(Editor’s note: The identity of the Soldier has been withheld for the protection of the individual. Sgt. Paul Santiago is a fictitious name, but the actions and incidents listed in the article are real. Santiago departed the Army in September.)
Sgt. Paul Santiago, 28, was a Soldier stationed at Fort Bragg. He is a native of Queens, N.Y. and for the past nine years, he served as a paratrooper at Fort Bragg.
In addition to his outstanding service, Santiago, who was preparing to leave the Army with an honorable discharge, when this interview took place, also had another secret that he carried with him for nine years — he was a former gang member.
“I was pretty much born and raised in the projects of Queens,” Santiago explained. “We lived in an area where there were several projects located within close proximity, so I grew up with a lot of kids from other neighborhoods.”
He said kids from his neighborhood and those of the nearby neighborhoods got bussed to the same schools, which meant that problems that arose in the neighborhood got bussed to school.
“You saw them at school regardless,” he said. “If you can picture a sardine can full of people, that’s what it was like in our area.
“It made individuals from their specific neighborhoods tighter with each other to a degree. Every neighborhood had its problems within that neighborhood. For example, if I had a problem with a guy in my neighborhood, we’d handle it in the neighborhood. But then we’d go to school and if we had a problem with (someone from) another project, our beef would not be an issue anymore because we focused on the problems with our rivals,” said Santiago, who is of Puerto Rican descent.
Santiago said the organization within the neighborhoods was similar to being in their own small country, because there were various degrees of neighborhood pride.
“You always represented your project over the other projects. So if we had beef within our neighborhood, that was on hold until we dealt with the outside problem,” he said.
Santiago said that at first, he was reluctant to join a gang, but he eventually succumbed to peer pressure and the need to remain safe from gang members from other neighborhoods.
“I didn’t join it for any false sense of Family or anything like that,” he explained. “When you’re by yourself in the projects, you’re not going to encounter any problems that could be handled as they were in the 1980s, which was through fist fighting or a one-on-one fight. When you live in the projects, that’s not the case,” said Santiago, who has served in the Army for 12 years.
“In the projects, if I have beef with you and me and you fight, if I win, you’re probably going to get your friends and you’re going to come back so that you can win,” he added.
He pointed out that life was difficult for those who chose not to join the gang, because they faced a threat from members within their own neighborhood, as well as members from gangs of rival neighborhoods.
“If you’re a guy and you’re walking alone in the projects, at any point in time — day, night, morning, it doesn’t matter — you’re going to get beaten or robbed, if someone feels like beating you up. It has happened to me more than once,” Santiago said.
He said after several episodes like that, he decided that enough was enough and joined the neighborhood gang.
“I could only fight so much by myself,” he said. So I followed what a lot of my friends did, and I joined a gang and it wasn’t a one-on-one kind of deal anymore,” he added.
During the 1990s, Santiago joined a gang that he said, “was more young Latinos because they try to portray a sense of Family for the members.”
“Some of it was legitimate, to a degree, with the way they take care of each other,” he said. It wasn’t one of those gangs where they just went out and committed violent crimes, it was more of a stick-together-and-help -each-other-out type of structure.”
He said being in a gang separated him from others who were not.
“It gave you confidence, that’s for damn sure. But in hindsight, it was like being part of a Family. Your friends were your Family outside of your home. You looked out for each other, you hung out with each other and we did a lot of crazy stuff together as friends. In a weird way, it was like being on an adventure with a group of friends, he said.
Santiago said one of the biggest factors influencing young people to join gangs is peer pressure.
“People can deny peer pressure all day long, but when you have all of your friends doing it, even if they don’t ask you to, it’s implied. If all of your friends are cutting school, doing graffiti, smoking weed, then you’re going to want to do it also,” said Santiago, who has also been stationed at several other installations.
Despite his antics, as a gang member, the death and incarceration of several fellow gang members was the incentive Santiago needed to exchange his gang colors for the camouflage of an Army uniform.
“By the time I was in high school, I had a few friends already killed and a couple of guys locked up. When you see something like that, it changes your perspective. In my neighborhood, the average life expectancy of a young male was about 24,” he explained. “I said to myself, I want to live past 24 and it got to a point where I said, I want to see the rest of the world. This can’t be it.”
Santiago joined the Army’s Delayed Entry Program at 17 year old and by age 18, he shipped out to basic training.
He said the Army and gang membership share some similarities, but otherwise, they are polar opposites.
“The Army’s all about the rules and regulations and if you break them, you get in trouble. In a gang, there are no rules; but there are guidelines that you have to follow, such as taking up for each other. The similarity is that there is structure in both entities.”
Santiago pointed out that the older guys, sometimes as old as your dad, are always respected. They are considered the elders, similar to the more ranking officers and NCOs in the Army.
He said his transition into the Army was difficult at first because he fought the system.
“I didn’t want to be ruled over. It was tough and I had to learn to keep my mouth shut,” Santiago said. “Sometimes when you’re called upon to be a follower, you have to be a follower.
“The problems I had were more with the guys than with the drill sergeants. The best part about being my skin tone is that everyone assumed that I was white, so I kind of used that to my advantage. No one ever viewed me as a troublemaker. I was an instigator. I couldn’t beat up the biggest guy in the platoon, but I could rally quite a few people to my cause,” he added.
Although he would not say which New York City-based gang he was a member of, Santiago said he still knows and sees gang activity within the Army’s ranks. He said he has seen more of a gang problem at other installations, but at Fort Bragg, it mostly occurs off post.
“I’ve seen it at other installations and it’s not necessarily the Army’s fault. When you see the environment around some installations and there are gangs all over the place, it’s hard for any young male, regardless of nationality, to separate from that. You’re bombarded by it daily. That lifestyle appeals to young guys. They want a part of that.”
He pointed out that Soldiers who have already been exposed to a gang environment, are more likely to join.
“I don’t think the young members arrive on post and want to join a gang. I think the notion has to exist already,” he said.
Santiago said he’s oblivious to the gang activity because most of it takes place off post.
He said it’s common to see an individual who can be described as the Alpha male. “There’s always a ring leader,” he explained.
Santiago likened the Alpha male to the neighborhood drug dealer who has the nice cars, rims, jewelry and women. He said the other gang members want to emulate him and will always try to be around him.
“Statistically, that’s going to happen,” Santiago explained. “You can have a command sergeant major who’s the epitome of a Soldier, an amazing Soldier and leader, so you want to emulate him. You want to be like him. He’s on the other side of the law. He’s the good guy. You have the exact opposite on the other side and it’s the same thing, just the mentality is a little different.”
He said joining a gang and especially for Soldiers in the military has a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side aspect to it. You may never experience the wrong side of the law and the chances of joining a gang depends a lot on the Soldier’s demographics.
“A lot of guys who grew up sheltered and in the nicer neighborhoods, they may not have known that this lifestyle even existed.
Santiago said the Army does have gang members within the ranks and it’s important for leaders to know what and who to look for in order to address the problem. He said the Army provided a positive way out for him.
“I would say that the first step would be go to the schools and reach out to high school students who may be faced with a decision of joining the military or joining a gang. The Army is not what that is. The Army is about bettering yourself and making yourself into more of a man, or even woman and allowing yourself to achieve positive goals,” Santiago said.
He said it’s important to reach children in their teen years, when they’re more impressionable.
“When I tried to talk to a lot of the young people about the military and how it’s about the military rules and structure, they say, ‘I wanna do me.’ The problem with that is that at that age, they really don’t know who they are,” Santiago said.
Individuals who have been a victim of gang activity or suspect there is gang activity in their units are urged to dial 90-REACT.