Jon Santiago: ‘Everyone is rooting for a veteran’

FOR A TIME, it seemed like Jon Santiago was juggling every job he could. The US Army reserve major worked as an emergency room doctor at Boston Medical Center during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic while serving as state representative. He even briefly mounted a run for mayor of Boston. 

Now, he’s taking on a new role, serving as Gov. Maura Healey’s secretary of veterans’ services. Santiago is heading an office separated out from the broader health and human services secretariat as part of a 2022 law responding to what leaders have described as egregious mismanagement of soldiers’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea that contributed to fatal Covid outbreaks and miserable working conditions. 

Santiago, who is 41 and one month into his tenure, has a trust-building task ahead of him along with the practical task of overseeing facilities and benefits for more than 270,000 veterans in the state. He’s energized by the challenge.

“What struck me was the mission,” he said on The Codcast. “I’ve had a lot of interesting jobs that are very mission-oriented, whether it’s serving as a major who’s been deployed twice, as an ER doctor, as an elected official. But this mission, it’s a bit different. …  it just became very evident to me even more each day that everyone is committed to the success of a veteran. I don’t care what your gender is, what your race is, your background, your political affiliation, everyone is rooting for a veteran.”

Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico, traces his desire to practice medicine to a childhood in his adopted hometown of Boston. When he was young, Santiago said, his uncle was diagnosed with HIV and would later die from AIDS. 

“I would trace a lot of my interest in medicine and public health to those experiences, particularly looking at what I would call the social determinants of health,” he said. “How people who grow up in poor communities, ones that lack economic opportunity, educational opportunity, don’t seem to fare as well. “ 

A winding path took Santiago to rural Texas – “a couple hundred people, one general store, one Baptist church” – then college, then the Peace Corps, then working as a Fullbright Scholar through Europe, Latin America, and Africa. He returned stateside to attend medical school at Yale, enlisting in the US Army reserve while a medical student, finally landing back home in Boston with his “dream job since I was a kid, to work at Boston Medical Center, which was formerly known as Boston City Hospital,” Santiago said.

He kept that dream job while winning election to the South End legislative seat formerly held by the late Mel King and Byron Rushing. He said the Legislature was a good fit for him, even before COVID-19 hit.

“For me, I knew I wanted to do both,” Santiago said. “It’s something about being in the ER that really changes your life. You’re in a place, particularly at Boston Medical Center, the busiest trauma center in New England, the city safety net hospital, where you’re caring for some of the poorest folks in the city, across the state. And it’s always a reminder when you walk in there, what are the real issues happening on the ground when someone is shot, when someone loses their housing, when someone has any mental health issue or, or drug issue, you see it in a very real way.”

In the height of the pandemic, Santiago worked one to three night shifts a week in the emergency room on top of his legislative load. “I was young and healthy,” he said. “I had recently completed my training as an emergency medicine physician, and so I effectively doubled my hours during Covid.”

After a short-lived bid for Boston mayor in 2021, Santiago says he would have remained in the House of Representatives had Healey not tapped him to lead Veteran’s Services. He was offered the post while deployed in Syria over the holidays.

The Massachusetts veterans population is aging en masse but also bifurcating between older veterans and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, while women have become a bigger portion of the community. Veterans often struggle with serious mental health issues, substance abuse, and homelessness, Santiago said, “so it can be a challenging population to provide services for.”

Santiago has had to “take the Band-Aid off” and deal directly with the painful legacy of mismanagement at the two veterans’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea, which he said are making solid strides under the new law. 

“My task really is to build out the foundation in order to do the job that we need to do,” Santiago said. “I want to make sure that every veteran knows that we have their back and we’re committed to working with them.”



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