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Published: Monday, 10/10/2005

Grandfather, soldier longs for a return to battlefield

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Staff Sgt. Rudy Santibanez, wearing bracelets honoring fellow soldiers, says he volunteered to go to Iraq because that is where he belonged. Staff Sgt. Rudy Santibanez, wearing bracelets honoring fellow soldiers, says he volunteered to go to Iraq because that is where he belonged.
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Staff Sgt. Rudy Santibanez doesn't regret his decision to voluntarily return to Iraq, even though he narrowly escaped death twice while there.

In fact, the 51-year-old said he'd do it again - although perhaps not for a while. Because right now, he's intent on getting better.

After spending just a few months overseas during his second tour of duty with the Ohio Army National Guard, he's back in America. He was sent home early last month after being injured twice by roadside bombs.

With two Purple Hearts, a combat action badge, and a shoulder slated for surgery, the sergeant spent four days at home in Toledo this past weekend before heading back to Fort Knox, Ky. In a few more weeks, he said he will return to Toledo where he'll be operated on, then spend time recuperating.

"I didn't want to come back, because I volunteered to go out there," he said, recalling his thoughts after the first attack. "I didn't want to come back home until I finished that mission."

He returned to Iraq in January. It was the second time the father of three and grandfather of two was stationed overseas - first with the Toledo-based 323rd Military Police Company in 2003 and most recently as a volunteer with the Norwalk, Ohio-based 612th Engineering C Company.

His wife didn't want him to go. His friends called him crazy. But Sergeant Santibanez, who works at the DaimlerChrysler stamping plant in Warren, Mich., knew it was where he belonged. So he volunteered.

It wasn't long before he was once again hit with the realities of war. On the second day of training for his new assignment, which involved finding and disarming Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, his Humvee vehicle was hit.

Staff Sgt. Rudy Santibanez credits his helmet, adorned with religious articles, with saving him during two bomb blasts. Staff Sgt. Rudy Santibanez credits his helmet, adorned with religious articles, with saving him during two bomb blasts.
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"I don't think we were out but an hour, and my vehicle hit an IED," he said. "It threw me from one end of the Hummer to the other. ... I was confused, my ears were ringing, and my shoulder was messed up."

Sergeant Santibanez spent weeks recovering. Then he returned to the field.

He spent a few months with his company at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison and then returned to the job of protecting a six-wheeled, heavily armored vehicle, known as the Buffalo, which is used to search for explosives.

In August, just five days after his birthday, the sergeant's vehicle was hit again.

"It blew out the tires, shattered the windows, threw me against the door - of course, my right shoulder," he recalled. "After that, the battalion commander came in and told me, 'That's it, we're getting you out of here.' "

Now it's time for the longtime military man to recover. He's spending time with his family and sharing stories. His youngest son, Rudy, Jr., said he wasn't surprised when his dad decided to return to Iraq. In fact, it's something he supported.

"It's nice to have him home and everything, but he had to do what he had to do, and I support that," the 21-year-old said. "I was more proud than anything else."

The military is part of Sergeant Santibanez's life, and it will always be. After all, how many other men his age could run two miles in 13 minutes, 40 seconds and rate a superior physical training score, he asked.

"There's no way I'm going to go out like this," he said as he simulated sleeping in a big, leather recliner. "I'm going out in my uniform."

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-724-6076.



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