s also seen signs that made it all feel part of some divine plan.

“My discernment began with my conversation with Father Bico when I told him I wanted to be a soldier of Christ,” said Fr. David. “Fast forward to I’m on the eve of my ordination and the seminary knew I was looking for a chalice and the first one I saw was beautiful. The benefactor will memorialize the chalice. When I lifted up the chalice, it read ‘Soldier of Christ.’”

Today, the brothers are still close, sharing so much, including their time in Iraq.

“I saw his evolution and I supported it,” said Brian. “We’re very close. He lived in Scotch Plains and now he’s in Springfield.”

As pastor of St. James the Apostle Church in Springfield, Fr. David uses the leadership skills he developed in the military to run the daily operations of his parish. More importantly, he uses his experiences to impart the profound message that everyone has a divine purpose. Just as Fr. David survived Iraq to become a priest, he believes God has a plan for everyone – they just have to listen to His call to discover it.

“I love being a priest at St. James the Apostle in Springfield,” said Fr. David. “I’ll be here for three years this summer.

“I’ve been in Union County for more than 10 years. I was in Scotch Plains for eight years at St. Bartholomew the Apostle Church. I was an associate priest. Then I was in Springfield for three years. When I came to Springfield, I became the pastor. The churches can’t just stop doing what they do.”

Photos Courtesy of Fr. David Santos