Victor Santiago was drafted into the Army during World War II, but didn't see his first combat until six years later in North Korea — but that fight would stay with him for nearly 50 years.
Now 94, Santiago served with the Army's 65th Infantry Regiment, a unit made up mostly of soldiers from Puerto Rico, in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in which his regiment helped cover the retreat of the 1st Marine Division as it fought its way clear of encirclement by Chinese troops. The unit received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2016 for its service in the Korean War.
He was drafted into the Army in 1944 at age 20, sent to Panama for training before he could marry his wife-to-be, Martha. He would spend the rest of World War II guarding an oil refinery in Curacao that was never attacked, so he never saw combat in that war. He returned to Puerto Rico a year later to marry Martha and reenlisted because he couldn't find work. He ended up serving 21 years, retiring in 1966 as a staff sergeant.
Santiago was stationed in Japan, Fort Benning, Ga., Fort Devens, Mass., Hawaii and Thailand, but the 1950 battle in North Korea would stay with him until today.
"They ordered my regiment to open a gap to get them (the 1st Marine Division) out," Santiago recalled. "It was 40 (degrees) below zero and we had the same equipment we had in Puerto Rico. I got frostbite. When it's that cold, it hurts. We got the 1st Marine Division and the 7th Division out, and we were the last to leave."
Santiago still remembers being sent to a hospital for his frostbite and seeing bodies delivered to a morgue. One soldier saw his brother among the bodies and begged Santiago not to tell his mother that the brother had been killed. Santiago would suffer what he called "combat fatigue," now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, for five decades.
"He just went to my head. I used to dream about it" for years, Santiago said. "They wanted to give me medicine, but I told them I didn't need it; I could control myself. It didn't end for almost 50 years."
Santiago's military career has been passed down through the generations — son Victor Santiago Jr. also served 21 years in the Air Force and a grandson in Oklahoma now serves in the Army.
After retiring, Santiago, his wife and three children moved to New Hampshire to be near family. He worked low-wage jobs delivering furniture and pizza until he was hired by a new Budweiser brewery, where he spent 23 years in nearly every job there before retiring. He and Martha moved to Colorado Springs to be near his daughter and to be treated for a heart condition that eventually required a pacemaker.
Martha died in 2016, a day after the couple celebrated their 69th anniversary.