Fort Carson soldiers coming to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico’s aid

Author: Liz Forster, The Gazette - September 30, 2017 - Updated: December 31, 2017

A solider walks out of the C-17 Loadmaster as various supplies and military vehicles were loaded inside as approximately 150 4th Sustainment Brigade, 4th Infantry Division soldiers were deployed to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to provide sustainment support to Hurricane Maria Relief efforts at Fort Carson ADAC/G on Friday September 29, 2017 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

Two weeks after returning from helping Texans recover from Hurricane Harvey, soldiers from Fort Carson’s 4th Sustainment Brigade are headed to Puerto Rico to assist after an even more devastating storm, Hurricane Maria.

A group of 120 soldiers were leaving Friday and Saturday for Puerto Rico, while 22 soldiers were heading to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth, has been without power and is desperately short of medical supplies, food, fuel and drinking water, after the powerful Category 5 swept over 10 days ago with sustained winds of 175 mph and drenching rain that flooded much of the Caribbean island washed out bridges and roads.

The Trump administration has come under criticism for its response to the humanitarian crisis, prompting the federal government to ramp up the military’s assistance, particularly in transporting and delivering critical supplies to cut-off areas.

Once on the island, Fort Carson soldiers will work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local authorities.

“It’s a pretty dire situation down there,” said Col. Geoff Kent, commander of the 4th Sustainment Brigade. “Now that the ports and airports are opening, there is a flood of critical supply coming in that we will focus on transporting to the places that need them.”

Kent anticipates the brigade will be in the Caribbean for up to two months but “are prepared to be there for as long as needed.”

“My soldiers just want to help the people of Puerto Rico. They take things like this to heart,” Kent said.

One of the brigade’s soldiers, Capt. Joaquin Matias, was born and raised in Guaynaba, Puerto Rico, and much of his family still lives on the island. Matias was able to speak with his father and father-in-law for the first time Thursday. He said his family was “lucky” compared with other people. Since they all live close to one another, they were able to lend a hand to help repair the minimal damage they experienced.

Even though he knows his family is safe, he is still dismayed that the place he calls home was destroyed and its people suffering.

“When it’s your home, you have mixed feelings going back,” said Matias, who last visited the island for his daughter’s wedding in July. “But . we’re ready to deploy tonight.”

Matias noted that the brigade’s preparation for Hurricane Irma enabled them to get ready faster for this next mission.

“In hindsight, we were ready for this second storm because of the first,” Matias said.

Ninety of the brigade’s soldiers, some of whom are in Puerto Rico and St. Thomas, also went to Texas after Hurricane Harvey.

“The response from the Texas community to our efforts was great,” Kent said. “Our synergy with FEMA, the Texas National Guard and the other organizations down there helped command and control be right where it needed to.”

Esmeralda Salazar, a Texas native who left Friday for Puerto Rico, was on leave when the brigade was sent to Hurricane Harvey.

“The hurricane in Texas hit home,” she said. “I love to give back to Puerto Rico if I can.”

Liz Forster, The Gazette

Liz Forster, The Gazette