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Sgt. Charles Santamaria, former Combat Center Public Affairs Chief, talks about what led him to the Marine Corps and how it has shaped him into who he is today.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Levi Schultz

What I've Learned: Charles Santamaria

22 Jul 2016 | Lance Cpl. Levi Schulz Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms

Growing up, my family moved around a lot. My earliest memories were in Brooklyn and Queens, two boroughs of New York City.

I grew up poor, which I’m not ashamed of. It reminds me to cherish what I have, and that has made me humble.

While we never really had much, we were very close as a family. Anytime we could go and spend time together, that’s what we did. My mother was the main disciplinarian of the house and my dad worked a lot.

Being in the environment that I was in, many of my friends’ families also had low income. One of the challenges I face as a result was low confidence. It was a big obstacle for me learning to come out and trust people.

Going into middle school, I was very introverted and didn’t like to talk a lot. I went through middle school in Massachusetts and was introduced to a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program, endorsed by the Marine Corps. It was great because it challenged my introverted nature and taught me to be outgoing.

It was a great experience and I met a lot of friends there. One reason I became friends with the other cadets was because when they found out I was poor; they didn’t care and were always there for me. I think a big part of becoming friends is accepting you for all the things you may think are wrong about yourself. They accept those flaws and show you theirs and through that, you build trust.

Before I joined the Marine Corps, the sergeant major said I couldn’t do it. I was short, skinny and I weighed nothing. The only exposure I had to anything military was that program. I looked at the Marine Corps and put it, and still put it, on a pedestal.

My instructors were really great people. I felt like if I joined the same organization that made those two men the people that they are today and obtain a fraction of that in my own character, than I wanted to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

One thing I’ve always wanted to stress is that there is not a single person who embodies everything you need as a leader; there is no perfect leader. The best way to become a good leader, begin as a follower, take a piece from each mentor, all the good things you want from them, and leave the rest. In the Marine Corps, you see such a wide variety of leaders that you can pick and choose all the good qualities from each of them and make them your own.

Always aim to make the next generation better than you. You can be the best infantryman, communicator or mechanic, but if the next person who comes after you is not as good as you or [not] better than you, then you have not done enough to give back to the Marine Corps. A big part of what the Marine Corps is its idea of legacy. Building a legacy is passing on as much as you can to the person who is going to take your place.

Being in public affairs was a blessing in disguise. In this job field, you get a really large snapshot of the different occupational fields that the Marine Corps offers. Because of all the research that we end up doing, you find out so much about why every single [military occupational specialty] in the Marine Corps is important. You see all these outstanding Marines that put so much into their job because they care about the mission. As a communicator, you have to take all that passion and put it into words on paper.

I’ve had multiple opportunities to see the Bridgeport mountain warfare instructors and they were amazing Marines. They seem bulletproof. They put their bodies through so much strain learning the things they will teach other Marines for mountain survival. The experience motivated me to get out and explore.

Since then, the highest I’ve climbed is Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States at about 14,500 feet. I’ve also climbed San Antonio Mountain, nicknamed Mount Baldy, at approximately 10,000 feet and Mount San Jacinto at about 11,000.

Hiking is about enjoying nature and what the Earth has given us. Being able to put you bare necessities in a pack get the right shoes and equipment on and just go; don’t look back. I feel that’s the definition of freedom.

I think hiking really relates to life. You’re not always going to be in the same place, you’re not always going to be secure, and you always have to look forward. If you look back you will get caught up in the past and not notice what’s in front of you.

My friend and I were in Joshua Tree National Park hiking when a 17-year-old fell 40 feet off a rock. We were the only two people around so we ran up and wrapped him up in tarp and disinfected his cuts while we waited for help. It was really incredible to be the first ones there and to help him out in any way we could.

As I transition out of the Marine Corps, I’d like to enter the medical field. Further down the line, I’d like to become an emergency room doctor and save people’s lives. I want to be able to, with my own two hands and a set of tools, be able to bring some one back from the brink of death if I can. I feel like that is the greatest honor I could ever have and it is a big goal for me. I know it’s going to take time but I’ve never wanted anything more.

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Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms