Priest's Near-Death Experiences as Soldier Reinforced His Faith and Now Inspire Others

| 05/28/2024

By: Our Sunday Visitor

Father David Santos is the pastor of St. James the Apostle Church in Springfield, a role he describes as the hardest and most fulfilling work he has ever done

Now-Father David Santos is seen with Iraqi children during his time serving in the military in this undated photo.
Now-Father David Santos is seen with Iraqi children during his time serving in the military in this undated photo. Ordained for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, in 2012, Father Santos is pastor of St. James the Apostle Church in Springfield. (OSV News photo/courtesy Father David Santos)

NEWARK, New Jersey (OSV News) — David Santos observed the absolute worst of humanity while fighting in the Iraq War. Yet the evil he experienced did not poison his soul.

On the contrary, each time the young paratrooper was shot at by insurgents, he strengthened his belief in God. Every time he narrowly avoided getting killed by an improvised explosive device (IED), it deepened his conviction that God was keeping him safe. When he finally returned to the U.S., he was eager to devote his life to the Church, just as he had served his country.

Today, Father David Santos is the pastor of St. James the Apostle Church in Springfield, a role he describes as the hardest and most fulfilling work he has ever done. While he believes the priesthood was always his true calling, Father Santos credits his time in the military with helping him realize his vocation.

“It showed me the Lord has a purpose for everyone, and he guides us to that purpose,” Father Santos told Jersey Catholic, the Archdiocese of Newark‘s news website. “There were many times in Iraq when I should have died, but I didn’t. Those moments gave me greater confidence in God’s providence and his presence in my life. I wasn’t killed because God had a plan for me. And, eventually, I discovered that plan was for me to become a priest.”

Although he grew up within a Portuguese Catholic household in Kearny, the now-pastor said religion never played a prominent role in his childhood. It was only after he befriended his high school girlfriend’s priest, Father Antonio Bico of Newark’s Our Lady of Fatima Church, that he started exploring his faith. He even became a leader at a parish retreat run by his new spiritual mentor.

One day, while hearing Santos’ confession, Father Bico asked the young man what he wanted to do with his life.

“I said ‘I’m really thinking about being a soldier of Christ,’ even though I had no clue what that meant — they were just words that came out of my mouth,” Father Santos said. “He looked at me and said, ‘That sounds like you want to be a priest.’ And I laughed and said, ‘I don’t think so,’ because I was happy in a relationship and had never really thought about becoming a priest. But I think that conversation is what planted the seed in my head that the priesthood was a possibility.”

Years later, the phrase “soldier of Christ” would play a pivotal role in Father Santos’ priestly formation. But an unimaginable tragedy led him to become a very different type of soldier first.

On September 11, 2001, two planes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center, killing about 3,000 people. The attack devastated the nation, but it particularly impacted Father Santos and his twin brother, Brian, who witnessed the second plane strike the South Tower from their house in Kearny.

The two young men were studying criminal justice at Rutgers University at the time, but they had always considered enlisting in the military. The 9/11 attacks were the impetus that got them to join.

They enlisted in the U.S. Army’s 173rd Long Range Surveillance Detachment, 42nd Infantry Division, at the end of 2002. They spent the next few years undergoing elite training, developing airborne and sniper skills while continuing their studies at Rutgers. In 2005 the brothers were deployed to Iraq for 11 months under the command of then-Capt. Mike Manning.

“It was a very volatile time, and the unit was constantly in harm’s way,” said Manning, who retired from the military as a colonel and now works as a professor of engineering leadership at Northeastern University. “But Dave was a true leader. He always lived his values, his integrity was beyond reproach, and he was completely reliable. You knew that he would always be there for you. He would rise above his own needs and put the needs of others before himself.”

Father Santos’ missions primarily focused on gathering intelligence to prevent insurgents’ attacks on American troops. As part of this effort, the Santos twins and the rest of their unit would often undertake counter-mortar operations clandestinely, like going subsurface in an Iraqi dump.

This would be “exceptionally difficult, superhuman” work, according to Col. Manning, with the unit frequently spending up to 96 hours in the field, far more than the typical eight-to-24-hour missions for soldiers.

Such operations were also life-threatening, with Father Santos recalling that he was often shot at throughout his time in Iraq. One mission he was supposed to be on ended in the deaths of all participating soldiers when their team was ambushed by insurgents. His brother Brian was one of the paratroopers who responded to the scene afterward, which meant that if Father Santos had not been pulled from that ill-fated operation, Brian Santos could have been in the unenviable position of finding his twin’s body.

Father Santos also had many encounters with IEDs. In one instance, he discovered he had driven over a grassy area that contained a bomb, but the device miraculously did not detonate when his Humvee was on top of it. In another case, an IED exploded near his vehicle, but the bomb had been planted too deep in the ground to cause any damage.

The next day, Father Santos returned to the area and picked up a jagged piece of shrapnel left behind, a deadly keepsake that remains with him to this day.

“I keep it on my desk as a reminder of how fragile life is and how important it is to use the time we have to be a conduit to God’s will,” Father Santos said. “We can’t control how long we live or what happens to us in life, but we can use the free will we do have to listen to God and do things in our life that will help us get to heaven and help others get to heaven, as well.”

Thoughts about God were a constant throughout Father Santos’ tenure in combat. He also began seeing signs the priesthood was in his future. For example, while attending Mass during his downtime, he picked up a pamphlet intended for soldiers interested in becoming priests. Inside the booklet were contrasting pictures of a man wearing priestly garments and military fatigues. Embroidered on the fatigues was one name — “Santos.”

After Father Santos returned to the U.S., he had a two-hour discussion with his old mentor, Father Bico, and he knew he wanted to be a priest. Father Santos visited the Archdiocese of Newark’s Office of Vocations the next day.

He graduated from St. Andrew’s College Seminary at Seton Hall University in 2008 and Rome’s Pontifical North American College four years later. He was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Newark in 2012.

It has been many years since Father Santos fought in Iraq, but he still uses what he learned in the military. For one, he said the discipline, regimented lifestyle and sense of sacrifice he developed as a soldier make it easy to live as a priest.

He also credits the Army National Guard for teaching him collaborative and organizational skills, which he relies on every day as a pastor. And because of his combat experience, he said he can respond well in emergencies, like if a parishioner faints during Mass.

Before being named pastor of St. James, Father Santos served eight years as parochial vicar at Scotch Plains’ St. Bartholomew the Apostle Church, where Father John Paladino was pastor.

He said the former soldier’s leadership ability was a huge asset for their parish, because shortly after Father Santos arrived, Father Paladino was named the Archdiocese of Newark’s vicar for clergy, which limited his time at St. Bart.

Father Paladino said Father Santos took on many administrative responsibilities, like managing support staff and serving on councils with him.

“We had a great working relationship and friendship since the day he arrived at the parish,” Father Paladino said. “The parishioners used to call us ‘the dynamic duo.'”

He said Father Santos also brought many innovations to the parish inspired by his military background. For instance, he used his security expertise to initiate an emergency response team. He also created a youth camp that blended prayer with physical fitness exercises.

By the end of their tenure together, St. Bart’s congregation had grown from 1,500 families to 3,000 families. The two also had started hosting parish missions that — thanks in large part to a winning combination of humor and God’s Word — attracted 500 to 600 people per night.

Father Paladino said that as a pastor, Father Santos is particularly well-suited for the role. “He was on the front lines of combat, and as a parish priest, he’s on the front lines of service in the church.”

Life as St. James’ pastor can be hectic, but Father Santos loves every second of it. He also never lets his numerous responsibilities get in the way of staying in contact with his loved ones.

Manning, his former commanding officer, is “immensely proud” of everything Father Santos has accomplished. As a devout Catholic himself, the colonel said he cannot think of anyone better suited for the vocation.

“He is an absolutely remarkable priest and a beautiful manifestation of our Catholic values,” said Manning, who added Father Santos now mentors the colonel’s own son, a soldier currently discerning the priesthood. “Dave would have been successful in any industry — he’s a top 1% guy. But thankfully for us, he answered God’s call to join the priesthood.”

Brian Santos said his twin’s vocation has inspired the entire Santos family to develop a more intimate relationship with their faith. He said he is grateful to Father Santos for being a faith mentor to him and a role model for his four children.

“I’m glad my kids can see the humanity of the priesthood,” said Brian Santos. “Because of my brother, they can see God works through the people in their lives.”

Father Santos said he is proud to have served his country and grateful for the brotherhood he formed with his fellow paratroopers. The skills he learned in combat also enhance his ministry to this day, he said.

If there are any soldiers currently considering the priesthood like he once did, Father
Santos would advise them not to ignore God’s call.

“Even if it’s just a remote possibility in their minds, I’d encourage them to enter the seminary and think about what God created them for,” Father Santos said. “The world is so loud that it’s hard to hear God’s call. We need a place to hear God speak to us and guide us to our vocation. And even if they decide the priesthood is not right for them, they can leave having grown a stronger relationship with God. We all need a relationship with God to become the person he wants us to be.”

– – –
Sean Quinn is on the staff of Jersey Catholic, the news website of the Archdiocese of Newark.

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