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Mission to Serve: Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 23, 2017 as a Category 5 hurricane. It was difficult to determine the extent of the damage early on, because communication infrastructure had been completely destroyed on the island. However, it became clear that help would be needed, and a call for volunteers soon reached East Tennessee.

The 134th Air Refueling Wing received a request for eight Services members to run a Disaster Relief Mobile Kitchen Trailer (DRMKT) on September 29th, and shortly after another request arrived for three Personnel Support for Contingency Operations (PERSCO) members to assist with accountability. On Oct. 2 the 11 Volunteers shipped out for Louisville, Kentucky, where they trained with the 123rd Airlift Wing until they were able to secure transport to Puerto Rico. Master Sgt. Matthew Dagnan, Assistant Services Manager, describes what they saw when they landed on Oct. 13, 2017.

“When we arrived it was very disturbing to see the skyline of a city with no lights at all. It was surreal, and a little unnerving. But once we adapted to it we were motivated to help people, and do what we trained to do.”

The PERSCO team was stationed in San Juan, where they had a deceptively simple task: They needed to get accountability of all Air National Guard assets in Puerto Rico. However, with no power, phones, or even contact information for people on the ground, the task became a much bigger challenge. Major Jaime Blanton, PERSCO Officer in Charge, explained how they overcame this problem.

“We’re so used to working on email and phones, but when we were forced to go and communicate face to face, that is where we were the most successful. When we got there, we were operating on assumptions. When we decided to go out to the sites that was the most valuable thing we could do.”

Following the hurricane, ANG units were sending people to four different entry points on the island as soon they could get them in. However, there was no on-scene personnel team to track their arrival, so no accountability had been compiled. The PERSCO team had to travel to each military location and create a list of individuals that had arrived. By personally visiting every military site and obtaining on-scene data, they were able to locate over 500 people that previously hadn’t been accounted for.

The DRMKT team forward deployed to Mayaguez along with members from the 123rd. They reached a bare base in the form of a closed airport, and learned that their mission was to feed the Army soldiers who had been working to distribute aid to the local community since the hurricane. The location had no running water, electricity or facilities, and the soldiers had been living on MREs since their arrival. The DRMKT team quickly cleared space and set up their personal shelters as well as the DRMKT so they could start providing hot meals. Staff Sergeant Ruben Gonzalez, Food Service Supervisor, explains how the team was driven to do more.

“When we left, we thought we would be there to help the people. Once we found out we were there to feed the soldiers, we wanted to find our own way to help. So, as a group, we came up with the money.”

Gonzalez and the rest of the 134th and 123rd DRMKT members pooled their own money and went on a shopping trip during their limited down time. They bought over $500 of items they hoped would help the locals, including food, sanitary supplies and baby necessities. They made contact with a local minister who was able to direct them to people in need. Gonzalez explained that even with all of their struggles, the people of Puerto Rico were still in high spirits.

“One of the best things was that even though they were in that situation, they were still grateful. One of the things you saw everywhere was, ‘Puerto Rico Se Levanta,’ which means, ‘Puerto Rico will Stand.’ Everyone was so grateful, and so happy.”

The DRMKT members would arrange another shopping trip before they left, and found the locals as appreciative as before. Dagnan explained,

“When we went to support the community, people came out of the woodwork and they were so grateful. One man looked up at the sky and thanked God for us being there, and we were just giving a small bag of rice. You don’t get much more impactful than that.”

When it was time to return to Tennessee, the Volunteers were ready to enjoy some of the comforts of home. However, as PERSCO member Technical Sgt. Chris Ayers explained, everyone was grateful to have been able to go.

“This is what most of us join the military for, to go help people in need. It was very humbling. In my opinion it was just super cool to be a part of it.”

Gonzalez was grateful that he was able to check on his family while he was there, and served as interpreter to help people that didn’t speak English. Gonzalez concluded,

“Everyone had an integral piece and that was really rewarding. I couldn’t fix it by myself, no one could. But we at least got the chance to do something.”