Marine 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 in global hot spots in a single year ― and earning Marine Corps legend status in the process.
San Juan, 31, helped oversee the emergency departure of U.S. embassy staff from Afghanistan as the Marine Security Guard detachment commander in August 2021 in Kabul.
A month later, he arrived at a new post as detachment commander at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine. Half a year later, he’d support the evacuation there just before Russia declared war on that country.
It’s all a little unbelievable for the first-generation American who struggled in school and ended up in the Marine Corps almost by chance.
San Juan grew up near Miami, the son of a Dominican mother and a Cuban father, he told Marine Corps Times.
“My first taste of the Marine Corps was back when I was in middle school, in 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 look into auditioning for that.”
San Juan had clear natural talent as a clarinetist, but securing a place in the military turned out to be a greater challenge than expected.
Thanks to a social studies teacher who had served six years in the Army Reserve, recruiters from every service came to his high school, and he collected their business cards.
At the Navy recruiting center, he was told he needed a higher Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, score. The Air Force office was closed, and the Army recruiter he spoke 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, somebody was listening to me,” San Juan said. “And eventually, they were able to set me up with an audition.”
With his clarinet by his side
San Juan’s first assignment after graduating 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 Houston rodeo.
But social media posts from another Marine musician who was traveling the world as a Marine security guard piqued his interest.
Instead of leaving the Marines after his first enlistment as he’d planned, he put in an application package with Marine Corps Embassy Security Group.
In 2015, he was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad as a watchstander. It felt like he was contributing to the core mission of the Marines in a more direct and intense way.
“That was the first time I really left the country other than visiting family in the Dominican Republic,” San Juan said. “I was excited to be able to work in a new job within the Marine Corps, and work with Marines that are not all like me … everyone comes from a different background.”
The next few 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 enlistment was coming to an end, and again he planned to get out. But he was offered the opportunity to return to Marine security guard duty as a detachment commander, which he took.
As his training for the role wrapped up, he learned he was headed to Kabul. He was curious, but not particularly nervous.
“With everything that was going on with reducing the troops within the country, I was intrigued to see what that meant for our diplomatic presence in Kabul,” he said.
When San Juan arrived in Kabul mid-June 2021, he was told his mission was to stay there and keep the embassy open.
“It was always reiterated to us that our mission is there, to have a diplomatic presence in Kabul, and that the embassy was not going to go anywhere,” he said.
That all changed Aug. 13, 2021.
San Juan received orders that the embassy, with all its diplomatic personnel, would be evacuated within 48 hours.
Training kicked in; he and his Marine watchstanders in the detachment began shredding sensitive documents, destroying electronics and transporting staff to helicopters that would take them to Hamid Karzai International Airport, where they could board a plane out of the country.
San Juan got brief snatches of sleep over those two final days. He didn’t stop to reflect on the significance of helping to close out the U.S. diplomatic presence in Afghanistan until he departed the embassy compound himself, early in the morning on Aug. 16, 2021.
“It was a surreal moment for myself,” he said. “That moment was when things started to sort of come into light that I might have done something important.”
As San Juan’s plane departed Kabul, his clarinet, as always, was right by his side.
Apart from emergency evacuations, he tried to play a little bit daily, and organize gigs and performances for Marines and embassy staff when he could.
‘Oh, it’s the legend’
San Juan arrived back at Marine Corps Embassy Security Group headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, just before the weekend.
On Monday morning, he was presented a list of options for his next posting.
He had a good relationship with his regional commanding officer, and wanted to stay in his region, so he chose what looked like the most promising posting available: Kyiv.
“I knew nothing about Eastern Europe, or Ukraine in general, other than it has some history with the Soviet Union,” San Juan said. “I felt like it could be an interesting place to go to.”
He arrived in September 2021 and enjoyed playing tourist in a way he hadn’t been able to in Kabul, exploring the old city and learning bits of Ukrainian and Russian.
But he quickly was brought up to speed on the looming conflict and threats from Russia.
In October 2021, when Russia began to amass troops on the border, the embassy security guard detachment watched for news closely, awaiting any orders. In February, they came: an ordered departure of staff from Kyiv, Ukraine, followed by a deliberate evacuation.
“The first thing that came to my mind was, I will forever be known as the Marine that evacuates embassies,” San Juan said. “I joined the Marine Corps to play clarinet. And know I’m going to be known for something I didn’t originally join the Marine Corps for.”
That also meant San Juan had the benefit of experience with embassy evacuation, something many Marine security guard watchstanders never do even once in their careers.
While the Kabul evacuation was hasty and unplanned, the Kyiv departure felt orderly and proactive.
Staff and then the Marines moved to Lviv, Ukraine, and then west to Poland, departing before Russia launched its full-scale attack on the country in March.
San Juan is proud of doing his job well. But it’s not always easy to contemplate the war zones he has left behind.
“It’s unfortunate that I have to be a part of things like this. But ultimately, I’m responsible for the safety of the embassy, and I’m their last line of defense,” he said. “So when the time comes to evacuate mission personnel, I have to make sure that I don’t make any emotional decisions based on how I feel with the situation at hand, and just make sure that our mission gets completed.”
San Juan was quickly reassigned to his current posting in Muscat, Oman. But now, at least in the Marine security guard community, he’s a celebrity.
“When I walk into a room, someone will usually say, ‘Oh, it’s the legend,’” he chuckled.
The jokes are also incessant: Marines rib him for bringing chaos wherever he goes, warning that any coffee shop or restaurant he enters is about to be evacuated.
Within Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, he is a sought-after speaker. He has spoken to instructor staff at the schoolhouse in Quantico, Virginia, about his experience evacuating Kabul and Kyiv, briefed other detachment commanders within his region and even spoken to detachments at other embassies.
“My best piece of advice is just thinking back to, 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, ultimately, every Marine is a trained rifleman. And when you get put in a situation … the embassy folks are looking at you as their last line of defense. All the trust and confidence is placed on yourself.”
As for his family back in Florida, he has worked out a system to stave off worry.
“My family monitors my social media closely,” he said. “As long as I’m posting nice and happy things, that’s what keeps them calm and sane. And they know at this point, if I’m in a hectic situation, once the storm passes, I will call them and let them know I’m OK.”