Navy Staff Sgt. Ryan San Juan just wanted to spend four years playing in a military band.
Instead, he became a witness to history, evacuating two embassies to global hotspots in a single year – and earning Marine Corps legend status in the process.
San Juan, 31, helped oversee the emergency departure of US Embassy personnel from Afghanistan as the commander of the Marine Security Guard detachment in August 2021 in Kabul.
A month later, he took on a new post as Detachment Commander at the United States Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine. Six months later, he would support the evacuation there just before Russia declared war on that country.
It’s kind of unbelievable for the first-generation American who struggled in school and ended up in the Marine Corps almost by accident.
San Juan grew up near Miami, the son of a Dominican mother and a Cuban father, he told the Marine Corps Times.
“My first contact with the Marine Corps was when I was in middle school, seventh grade,” he said. “One of my teachers came to one of my musical performances. A few days after my performance, my teacher informed me that if I was interested in going to college…I should consider auditioning for it.
San Juan had obvious natural talent as a clarinetist, but securing a place in the military proved to be a bigger challenge than expected.
Thanks to a social studies teacher who had served six years in the Army Reserve, recruiters from all services came to his high school and he picked up their business cards.
At the Navy Recruiting Center, he was told he needed a higher score for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB. The Air Force office was closed, and the Army recruiter he was speaking with didn’t seem to know much about opportunities for musicians. But at the Marine Corps recruiting office—his final stop—something clicked.
“I felt like for the first time someone was listening to me,” San Juan said. “And finally, they were able to arrange an audition for me.”
With his clarinet by his side
San Juan’s first assignment after graduating from boot camp in 2010 was with the Marine Forces Reserve Band in New Orleans.
He enjoyed performing at Mardi Gras parades, command functions, and once at a rodeo in Houston.
But social media posts from another Navy musician who traveled the world as a Navy security guard piqued his interest.
Instead of leaving the Marines after his first enlistment as he had planned, he filed an application with the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group.
In 2015, he was assigned to the United States Embassy in Baghdad as a watchman. It was as if he was contributing to the main mission of the Marines in a more direct and intense way.
“It was the first time I had really left the country other than to visit family in the Dominican Republic,” San Juan said. “I was thrilled to be able to take on a new position in the Marine Corps and work with Marines who are not all like me…everyone comes from a different background.”
The following years took San Juan to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Canberra, Australia.
He then returned to his primary duty as a musician, serving with the III Marine Expeditionary Force Band in Okinawa, Japan.
His second engagement was coming to an end, and again, he was planning on going out. But he was offered the chance to return to his maritime security guard duties as detachment commander, which he took.
As his training for the role was winding down, he learned he was heading to Kabul. He was curious, but not particularly nervous.
“With everything going on with the reduction of troops in the country, I was intrigued to see what this meant for our diplomatic presence in Kabul,” he said.
When San Juan arrived in Kabul in mid-June 2021, he was told his mission was to stay there and keep the embassy open.
“We were always told that our mission is there, to have a diplomatic presence in Kabul, and that the embassy would not go anywhere,” he said.
Everything changed on August 13, 2021.
San Juan was ordered to evacuate the embassy, along with all of its diplomatic staff, within 48 hours.
The training has started; he and his Marines watchmen from the detachment began shredding sensitive documents, destroying electronic devices and ferrying personnel to helicopters that would take them to Hamid Karzai International Airport, where they could board a plane. a plane out of the country.
San Juan has been getting brief snatches of sleep over the past two days. He kept pondering the importance of helping close the U.S. diplomatic presence in Afghanistan until he left the embassy compound himself, early in the morning of August 16, 2021.
“It was a surreal moment for me,” he said. “That moment was when things started to dawn that I might have done something big.”
As the San Juan plane took off from Kabul, his clarinet, as always, was by his side.
Outside of emergency evacuations, he tried to play a little daily and put on concerts and performances for Marines and embassy staff when he could.
‘Oh, it’s legend’
San Juan returned to Marine Corps Embassy Security Group headquarters in Quantico, Va., just before the weekend.
On Monday morning, he was presented with a list of options for his next assignment.
He had a good relationship with his regional commander and wanted to stay in his region. So he chose what seemed to be the most promising posting available: Kyiv.
“I didn’t know anything about Eastern Europe, or Ukraine in general, except that it has a history with the Soviet Union,” San Juan said. “I felt like it might be an interesting place to go.”
He arrived in September 2021 and enjoyed playing tourist in a way he couldn’t in Kabul, exploring the old town and learning some Ukrainian and Russian.
But he was quickly made aware of the impending conflict and threats from Russia.
In October 2021, when Russia began amassing troops on the border, the embassy’s security guard detachment kept a close eye on the news, awaiting any orders. In February, they arrived: an orderly departure of personnel from Kyiv, Ukraine, followed by a deliberate evacuation.
“The first thing that came to mind was that I will forever be known as the Marine who evacuates embassies,” San Juan said. “I joined the Marine Corps to play the clarinet. And know that I’m going to be known for something that I didn’t originally join the Marine Corps for.
It also meant that San Juan had the advantage of having embassy evacuation experience, something many maritime security guards never do once in their careers.
While the evacuation from Kabul was rushed and unplanned, the departure from Kyiv was orderly and proactive.
The general staff, then the Marines, traveled to Lviv, Ukraine, then west to Poland, before Russia launched its full-scale attack on the country in March.
San Juan takes pride in doing its job well. But it’s not always easy to contemplate the war zones he left behind.
“It’s unfortunate that I have to be a part of things like this. But at the end of the day, I’m responsible for the embassy’s security and I’m their last line of defense,” he said. , when it comes time to evacuate mission personnel, I have to make sure I don’t make emotional decisions based on how I feel about the current situation, and just make sure our mission is complete. “
San Juan was quickly reassigned to his current post in Muscat, Oman. But now, at least in the maritime security guard community, he’s a celebrity.
“When I walk into a room, someone usually says, ‘Oh, that’s legend,'” he laughed.
The jokes are also incessant: the Marines criticize him for causing chaos wherever he goes, warning that any cafe or restaurant he enters is about to be evacuated.
Within the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, he is a sought-after speaker. He spoke to the instructor staff at the school in Quantico, Va. about his experience evacuating Kabul and Kyiv, briefed other detachment commanders in his area, and even spoke to detachments from other embassies. .
“My best advice is to rethink the fact that everyone joined the Marine Corps for a different reason,” he said, “it doesn’t matter what your MOS is. If you’re a musician like me, you’re a cook. , you’re an administrative specialist, at the end of the day, every Marine is a trained rifleman. And when you’re put in a situation…the people at the embassy see you as their last line of defense. All trust and confidence is placed on yourself.
As for his family in Florida, he has developed a system to avoid worries.
“My family is watching my social media closely,” he said. “As long as I post nice and happy things, that’s what keeps them calm and sane. And they know that at this point, if I’m in a hectic situation, once the storm passes, I I’ll call and let them know I’m fine.