By John Newton
After getting lost on post, I was a few minutes late for my interview with CSM Estevan “Soto” Sotorosado, Command Sergeant Major of the famed “Night-Stalker” helicopter unit stationed at Savannah's Hunter Army-Airfield (3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne).
Sotorosado's unit is part of an elite band of helicopter pilots and support personnel responsible for flying special operation troops into combat missions under cover of darkness into some of the world's most dangerous hotspots. The battalion has been involved with every major conflict since its inception in 1981, including Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in Southwest Asia as well as Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A mutual friend, the Rev. Jim Lewis, former director of the Old Savannah City Mission (OSCM) told me I'd enjoy meeting CSM “Soto”, describing him as an incredible Christian as well as a “jihaddist butt-kicker”. Jim listed a few of the many community service activities that CSM Soto is involved in, including: bringing in groups of soldiers to interact with Savannah's homeless at OSCM and the wounded warrior bike rides where it is common for Sotorosado to pedal between 600 and 1000 miles cross-country raising funds for wounded veteran's groups.
I entered Sotorosado's office just as a soldier was leaving. The sergeant major was relaxed behind his desk but the young private was perspiring heavily.
“That soldier and I had a brief discussion about the dangers of cigarette smoking,” CSM Soto explained as he pulled his uniform jacket back on. “He didn't appreciate the damage they were doing to his lungs so we had a friendly little push-up competition. He made it to 32 pushups before he gave up and I quit at 115 when I saw it was time for our meeting. I think I made my point.”
Possessing a rock-solid physique and a brilliant smile, the 47-year-old Sotorosado is nick-named “el guapo (the handsome one)” and bears a striking resemblance to actor Eric Estrada who starred as a California Highway patrol officer in the late 70's TV-series CHIPs.
Sotorosado was born in New York City but grew up in Aguada, on Puerto Rico's west coast, a small town reputed to be the site of Christopher Columbus' first landing on the island back in 1493.
“I grew up on the streets of Aguada and learned how to survive,” he said. “I thought I was a pretty tough guy. But when I decided to join the U.S. Army, they had to send me to language school because my English was so bad.”
Sotorosado received his first aviation training at Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia when he was 21-years-old and says he never forgot the orientation lecture he heard his first day there.
“I saw this Command Sergeant Major speaking and he was the highest-ranking enlisted man there,” CSM Rosado recalled. “As he spoke to more than 3000 soldiers, I noticed that everybody paid attention to him, even the generals. I asked my drill sergeant “what do I have to do to be like that guy” and he just laughed at me and said “first you gotta learn how to wipe your a--. You can't even speak English. To get to that level is impossible for a guy like you!””
Sotorosado says his mouth got him in trouble when he assured the drill sergeant “someday you'll be working for me!”
“I think he made me do about 200 pushups that day,” he added.
But now, 26 years later, Sotorosado's life has truly come full circle. “Guess who is working in our civilian mechanic's pool here at the 3rd battalion,” he asks. “That same guy! He's retired from the military, but it's that same drill sergeant!”
On June 14th, Sotorosado will hand over the 3rd battalion sword to a new CSM in a ceremony known as the “change of responsibility”. He will then report for duty as Command Sergeant Major at his new post in Fort Eustis, Virginia as Command Sergeant Major of the 1st Battalion, 222 AVN Regiment.
“I'll be sitting there at that same podium and my job will be to produce the next generation of professional soldiers, including chuckleheads like me who had never seen a CSM,” he said. “My job will be to inspire them to realize the same dreams that I had.”
Looking back, Sotorosado credits a strong work ethic for his steady advancements in rank during 26 years of military service.
“I never hung out with my peers,” he said. “I always wanted to find senior guys, professional leaders who were a positive influence. Those are the ones who inspired me.”
Sotorosado also credits his Puerto Rican wife, Melisa, and his two grown sons, Stephen, age 22, and Josian, age 20 for his success in the military.
“We are ready to travel on literally a moment's notice and that kind of worry can put tremendous pressure on a soldier's family,” Sotorosado said. “My wife is the most beautiful woman I've ever met and she has this incredible strength and power to sustain our family while I'm away from home.”
Sotorosado also gives much credit to his parents who still live in Puerto Rico.
“My mom and dad are very humble people,” he said. “They taught me the value of being loyal to subordinates, that those working under you will give you the desire of your heart if you show them proper respect.”
Without question, the biggest change in CSM Sotorosado's life came while he was stationed at an Army post in Germany at age 22.
“My friend Omar and I showed up at a Valentines party for couples at this church in Germany,” he recalls. “This preacher was talking about Jesus and about his miracles. I stood up and said “Excuse me, but growing up I was taught that this Jesus was crucified and dead. Then the preacher told me how he lives today in the hearts of those who accept him and something just hit me. I felt a peace and I said I want Jesus to come into my life.”
Looking back, Sotorosado says his habits didn't change overnight.
“That night, I got drunk and the next week I went down and played pool and drank beer,” he said. “But my Christian friend Omar was always there for me, always ready to pick me up when I fell down.That's why I don't judge people today. I know that I am still a sinner but I have a judge and advocate who will speak for me. His name is Jesus.”
The walls of his office are covered with memorabilia he has collected over the years and one reason CSM Sotorosado has been so successful inspiring the enlisted men under his command is because he has a natural gift for teaching.
“When I get soldiers who are in trouble, I bring them into my office, leave for a few minutes and let them look around,” he said. “They see this picture of me with a wounded soldier on a warrior bike ride. They see these pictures of eagles. They see my swords. They see this picture of the biblical warrior Joshua at Jericho. Then I come back into the room and I ask them: “What is your legacy? It's either positive or negative. I tell them heroes are dead but legacies and legends never die- if you want to do something amazing for those around you, you've got to be positive and you've got to reach out for strength from God. Then they ask me: “how can I find God?””
That simple question is the one Sotorosado has been waiting to hear.
“I tell them: You just have to ask him to come into your life,” he said. “But they say: “ Sgt. Major, I drink. I smoke. I cuss.” and I say it's OK. When you come up to the King with an open heart and give over control of all the things that God detests, he says “welcome home” and he'll take the desire for those things away from you.”
Sergeant Major Sotorosado is unsure of God's plans for his life when he becomes eligible for full retirement in six years.
“Whatever it is, I know God will use this poor little Puerto Rican kid for his glory,” he said. “My goal is to touch the life of at least one person everyday. One day I will tell the story of Jesus to a General. I'm pretty sure they have all heard his story but I want to tell them my version of it. Just be careful if you give a microphone to a Puerto Rican because he's either going to preach the word or he'll try to sing a song. I love what I do and I love Jesus Christ. ”