Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. We recently caught up with class of 2013 Tillman Scholar Leon Santoyo at this year’s Pat Tillman Leadership Summit. Leon graduated in May with a B.S. in Criminal Justice from University of Texas and is continuing his education pursuing his Master’s degree in Intelligence and National Security. Born in Mexico before moving to the United States with his family at the age of seven, Leon is a first generation college student in the United States with plans to help change the way law enforcement agencies operate.
HOW DID YOU REACH THE DECISION TO JOIN THE MILITARY?
“Having been born in Mexico, when I was just seven years old I started to see the effects of the drug war in the early 90’s. At one point, while living in Juarez, I witnessed a firefight and cops chasing guys in front of our house while my mom was running to get me and my brother inside. Upon our arrival to the United States, I was always very thankful for the opportunities we were given here, which I otherwise would not have had in my own country. By the time I was in high school I was determined to join the military as the war in Iraq was under way, feeling that serving our country was something I needed to do. I also remember seeing the movie Saving Private Ryan when I was pretty young and knew I wanted to fight for my country so I joined the Marine Corps as soon as I could at the age of 17.”
HOW LONG DID YOU SERVE AND WHAT WAS YOUR ROLE DURING THAT TIME?
“I turned 18 in boot camp and did Infantry for my first four years. I deployed three times during that time, including two seven month deployments to Iraq. I first deployed in 2006 on ship so I went around Iraq and not really into it, which really upset me because I was unable to do the job I had trained for. I returned home for about six months and then the surge occurred so I deployed again, this time actually making it to Iraq. Deployment wasn’t what I expected as a lot of things we were doing entailed training the Iraqi Army so they could take control of an area near the Syrian border on their own. By the time our deployment ended we had handed over most of our bases to the Iraqis and they were running all of the operations, which is not something I was expecting to see in 2007.”
After my first enlistment I wanted to do something more challenging so I tried out for my battalion’s sniper platoon along with 26 others – I was one of 7 that made it. A few months later, a sergeant by this time, I was sent to sniper school and upon graduating I was tasked with leading my own sniper team. I deployed two more times as a sniper team leader, making it a total of five deployments in almost eight years as a Marine”
REGARDING THE MOVIE ‘AMERICAN SNIPER’, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE ACCURACY OF THE MOVIE AND HOW HOLLYWOOD PORTRAYS THAT ROLE IN THE WAR?
“Just because of the topic I actually refrained from watching it for a while. When I finally did see it I found it to be rather emotional for me. There are parts of the movie that are accurate and show you some of the stress and doubt involved in pulling the trigger at times. One thing it doesn’t show you, however, is all the boredom that is involved in being a sniper, just the action and the trauma that comes from it afterwards. Personally, though, I feel the movie was well done.”
AFTER NEARLY EIGHT YEARS OF SERVICE WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO SEPARATE FROM THE MILITARY?
“During my last deployment I was married with a daughter and there were a few times I came close to not coming back. I decided at that point it was time to move on and do other things. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up without her dad or my wife to be on her own.”
GIVEN THE INTENSE SITUATIONS YOU WERE IN THROUGHOUT SOME OF YOUR DEPLOYMENTS, WHAT WAS IT LIKE FOR YOU WHEN YOU SEPARATED FROM THE MILITARY AND BEGAN TRANSITIONING TO A DIFFERENT LIFESTYLE?
“It was really different at first because I wasn’t used to just sitting around and not constantly being busy. Luckily I had a friend who was working in the oil fields in Odessa, TX and I started working with him. I think that job really helped me transition because it demanded a lot of physical exertion and people were expected to be doing the job correctly right away with millions of dollars on the line.”
DURING YOUR TIME IN THE SERVICE, WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE KNOWN PRIOR TO JOINING?
“When I was going through sniper training there were a lot of times where there was no sleep and I was just moving, carrying 100 pounds of weight on my body and somehow I was still able to complete the mission. I didn’t think I had that kind of endurance until I was really put to the test physically and mentally. I learned that if I really put my mind to something that I can really accomplish it.”
HOW DID YOU LEARN ABOUT THE TILLMAN SCHOLARSHIP AND WHAT WAS IT LIKE FOR YOU TO RECEIVE THE CALL NOTIFYING YOU THAT YOU HAD BEEN ACCEPTED AS A TILLMAN SCHOLAR?
“I actually applied before I got out of the service because my Lieutenant told me to do so thinking I would be a good candidate. A few weeks before I got out he even made me show him that applied [laughing]. Being selected as a Tillman Scholar was an unreal feeling. Looking at previous stories of scholars, I never thought I amounted to what they had done, much less what Pat gave up and what he did. When I received the call notifying me that I had been selected, it was pretty amazing.”
HAVING BEEN PART OF THE TILLMAN SCHOLAR COMMUNITY FOR SEVERAL YEARS, WHAT HAS THE SCHOLARSHIP ENABLED YOU TO DO THAT YOU MAY NOT HAVE OTHERWISE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO?
“First and foremost it allowed me to go to college. I was working in the oil field and I actually was going to stick with that because I had a house, a family and was getting good money. However when I received the scholarship I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to go to school.”
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO PURSUE YOUR STUDIES IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE?
“It goes back to my life growing up in Mexico and to what I saw in Afghanistan. I could especially see what the war on drugs was doing to Mexico. Every Time I would go back there to visit family I could hear firefights sometimes just a block away. One time, while visiting relatives in Juarez, I witnessed several men in a pickup truck shoot a person. It was the same thing in Afghanistan – people shooting others to protect their territories. When I was fortunate enough to receive the scholarship, my intention was to join the drug enforcement administration. Now that I’ve graduated, I’ve been accepted into a Master’s program at University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP) which is focused on intelligence and national security.”
UPON EARNING YOUR MASTER’S DEGREE, WHAT IS YOUR ULTIMATE DREAM JOB?
“I initially wanted to be an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration but I think being a drug enforcement agent is not enough, more needs to be done with the way law enforcement agencies operate. With that being said, I’m currently assisting in a research study conducted on the police department of San Jose, CA to help determine whether there’s discrimination being used by officers towards certain minority groups. With my Master’s degree focusing on Intelligence, I’m gearing more towards something along the lines of the CIA. I would like to be able to affect crime on a more global spectrum, both in the United States and Mexico as well as seeing a need to be involved in the Middle East based on my time serving there.”
WITH ALL THAT IS GOING ON TODAY AS IT RELATES TO POLICE OFFICERS AND COMMUNITY MEMBERS NATIONWIDE, WHAT DO YOU FEEL IS FUELING A LOT OF THE ACTIONS ON BOTH SIDES AND WHAT DO YOU THINK NEEDS TO BE DONE TO STOP A LOT OF THE VIOLENCE?
“Personally, I think a lot of it has to do with the media and the way police officers are portrayed by that medium. It’s almost reminiscent of how I was told Vietnam veterans were portrayed when they returned from war, being seen as war criminals and baby killers. Right now many cops have this stigma that they just shoot black people at the slightest provocation. In reality, I would say 99% of the officers who join the force do so in order to help better their community, but when they get out on the streets and do the job they’ve promised to do, they’re hated for it.”
AS A 2013 TILLMAN SCHOLAR, WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE FOR YOU TO SEE AND INTERACT WITH CLASSES OF TILLMAN SCHOLARS THAT HAVE COME AFTER YOU?
“When I talk to the other scholars and hear their stories I feel like I’m not doing enough and it pushes me to want to do more, which is why I’m continuing my education and pursuing a Master’s Degree. When I attended Pat’s Run this last April I ran into another scholar who is living in El Paso, which to me is very telling of how much the community has grown, and the positive impact the foundation has throughout the country.”
IS THERE ANYTHING THAT YOU FEEL HAS DEFINED YOU AND MADE YOU INTO THE PERSON YOU ARE TODAY?
“My wife and my daughter. I want to be better for them and that’s what I thought of when I was in Afghanistan. Now that I’m out of the service I want to be the best example I can be for both my daughter and my wife. It gives me great joy to see them both being proud of me, and I know that my accomplishments would not have been the same without them. I want to be the example to my daughter so that she can go on and be a great person in her own way.”