Army veteran honored as extraordinary nursing student

Reggie Santiago, an East Carolina University RN to BSN student with a very non-traditional path to becoming a Pirate Nurse, was selected as the College of Nursing’s undergraduate recipient of the 2024 DAISY Award for Extraordinary Nursing Students.

Reggie Santiago, who will graduate from the RN to BSN program in May, was selected as a DAISY Award recipient for providing exceptionally compassionate care.

The award, created by the DAISY Foundation to “recognize and celebrate nursing students for the above-and-beyond care and compassion shown to patients and their families,” was presented during a ceremony April 18.

Kim Cherry, an ECU College of Nursing clinical assistant professor, said Santiago more than embodies the spirit of the award.

“Before becoming a student at ECU, Reggie was a 10-year U.S. Army combat veteran,” Cherry said. “Perhaps it was during his service to his country that he developed the grit and perseverance to embark on a new profession. His 4.0 in our RN to BSN program speaks to his continued dedication to his academic performance — he is on target to graduate summa cum laude.”

Santiago comes from a family of very accomplished people — his grandmother was the fifth Black woman in Georgia to pass the bar exam and a number of extended family members are also lawyers — but early in his life he didn’t get the sense that higher education held a path for him. The military seemed a more manageable option.

“The Army was exactly what I needed. I was kind of a knucklehead, you know? I don’t know if it was just my environment or if it was the school, but I did not feel like I was smart enough to go to college,” Santiago said.

At 17, an age when his mother had to give approval for him to enlist, Santiago joined the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Liberty and deployed almost immediately for the invasion of Iraq in 1991.

“That’s when it really got real for me because we were way up front, behind the French,” Santiago said. “I did four years and I got out. But I felt lost, so I went back in.”

Reggie Santiago, an ECU College of Nursing RN to BSN student, is recognized for his selection as a DAISY Award recipient.

His second four-year enlistment ended with pride, but the transition back to civilian life wasn’t easy. Over the course of the next two years he held 11 jobs, including sales positions which he says he did well at, but life was starting to get the upper hand.

“I got into a major depression. My mom passed away and things weren’t going right. I wasn’t happy with my career, and it took my girlfriend at the time to kick me out. She said, ‘Look, you need to get your life together,’” Santiago remembered.

A chance meeting with a former Army friend got him back on track — a job training Special Operations medics awaited if he completed paramedic training, which instilled in Santiago the confidence to trust his academic abilities while relying on his military medical training.

“I was able to get into the vocational rehab program through the VA, which is how I wound up getting into nursing. I got my ADN through a paramedic to RN bridge course,” Santiago said.

And who doesn’t love a happy ending?

“I wound up marrying the girl who kicked me out the house.”

After completing his RN education in 2021— right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which he remembers as a “scary time” — Santiago immediately applied to ECU’s RN to BSN program, which he will graduate from in May.

One of the biggest factors in his turn around was the help he received through the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veteran Readiness and Employment program, which has helped support his educational endeavors.

Santiago is a staunch proponent of helping his fellow veterans find meaning, and meaningful employment, in their post-service lives. The feelings of disconnection and directionlessness after leaving the Army aren’t unique to him, Santiago knows.

“When I got out, it was such an adjustment to the civilian world. It was an honor and a pride for what you do, and even though we may have our differences being Americans, when we were boots-on-the ground outside that wire I know you got my back,” Santiago said. “The civilian world isn’t like that, especially corporate world. It’s a totally different set of rules.”

Reggie Santiago and Kim Cherry, a College of Nursing clinical assistant professor, pose after the DAISY Award ceremony. Cherry nominated Santiago for the award.

During the RN to BSN program Santiago worked full-time at UNC Medical Center’s ICU, caring for the region’s sickest patients. He just got a new job at Duke Raleigh Hospital, but his journey at ECU hasn’t ended. In August he’ll begin the adult gerontology clinical nurse specialist program and sees himself continuing on to doctoral level training at ECU.

“I’m going all the way. I still have stuff to prove to myself,” Santiago said. “My stepfather told me I wouldn’t pass the Army’s Airborne school, but I have two nursing board certifications and I’m working on my third.”

Santiago said the reach of Pirate Nation has been eye opening. During a trip to Las Vegas with his wife he was in a breakfast line and a stranger in a chef’s uniform noticed the ECU logo on Santiago’s shirt and shared that he too was an ECU graduate. The chef escorted the Santiagos to the head of the line.

“He said, ‘These are my guests, go ahead and get them seated,’” Santiago remembered. “That’s when I realized — there’s something about this university.”

Santiago said he feels at home at ECU and is proud of the opportunities for growth that the university has afforded him.

“East Carolina, man. I have heroes in my life: my mom is my hero, my wife is my hero, my grandma is my hero — but ECU came through. I can’t believe the amount of support I get from this college, it’s amazing,” Santiago said. “I tell everybody, ‘You need to go to ECU.’”