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An ordinary drive to work became an extraordinary moment for local Marine

Sgt. Marcus Santana celebrated his 27th birthday Sunday, an occasion that brought him an unexpected, yet uplifting gift.

Five days earlier, Sgt. Santana was driving to his office on East Main Street in Riverhead where he works as a recruiter for the U.S. Marines. He had joined the service at 21 and did tours in the Middle East before committing to the Marines full-time as a career. About two years ago he became a recruiter in the town where he grew up.

Last Tuesday, as he navigated through the Riverside traffic circle in his red pickup truck splashed with Marines decals, he noticed an elderly woman who appeared to be struggling to walk across the street.

He stopped his truck in the exit lane to allow the woman to pass in front of him. The woman lost her footing and all her weight came down on the back wheels of a cart she was pushing.

“The cart went out in front of her and she smacked her face on the ground,” Sgt. Santana said.

Without hesitation, Sgt. Santana put his truck in park and raced to the woman’s aid. Through his service in the Marines, Sgt. Santana has trained for emergency situations. 

“It was time to put that practical application into play,” he recalled Monday.

He kneeled beside the woman, who started to shake. He thought the woman might be having a seizure or stroke. He checked her pulse and the gravity of the situation sunk in. The woman was unconscious. 

He directed a bystander to call 911 and began to perform CPR. After a few minutes of chest compressions, she became responsive. She began to spit up and cough.

Sgt. Santana made sure to keep the woman where she had fallen, as to not make the situation worse by attempting to move her out of the road.

“Immediately when she smacked her face against the ground, I already knew the magnitude of the situation,” he said.

He felt a sense of relief once the woman appeared to gain consciousness and then waited for the first responders to arrive. About 15 minutes after the woman first fell, the EMTs with the Flanders Northampton Volunteer Ambulance Corps arrived to take over and transfer the woman to a nearby hospital.

Sgt. Santana remained on scene for a while longer, recounting what had happened to the New York State Troopers and Southampton Town police. And as soon as she was in the EMTs care, he dialed his chain of command to let them know what had happened and why he was running late.

He was soon back to the office.

For the rest of the day, he struggled to focus on his work as he thought about the woman. He had no idea how she was doing since being driven away in the ambulance. He didn’t know who she was. 

He didn’t realize at the time, but the woman, whom he estimated to be in her early 80s, was the aunt of a family friend. The woman acknowledged Sgt. Santana in a social media post, thanking him for his life-saving efforts.

And another surprise was in store: A plate of cookies as a birthday present Sunday.

To find out that the woman was going to be OK was like a “major weight lifted off my shoulders,” Sgt. Santana said.

“It was probably the most humbling moment in my life,” he added.

The news of Sgt. Santana’s heroics quickly began to spread and the Marines issued a press release under the title “Marine recruiter saves a life.”

By Monday morning, the calls and messages began to flood in, including one that took him by surprise. A two-star general reached out Monday with a message praising Sgt. Santana’s actions and calling him a “Marine’s Marine.”

Nearly a week after the incident, Sgt. Santana said he still couldn’t quite wrap his head around what had happened and the response that began to come in.

“Overwhelming is an understatement,” he said. “I’m trying to focus on the kids I’m putting into the Marine Corps and making sure they’re taken care of. But it’s not a stressful thing. It’s really humbling.”

Sgt. Santana graduated from Riverhead High School in 2012, where he played football and lacrosse. In his role now, he works with students in schools all across the East End.

He had joined the Marine Corps with a goal to make a difference in the world. And now, he’ll have another story to share with the young people he encounters, of how the call to duty can strike at any time even in your hometown.

“When I’m sitting kneecap to kneecap with these kids, I can actually show them, this is what we do. We take care of our own, our community,” he said.