MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- For a boy, his father is the ultimate role model, creating a set of expectations and guidelines by which a child understands how to behave. A father becomes the standard by which his son judges himself. How well the child holds up to the example of the parent is how he may evaluate his self-worth.
For one Camp Lejeune family, helping their son realize his dream of being just like dad was a race against the clock: a clock ticking away the time left for a young man diagnosed with terminal cancer. In a pinning ceremony at the Jacksonville, N.C., United Service Organizations building March 30, five-year-old Diego E. Santiago was awarded the honorary rank of chief petty officer in the United States Navy.
Thin from chemotherapy and radiation treatment and sporting the dress blue uniform and sleeve insignia of his new honorary rank, Diego was welcomed into the chief petty officer family while a standing-room-only audience looked on. Diego’s father, Chief Petty Officer Jesus O. Santiago, career counselor, 2nd Marine Division, stood at attention as his son’s promotion warrant was read.
“This means a lot to me,” said Santiago after the ceremony. “It’s one of [Diego’s] dreams [to be in the Navy] that he’s not going to be able to realize.”
The ceremony had been three years in the making.
“Once in awhile I’d have to bring Diego to work with me, just due to child care issues,” he said, speaking of his time working in the battalion aid station for 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment. “He really started to become of aware of the environment. He wanted to be in the military. It was all he talked about.”
That interest in the military gave Santiago the idea of unofficially promoting his son in a private ceremony every birthday. By the time Diego was diagnosed with a form of cancer called Wilms’ Tumor in July 2005, the promotion ceremonies, as well as Diego’s desire to be a chief like his dad, had become well-known among the chief petty officer community aboard Camp Lejeune.
When his son was transferred to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., Santiago followed. It was at St. Jude’s that the diagnosis of terminal cancer was given, and Santiago brought Diego back home to Camp Lejeune. Slated to deploy with a Marine Expeditionary Unit in December 2005, Santiago was pulled from the deployment roster and sent to his current position, which allowed for greater flexibility in taking care of his son.
“The Navy and Marine Corps have been good to me,” Santiago said. “They have given me every legal opportunity on the books they could.”
When the idea for the honorary promotion to chief petty officer was proposed by Chief Charles S. Clements, command career counselor, 2nd Marine Division, it was envisioned as being a small, private ceremony at the base hospital. It soon became much more, however.
With the approval of the master chief petty officer of the Navy, the honorary conferral of rank upon Diego became an official event for the Camp Lejeune Chief Petty Officer Association, and was scheduled to take place before one of their monthly meetings. Word spread like wildfire. Civilians and military members whose lives were touched by Diego’s story showed up in droves.
One of these attendees was Lori K. Neff, 22, a waitress at a popular steakhouse in Jacksonville. When the Santiago family stopped at the restaurant to eat, they explained to Neff that Diego’s appetite was often fleeting because of the intensive anti-cancer therapies. They asked her to bring out Diego’s favorite food of chicken fingers before he changed his mind about eating. Because of her kind manner and way with Diego, she was invited to the ceremony.
“He’s very proud of his dad,” said Neff. “He’s always saying, ‘I’m going to be one too!’ He may be five and just as sick as can be, but this may have made his day.”
Santiago expressed his appreciation for everyone who has helped the process of his son’s honorary promotion.
“Chief Clements was the catalyst and brains behind this. I had nothing to do with it as far as planning is concerned,” said Santiago. “The [chief petty officer] community takes care of me. They have really proved that we take care of our own.”
“Take care of your own” is a credo of any successful family, whether that is the Navy and Marine Corps team or the family of a sick little boy. Giving that same little boy an opportunity to be just like dad before his clock runs down to zero served that credo well for both families.