For Capt. April Santos, the road to fulfilling her childhood dream hasn’t always been smooth. But she fought to become the one thing she felt destined to be since the first time she saw an aircraft — an Army pilot.
“My brother took to me to see Army helicopters for the first time when he was in the Guard,” the Houston native said. “Since that day, that’s always remained in the back of my mind. I knew right then that I wanted to fly and serve my country.”
Santos, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot and commander of the Company B “Jokers,” 3rd Assault Helicopter Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, is no stranger to the military.
Her father served honorably as an infantryman, and her two brothers served in the National Guard. Growing up alongside them further fueled her dream to join, she said.
“I wanted to be a soldier so bad,” Santos said. “I would always try on my brothers’ uniforms, and one year for Halloween I pretended I was G.I. Joe, not G.I. Jane.”
After high school, Santos attended college but quickly ran short on funds.
Then 9/11 happened.
“I couldn’t afford college for a whole year, and I wanted to serve my country, so I enlisted as a 52 Charlie (utilities equipment repairer),” she said. “After serving five years, I put in my Green to Gold packet (for an ROTC scholarship), completed my Associates of Arts in criminal justice at Methodist College in Fayetteville, N.C., and was picked up for flight school at Fort Rucker in 2007.”
Flight school brought its own set of challenges. During the two-year course, Santos would spend days away from her son, Demitrius, who was then only 2.
“It took a lot of friends and child care sitters to help raise my son while I was learning to fly,” she said. “I only saw him during the night, as he was already asleep during the week when I would get home. All the while, I was going through a divorce. It wasn’t easy.”
“It was rough,” she added. “I knew it would be a struggle, but the rewards would be worth it in the end. You do what you have to do to make it happen, and that’s what I did.”
After completing flight school and receiving her commission, Santos deployed with the 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 1st Infantry Division, to Camp Taji, Iraq, for a year in 2010.
Despite being halfway across the world, she and her fellow troops make the best of it, and Santos found a way to stay connected with then kindergarten-age Demitrius.
“Our unit kept its morale up during the deployment by playing practical jokes on each other to lighten the mood; we had the best water fights,” she said with a smile. “Demitrius and I bonded together over Skype, as my dinner time was his breakfast time, so we ate Lucky Charms together. It was our way of staying connected.”
Now flying with the Air Cav, Santos said she’s living her childhood dream every time she laces up her boots and dons her aviator helmet.
“Females have come a long way in the military,” she said. “I’m the first female commander this company has ever had, and the only female in the company. This battalion alone has four female commanders. That really shows the strives we’ve made.”
Santos has no intention of slowing down, as she puts in extra effort outside of duty hours to ensure she’s physically capable to keep up with the fittest of soldiers, while doing her part to help those in need.
“I run an hour every night to keep up with my younger soldiers during PT,” she said. “I also find it easy to help soldiers with their problems. Most of the time, if they have an issue with finances or relationships, I can relate to them and use my experiences to help. That’s part of the reason I joined — to help soldiers.”
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Penny Johnson, an electronic warfare technician with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, can relate to Santos.
“Captain Santos is a very strong woman to say the least,” Johnson said. “Trying to raise a child as a single mother in the military … gives her a lot to offer to her soldiers.”
Looking back, Santos said everything she overcame was worth it.
“Back then, I couldn’t imagine having the opportunity to attend flight school,” she said. “Now, here I am. It’s just like I tell my soldiers; never give up, because we all have something special to offer.”