Army vet, who served with gunman in Iraq, was at airport during shooting

A photo, including suspected Ft. Lauderdale airport shooter Esteban Santiago and Luis Ortiz-Sanchez, taken during a deployment to Iraq. (Photo: Luis Ortiz-Sanchez)

Two veterans, one active duty and one now separated, were at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport when mass murderer, Esteban Santiago, an Iraq War veteran opened fire killing five and wounding six.

Air Force officials have confirmed that one of the individuals wounded during the shooting by Santiago is Albany, GA., native Senior Master Sgt. Christopher B. Prather.

According to the Albany Herald, Prather is a member of the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center and has been stationed at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, since Aug 2016. His duty position is vehicle maintenance major command functional manager. In this capacity, he conducts manning, force development and career field management in his specialty for airmen in the commands he supports.

Prather has been released from the hospital and is at home recovering with his family by his side, according to the paper.

The second veteran escaped injury, but nevertheless didn’t escape the chaos and stress brought on by the shooting.

According to 12NEWS in Arizona, Luis Ortiz-Sanchez said he and his wife were on their way home from vacation when they drove from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale to fly back to Phoenix after spending the holidays with family.

Ortiz-Sanchez asked 12NEWS to conceal his identity during an on-air interview but said he’s been in touch with police and is volunteering to give them any information they need.

Ortiz-Sanchez and his wife eventually ended up in a hangar. That’s when Ortiz-Sanchez learned who the shooter was … a friend in Iraq texted him a picture.

“They told me ‘Hey … Zombie is the shooter and I said ‘No, it’s not — it’s not true,’” he said.

Ortiz-Sanchez was in disbelief until he saw a picture of Esteban Santiago. They served in Iraq together. He last saw him in the spring of 2011.

Ortiz-Sanchez and his wife Alejandra heard the chaos when they were waiting to go through security. Then they heard a TSA agent telling passengers to run.

“I told my wife to stay low, close to the wall,” he told 12NEWS. “When you train, you know what’s going to happen, because you know that you are in this training. But in real life, you don’t expect that and less in the airport, when we’re supposed to be safe.”

Ortiz-Sanchez says he knows Santiago well, and reflected on the time they spent deployed together.

“Santiago used to talk a lot about zombies, so he and other friends nicknamed Santiago ‘Zombie.’”

Now he wonders if Santiago is suffering from mental issues.

“If I could ask him a question, I would ask him about the Soldier’s Creed,” he said.

“He knows the Soldier’s Creed and he knows that we joined the military to protect the people in the United States and to protect the Constitution.”

“Why are you going to shoot innocent people?” he said.

Ortiz-Sanchez said when they got home from deployment, anyone that needed mental or physical evaluation sought help from the VA or on their own. He wishes Santiago would have been able to get the help he needed.

According to reports and NBC News, Santiago walked into an FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska, on Nov. 7 “to report that his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency,” Special Agent in Charge Marlin Ritzman told reporters.

Bryan Santiago, the shooter’s brother, said Esteban was “still a nice guy but sometimes more furious” after he returned from Iraq.

But he said his brother later seemed to develop mental issues, and, during a visit to Alaska months ago, “he told me about these things that he [was] hearing voices, seeing people following him, the CIA and the government are, you know, writing him secret codes on the website to him and to join a group.”

According to KTTU Alaska, Santiago was told during his first court appearance he could face face the death penalty if convicted.

The 26-year old is facing federal charges involving murder, firearms and airport violence.

The motive for the shooting is still under investigation.

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  • Jim Verchio is a staff writer for Popular Military. As a retired Air Force Public Affairs craftsman, Jim has served at all levels. From staff writer to Editor-In-Chief, he has more than 30 years experience covering military topics in print and broadcast from the CONUS to Afghanistan. He is also a two time recipient of the DoD’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson Award for journalism excellence.

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