Face of Defense: When Life Gets Tough, This Soldier Gets Tougher


A back injury and several autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, may be forcing Army Master Sgt. Aaron De Los Santos to retire sooner than planned, but it hasn’t dampened his drive to compete.

A soldier swims during training.
Army Master Sgt. Aaron De Los Santos takes a practice lap during the Atlantic Regional Trials at Fort Benning, Ga., Dec. 7, 2017. Courtesy photo
A soldier swims during training.
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Army Master Sgt. Aaron De Los Santos takes a practice lap during the Atlantic Regional Trials at Fort Benning, Ga., Dec. 7, 2017. Courtesy photo

“These diseases have really taken a toll on my health, both physically and mentally. I was not ready to [leave the Army], but my performance was slowing down and I just couldn't hang in with my team anymore,” De Los Santos said.

The Texas native, who is now on transitional leave from the Army, found support with another team; the adaptive reconditioning coordinators, coaches and trainers at the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Hood, Texas. The once active sportsman began to develop a love for adaptive sports.

“I was hesitant at first. Even for a guy like me who is active, physically fit and always competitive, I had issues with trusting those in charge,” De Los Santos said. “I started with yoga and progressed with swimming and then cycling,” he said. “I owe my success to Susan Wilson, Fort Hood's adaptive reconditioning coordinator, along with Carina Fleeman, my aquatics coach and trainer, and Robin Donald, my nurse case manager. They are awesome.”

Return to Competition

The first-generation soldier was also able to conquer another goal; making the Army team for the 2018 Department of Defense Warrior Games.

Soldiers hold their certificates after winning a race.
Army Sgt. Manthan Patel and Master Sgt. Aaron De Los Santos placed second and first, respectively, in the men’s 6.0 800m event during the Deputy Chief of Staff, Warrior Care and Transition-hosted 2018 Army Trials at Fort Bliss, Texas, March 6, 2018. Wounded, ill or injured active-duty soldiers and veterans were competing to earn spots on the Army’s 2018 Department of Defense Warrior Games team, Feb. 27-March 9. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Roy Woo
Soldiers hold their certificates after winning a race.
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Army Sgt. Manthan Patel and Master Sgt. Aaron De Los Santos placed second and first, respectively, in the men’s 6.0 800m event during the Deputy Chief of Staff, Warrior Care and Transition-hosted 2018 Army Trials at Fort Bliss, Texas, March 6, 2018. Wounded, ill or injured active-duty soldiers and veterans were competing to earn spots on the Army’s 2018 Department of Defense Warrior Games team, Feb. 27-March 9. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Roy Woo

“I was scared and felt like I was done with not only the Army, but being active. I turned to my wife for motivation and purpose, which ultimately got me back on track to keep on living,” De Los Santos said. “I was able to demonstrate to the Army, and to myself, that I still had what it took to fight, and win that fight.”

Instilled with strong values and buoyed by enormous family support, he says he has a positive approach to life when adversity happens.

“I am who I am and I will never change. I stay humble no matter what. Some call me ‘Hug-a-Joe’ or ‘Softy’, but that's who I am. I have learned that life isn't fair and it doesn't care who you are. It's what you're made of that counts. I found out what I’m made of when I was going through tough times.”

De Los Santos will retire from the Army in July.