LANDSTUHL, Germany – Each year in March, the world celebrates Women’s History Month by celebrating the vital role of women throughout history.
Maj. Jodi Santiago, chief of health physics at Public Health Command Europe, knew from an early age on that she wanted to work with radiation in medical imaging.
“My seventh grade science teacher brought up something about x-rays and I just thought it was so cool,” explains Santiago. “I went to school to become an x-ray technician and after that I was like, ‘now what?’”
Santiago had never considered a career in the military. Her grandfather was in the Army during World War II and her uncle was in the Navy during Vietnam, but both of them were drafted. None of her brothers served, but Santiago decided to be the first person in her family to serve by choice.
“I joined the Army in the eighties after watching the movie Private Benjamin,” says Santiago. “The Army seemed like a personal challenge and I thought, “if Private Benjamin can do it, I can do it.’”
Initially, Santiago wanted to be in the Army Reserves “just to do something different than her x-ray job.” But this changed quickly after talking to a recruiter.
“I realized that I could do what I really like to do, but just for a different employer and have an opportunity to travel,” she said. “I was sold.”
She joined the Army in her early twenties as an x-ray technician and “was a little older than some of the other folks” because of her time spent at college prior to enlisting.
According to Santiago this was a huge advantage because she participated in stripes for skills and rose through the ranks quickly, gaining more experience and responsibilities in a short amount of time.
“One of the jobs as an x-ray tech is to help physicists to survey equipment such as x-ray machines,” she says. The more she learned about her career field, the more interested she became in anything to do with radiation.
While stationed in Puerto Rico, a nuclear medical science officer came to her unit who serviced x-ray machines and they started talking. Soon after that, she met with a recruiter to figure out what she needed to do to become a nuclear medical science officer.
Santiago did not have the education background at the time, so she pursued an opportunity to go to Nuclear Medicine School and eventually earned her bachelor’s degree 12 years later.
“When I got my bachelor’s degree in medical imaging, I had to make a decision,” says Santiago. “As a master sergeant all my work was administrative, I wanted to focus on x-rays but I wasn’t working with patients anymore.”
She had to ask herself if she wanted to continue working on something she was not passionate about, or to start all over again as a new nuclear medical science officer.
Santiago decided to pursue her dream and switched from green to gold.
“I was direct commissioned as a nuclear medical science officer with the advantage of almost 18 years of experience in radiation as a previous x-ray tech,” Santiago said.
As a nuclear medical science officer, she is responsible for providing radiation protection and consultation on radiological issues to protect and defend Soldiers and their families from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.
If an incident occurs, such as a release of radioactive material, the health physics team is notified and performs a contamination survey by taking samples, investigating them, identifying the problem and mitigating it.
Santiago and her team work behind the scenes at Public Health Command Europe and many people are unaware of the important work they do.
“We make sure that our medical, dental and vet facilities are safe from all the hazards associated with radiation because there can be multiple sources of radiation used in these facilities for diagnosis and treatment of patients,” says Santiago. “Our job is to ensure the safe use of these sources of radiation.”
During the first gulf war, Santiago deployed with the 8th Evacuation Hospital out of Ft. Ord, CA, as an x-ray technician for six months.
“We saw patients, we helped people and we did some interesting work there that you don’t have the chance to do in a regular hospital,” says Santiago. “Looking back at it now, it’s a great feeling to know that I’m part of world history.
“It was such a good feeling coming home and to see how proud my mother was of the work I had done down there. At first she wasn’t thrilled that I joined the Army so seeing that change was great.”
Santiago says that if she could offer some advice to her younger self she would say, “Don’t cut yourself short. Any chance that you don’t take is already a failure, so give it a go.”
According to Santiago, she has been fortunate that each time she closed one door on her life, another door opened.
The Army offered her a variety of assignment and opportunities she would have not had in the civilian sector.
In 2011 she provided support to Operation Tomodachi following the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. These events caused severe damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which resulted in the release of radiation into the environment.
“As part of the response team, I was over there for 30 days, boots on the ground and putting my skills to use,” says Santiago. “Just short of an actual nuclear weapons denotation this was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity for my career field.”
In her current role as the chief of health physics at Public Health Command Europe, she fills several mission critical roles such as assisting hospitals, field units and conducting contamination surveys.
“In radiation safety and health physics we plan for the worst-case emergency and hope it never happens,” says Santiago.
Santiago is the lead of the Radiological Advisory Medical Team for the United States European Command. If a radiological or nuclear emergency occurred in Europe, Africa or the Middle East she and her team will advise the incident commander on how to treat radiological causalities.
“I didn't even know those doors were there until I tried something new. I think that's one thing that has kind of propelled my career. I started out just enlisting for six years to get the GI bill, and now I’m still here 31 years later.”
Juggling a career, taking care of her husband who fell ill, raising three children, and going to school at the same time has not always been easy but Santiago says she just stays focused on her goals.
“I’m not the perfect parent, or the perfect mother, or the perfect anything, but I can do a little bit of each. I strive to be a role model for my children, especially my girls. I want them to see that they can do whatever they set their mind to do.”