Broward County

2 deaths in Iraq blast may be clue to airport shooter’s unraveling

Sgt. Jose Cintron Rosado, 38, and Spec. Jose Delgado Arroyo, 41, were the two members of a Puerto Rican Army National Guard unit killed by a roadside bomb. Their photos and story were posted on Facebook.
Sgt. Jose Cintron Rosado, 38, and Spec. Jose Delgado Arroyo, 41, were the two members of a Puerto Rican Army National Guard unit killed by a roadside bomb. Their photos and story were posted on Facebook.

On Jan. 2, 2011, two members of the Puerto Rican Army National Guard were in a lead vehicle in a convoy traveling near Taji, Iraq, assigned to one of the most dangerous missions of the Iraqi War: locating and disarming roadside bombs buried by insurgents who strategically planted and then detonated them to kill American soldiers.

Jose Cintron Rosado, 38, and Jose Delgado Arroyo, 41, were best friends who were deployed together the previous April. They were like father figures to the younger soldiers who were members of the 1013th Engineering Company, 103rd Battalion, out of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.

That day, the two men were killed in a roadside blast, and their deaths hit the tight-knit unit especially hard, a military official said at the time.

“This was tough. We consider ourselves family,” Maj. Paul Dahlen said in 2011.

Among those in the unit was Esteban Santiago, a 20-year-old soldier doing his first overseas deployment — and the man now charged with killing five people during last week’s massacre at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. He, too, had been called to active duty in April 2010, the same time as Rosado and Arroyo.

She’s been destroyed by this, and she feels the pain of all the families of victims in Florida.

Walter Torres, mayor of Peñuelas, Puerto Rico, speaking of Esteban Santiago’s mother

Santiago was a “true believer” in the military, his brother, Bryan Santiago, said Monday. But after the war — and after what he had experienced — “you could just see that he changed,” his brother recalled.

Video shows chaotic scene at baggage claim at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, including one shooting victim.

Military officials do not know to what extent, if any, Santiago might have been friends with the two men who were killed — or whether he was part of the convoy that day. But Friday’s mass shooting came almost six years to the day after their deaths.

Santiago, who was born in New Jersey but raised in Peñuelas, flew to South Florida on a one-way ticket from Alaska, where he had been living. Since he opened fire, then surrendered to Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies, investigators have been trying to piece together the path that led the 26-year-old former National Guardsman to Fort Lauderdale.

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For Bryan Santiago, his brother’s military service led to serious mental-health problems that coincided with his return from the war. He described a sibling who was once “calm and humorous” suddenly becoming bitter and withdrawn.

“You could just sense that he’d changed,” said Santiago, who still lives in Peñuelas, a low-slung town of about 24,000 surrounded by lush forests on the southwestern part of the island.

Their mother, who also lives in Peñuelas, talked about her son’s psychological problems and how he sought help for them, the town’s mayor, Walter Torres, said Monday.

“She’s been destroyed by this, and she feels the pain of all the families of victims in Florida,” said the mayor, who offered her the city’s support.

Bryan Santiago said he didn’t know whether his brother knew Rosado or Arroyo, but he said his brother faced overwhelming dangers, including a number of “firefights.”

“It’s a tough job, a dangerous job,” Dahlen said in 2011, in describing the unit’s mission. “They’re the ones looking to … ensure roadways so that everyone can continue their jobs and peace in the area.”

A member of their company, Christian Santiago, wrote about Esteban on Facebook and the toll that the war took on him and others in their company.

“Truth that I’m in shock to know one of my companions of war was the cause of what happened in Florida,” he wrote. “Let me clear some details that a lot of people do not know.”

He went on to describe how much the war changes soldiers’ lives and how veterans have a difficult time adjusting to civilian life and getting help for their physical, mental and economic struggles.

“The [Veterans Administration] makes life impossible and often denies us rights acquired … the government, the Army … will not take PTSD seriously,” he wrote.

During his time in the military, Esteban Santiago was awarded a number of medals and commendations, including an Iraq Campaign Medal with campaign star, a Combat Action Badge, and a Driver and Mechanic Badge (Wheeled Vehicle).

Esteban Santiago’s tour ended in April 2011, and he remained in the National Guard Reserves until February 2014. Later that same year, he moved to Alaska and joined the Alaskan National Guard, his military record shows.

He got a job working for a private security company while serving as part of the Reserves on weekends. He met a woman, Gina Peterson, 40, and the two moved in together.

On Jan. 10, 2016 — again, around the anniversary of his comrades’ deaths — he was arrested on criminal charges stemming from a fight with Peterson, who later became pregnant.

According to court records , Santiago broke down the door to the couple’s bathroom, smacked her on the side of the head and tried to strangle her. “Get the f--- out, bitch,” he yelled, according to a police affidavit. The officer who filed the report said Peterson didn’t appear to be injured, however.

Bryan Santiago said the last time he talked to his brother was on Christmas Day. He gave no indication he would snap 12 days later.

Santiago was involved in several other domestic disturbances in which Anchorage police were called, but he was not charged in any of the incidents.

In March last year, he was charged with violating the conditions of his release by having contact with Peterson, and in August, he was dismissed from the Alaska National Guard for “unsatisfactory performance.” Military officials would not elaborate.

Peterson’s cousin, Brad Victor, said Peterson was unhappy and tried to end their relationship. However, after she learned she was pregnant, she decided to try to work things out. When she gave birth, he said, she “sounded like the happiest woman alive,” Victor said.

But by then, Santiago was mentally unraveling. His family said he was beginning to hear voices and behave erratically.

“He himself went to look for help, and he went to a federal agency, the FBI,” Bryan Santiago told the Miami Herald.

He told the FBI that he believed the CIA was trying to control his mind and was forcing him to watch ISIS propaganda videos. The FBI agents called Anchorage police, and he was taken to a psychiatric facility. His gun was taken at the time of his encounter with the FBI. He was released later that month and was able to reclaim his gun on Dec. 8.

Bryan Santiago said the last time he talked to his brother was on Christmas Day. He gave no indication he would snap 12 days later.

“We were just wishing each other Merry Christmas,” his brother said. “He was completely normal, but people with mental problems can seem completely normal, too.”

Miami Herald staff writers Monique O. Madan and Jay Weaver contributed to this report.

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