(El Paso, Texas, Nov. 2, 2017)
After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, many communities became isolated due to flooding from the storm. As a result, many citizens desperately needed basic living staples such as food, water, fuel and medical supplies.
Soldiers assigned to the Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Armored Division, came through with help.
In particular, Maj. Gema Robles, executive officer, CAB, 1st AD, and a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and helicopter crews from the CAB, took the time to help the community of Barrio San Lorenzo, a small town struggling to make ends meet.
“Every time I talked to those folks, they were getting more and more help,” Robles said. “It was comforting to land three times in the same place, to connect with people and be able to provide for some of their needs, and also to see them having the means (themselves).”
Others joked that she adopted the village, she said. But Robles saw it as a chance to get people affected by the storm the help they desperately needed.
“Things are getting better,” Robles said. “I saw the improvement over six or seven days in this small town. That really put me at ease. Things are moving in the right direction.”
Soldiers assigned to the CAB are doing their part in supporting relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
The unit aided the Department of Defense’s mission on the island through supporting U.S. Army North, FEMA and first responders.
“We do a lot of things on behalf of the United States at large, but this one hits close to home,” Robles said. “I think anybody would jump at the chance to just go do whatever. I could be shoveling dirt, as long as I was here helping with something, it’s worth it.”
The CAB’s mission is focused on delivering food and water to disaster survivors, providing medical evacuation support, assessing terrain and route viability and distributing resources with emergency services to isolated communities throughout the island.
“The sheer joy in their faces and their eyes that you can see, regardless of the language you’re speaking, is definitely a telling sign of how grateful they are in receiving the supplies,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Ryan Dechent, a CH-47 Chinook pilot assigned to the unit. “That’s equally felt by the aircrews and all the personnel we take with us to help distribute and get supplies in the hands of the people.”
The CAB has been working hand-in-hand with FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, a Marine aviation unit, and Army National Guard units from New York, Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico.
Together, they have distributed approximately 474,130 pounds of water, 169,710 pounds of food and 4,155 pounds of medical supplies to those affected by Hurricane Maria through their joint effort.
“We did similar missions for (Hurricane) Harvey, but we’ve done a lot more here,” Robles said, “primarily because of the need and because of the saturation of a bunch of other assets over there versus what’s over here. Here it’s what comes through boat and by air, so there’s a more limited pool of assets to help the region.”
The CAB deployed to Puerto Rico between Sept. 26 and Oct. 11, bringing in UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters. The mission was an opportunity to help those who need it most, Dechent said.
“It’s very gratifying,” Dechent said. “It’s a needed mission. We love the opportunity to be able to provide assistance and help out. We’ve performed similar support missions in Houston, but having an opportunity to help the remote areas here and seeing and interacting with the local population has been an experience.”
Robles, who was raised in the Rio Piedras neighborhood of San Juan, had the chance to check in on her family who stayed in Puerto Rico during the storm. She viewed the mission as a chance to give back to her former home.
“The opportunity to come back to your homeland and to check on your folks and be able to help your countrymen in the same place where you grew up brings peace of mind,” Robles said. “There’s also a sense of helping the commonwealth and my hometown, which is an honor.”