Diego Enrique Santiago stands at attention, his small fists clenched at his side. Dressed in size 6, custom-made dress blues, Diego's brown eyes scan the Jacksonville USO. In the large hall, he's surrounded by Navy chief petty officers, family and friends. They've come to watch 5-year-old Diego realize one of his dreams - to become a chief petty officer just like his dad, Chief Hospital Corpsman Jesus Santiago. It's something he is unlikely to have the chance to do as an adult.
Wish come true
Diego has been battling lung cancer for the past several months, and his immune system has weakened in recent weeks. In January, his doctors gave him three weeks to live, his mother said. His family - mom, dad and sisters Brandi, Ali and Samara - plus others have worked to make as many of Diego's wishes come true as they can. Becoming a chief petty officer was the ultimate, Jesus Santiago, said. "This is his wish come true," he said after the ceremony. "He's always wanted to emulate me, and he has finally gotten his wish. That means more to me than his weight in gold."
Chief Hospital Corpsman Charles Clements, a coworker of Santiago's and the man who organized Thursday's event, had never met Diego until the pinning ceremony. Before it could happen, Clements had to get the permission of Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Terry D. Scott. "I knew that Diego has grown up thinking he is in the Navy all of his life," Clements said. "Becoming a chief was just the next step. To my knowledge it's never been done before. There have been honorary chiefs, but they have all been adults."
Clements calls Diego and his parents to the front. His mother and father stand by their son's side as Clements begins. "Today Chief Select Santiago is joining a proud and strong, 113-year-old tradition of chief petty officer leadership in our Navy," Clements says. "We are proud to welcome him to our ranks." Jesus and Cookie Santiago take turns pinning the golden anchors on the lapels of their son's uniform. "They have successfully guided their charge through the challenging last few months and stand with him today as he joins our ranks," Clements says. Throughout the reading of the certificate, little Diego maintains a serious expression. His eyes are focused straight ahead.
"Chief Santiago, remember who you are now, you must wear these anchors with pride and behave in a way that will always protect them from any dishonor or stain," Clements says. After the pinning, Chief Diego is presented with his cover, a symbol of the Naval community, while Clements reads the official creed. All chiefs and master chief petty officers are asked to rise to the occasion. About 50 men and women in the audience, all in uniform, duplicate Diego's attentive stance.
"During the course of this day you have been caused to humbly accept challenge and face adversity," Clements reads. "This you have accomplished with rare good grace. Pointless as some of these challenges may have seemed, there were valid, time-honored reasons behind each pointed barb. It was necessary to meet these hurdles with blind faith in the fellowship of chief petty officers. The goal was to instill in you that trust is inherent with the donning of the uniform of a chief. ". You must face each challenge and adversity with the same dignity and good grace you demonstrated today. By experience, by performance and by testing you have been this day advanced to Chief Petty Officer."
Just like dad
Clements told the crowd that Diego wasn't merely being promoted by a pay grade but joined an exclusive fellowship. Diego will share a special responsibility with his comrades. New responsibilities and privileges that go along with becoming a chief petty officer do not appear in print. They have no official standing; they cannot be referred to by name, number, or file. They have existed for more than 100 years, Clements said. "Chiefs before you have freely accepted responsibility beyond the call of printed assignment," he said.
As the ceremony came to an end, Clements proclaimed Diego as Chief Diego Santiago. At that point Diego's serious expression turned to an ear-to-ear grin as he and his parents walked hand-in-hand down the aisle among the other officers. Everyone in the room cheered and gave him a standing ovation.
Once the official ceremony ended, Diego walked over to the cake table and cut the first piece. His mother fed him while all the officers waited in line to shake their new comrade's hand and give him a salute. More than a dozen handed him coins from their squadrons. "This is more fun than playing video games," Diego said. "I liked the coins because they have eagles on them." Later when asked why he wanted the position as chief petty officer, Diego told his mother it was so he could ask someone to go get him doughnuts and he would not have to say thank you.
"So I could be just like my dad," he said.
Our Youngest Chief transferred to the Supreme Commander for final duty station 8/2/06