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He was a soldier in Iraq and became a “Soldier of Christ”

Fr. David Santos

John Touhey | Aleteia

John Touhey - published on 05/27/24

Fr. David Santos’ journey to the priesthood led him through the war zones of Iraq. Now he serves Christ and fights for souls as a pastor in New Jersey.

Army specialist David Santos was on patrol in Iraq in 2005 when a roadside bomb exploded next to his vehicle. IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devises) were a huge threat during this phase of the Iraq War, killing and wounding countless soldiers. Observing and impeding the insurgents who planted these roadside bombs was at the heart of his team’s mission.

They were members of the 173rd Long Range Surveillance Detachment, a unit with a history of gathering intelligence on opposition forces, often behind enemy lines from a distance. Tactical changes during the conflict in Iraq brought the 173rd into much closer contact with the enemy, increasing the risk. The unexpected was commonplace for the six-man team that David was assigned to. At any moment, they might come under hostile fire, find themselves ambushed — or have a roadside bomb suddenly explode next to their Humvees as they traveled down a road.  

Twenty years later, Fr. David recalls being on patrol when the IED was detonated. “It was always a dangerous area,” he tells Aleteia. As they rode along, suddenly there was a loud bang “and our Humvee was filled with dust, and we’re like — what!?”

Fortunately, this particular bomb had been buried too deep. There were no casualties, but the incident served to remind David of “the fragility of life, particularly on that day.” Fr. David keeps a piece of shrapnel from the bomb as a reminder of the incident.

The crater from the IED explosion described in the article.
The crater from the IED explosion described in the article.

A quiet call

Even before he and his identical twin brother Brian joined the military in the wake of 9/11, David Santos sensed that he was put on Earth for a purpose. His parents were Portuguese immigrants who believed in family and in service. They were not regular churchgoers, according to Fr. David, though he says they did have religious items and imagery in their home.

David’s journey to the Church began when he dated a girl who brought him to Mass. He began participating in the parish youth group and met a priest named Fr. Antonio Bico, who would have a profound impact on the young man’s life. “Fr. Tony is certainly the one who taught me how to love Jesus, without a doubt,” Fr. David says.

It was while going to confession with Fr. Tony (“my first time in a long time”) that the priest asked David what he wanted to do with his life. As Fr. David recalls:

I remember saying, “I want to be a soldier of Christ.” And as I’m saying this, I’m thinking what the heck does that mean? I knew I wanted to be a soldier because 9/11 had happened and I was thinking about the military at that point. But I had also had this resurgence of faith and deepening of faith and so in my head I was like, soldier… soldier of Christ.

Fr. Tony looks at me and says, “That sounds like a priest.” I told him, “Father, come on, you know I have a girlfriend. I’m not interested.” I had never even thought about it until that point.

The military was still David’s focus. He and Brian had been actively checking out the different military services in search of the right fit. Yet a seed had been planted in David’s soul, one that occasionally surfaced in unexpected ways.

“I remember I’d be brushing my teeth and would suddenly imagine myself in a [clerical] collar and be like, What? What the heck is going on?

Not long after that, a family friend steered David and Brian Santos to join the 173rd. They began training intensively and were eventually deployed to Iraq.

Specialist David Santos (lower left) with his team on the 173rd
Specialist David Santos (lower left) with his team on the 173rd

Pirates and Vikings

Like many veterans, Fr. David is genuinely humble when speaking about his war service. Speaking with his former commanding officer, however, it is clear that the 11 months the Santos brothers spent in Iraq demanded a lot from them and the other men of the 173rd.

“My guys were a constant threat and they were constantly in contact with the enemy,” retired Colonel Michael Manning says in an interview with Aleteia. “It was an excessively dangerous mission. Every time they went through the wire there was some type of contact, whether it was small arms fire, mortar fire, a roadside bomb, or some type of interaction with enemy scouts.”

Col. Manning (who was a captain when Fr. David served in Iraq) emphasizes that the 173rd was an elite posting. “Everyone who was in that unit had to compete for a position,” he says.

A certain kind of toughness was necessary to carry out their mission. The average patrol in Iraq lasted anywhere from 8 to 24 hours. The members of the 173rd “would operate upwards of 48 to 72 to 96 hours. It was unheard of.”

“You get a different type of guy,” the Colonel adds. “One of my non-commissioned officers used to say that our unit was comprised of pirates and Vikings. Those are the types of guys you need.” Among these men, David stood out for his integrity and deep faith, but also for his ability to relate to others who “had never seen the inside of a church” or hadn’t the least interest in religion.

“He had the ability to be numbered among them, and yet he was so well respected that he could live with purity and yet still love these guys and appreciate these guys, be numbered one of them, yet not be subsumed by them,” Col. Manning says.

Fr. David Santos ordination to the diaconate in Rome
Deacon David Santos following his ordination in Rome

One foot in this world and the other foot elsewhere

When their tour finished, David and his brother returned home. He went back to college to complete his degree, but the question of his true vocation had only intensified. On Friday nights he would go out with his friends, then come home and take a shower so that he could drive to Newark “to help Fr. Tony as he celebrated [Saturday morning] Mass for the Missionaries of Charity. It was kind of like I had one foot in one life, and a foot that was starting to make its way in a different life.”

“It was a gradual thing,” Fr. David said. “Even when I entered the seminary, I didn’t see it as ‘I’m going to be a priest.’ It was more like, ‘This is a very real possibility that the Lord is asking me to consider,’ so I entered the seminary to discern.”

His family was shocked when David finally told them. There were questions and objections – many more than when he and Brian had announced they were joining the army. Their father was especially unhappy. Even Brian, who had come to embrace his Catholic faith because of David, was caught by surprise. When David’s sister asked him why he had to go to the seminary, he simply answered, “The world is a loud place, and I need to hear God tell me what he wants me to do.”

In time, the Santos family came to appreciate David’s decision. Brian Santos fondly recalls his brother’s ordination to the diaconate in Rome, when around 20 family members came to celebrate with David, including some from Portugal.

Fr. David’s priesthood has proven to be a gift for his entire family.

“It’s this beautiful movement of the Holy Spirit in our life,” Brian says. “It’s helped us become not only closer as a family, but I think the strengthening of our faith has also brought us together in that experience.”

Fr. David Santos chalice
Fr. David Santos’ chalice with inscription

“Soldier of Christ”

As for Fr. David, he sums up his own experience quite simply: “I love being a priest!” Twelve years have passed since his ordination to the priesthood. In 2022, he was installed as the pastor of St. James the Apostle Church in Springfield, New Jersey. His new job means dealing with a myriad of maintenance, staff, and financial issues, tasks that he embraces; but his core focus remains on his priestly mission.

“You’re meant to guide people, to direct them, to love them, to work with them, to serve them … similar to a soldier who is serving the people back home at his deployment.”

This was brought home to Fr. David in a dramatic way on the eve of his ordination. It is traditional for a new priest to either receive his chalice as a gift from his family or benefactors, or, as in Fr. David’s case, to choose an older chalice – for instance, one of those that has been donated by a parish or retired priest. It is a mark of patrimony, according to Fr. David, a kind of handing down of the mission from one generation of priests to the next.

Fr. David can vividly remember going to the seminary to choose his chalice. Four or five of them were laid out on a table. One of the chalices stuck out because it had recently been refurbished. “It was nice, shiny, beautiful,” Fr. David recalls. “And typically, what happens is that when somebody offers a priest a chalice, they inscribe on the base ‘in memory of’ or ‘in gratitude for,’ etc.”

Curious, Fr. David turned the chalice over to read the inscription. When he looked at it, he almost dropped the chalice in shock. “On the base was written, ‘Soldier of Christ,’” he recalls, still astonished all these years later by “how God can work so creatively, so intimately, and so personally in our lives.”

Tags:
Inspiring storiesIraqPriesthoodVocationWar
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