My heart sank when I arrived in Puerto Rico and saw the damage and destruction of Hurricane Maria first hand. I had seen some of the news reports about it beforehand but was unprepared to witness the level of destruction the hurricane had wreaked on the Island – it was mind blowing. After spending two weeks traveling to different regions, the devastation of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was visible but more apparent was the resilience and strength of the Puerto Ricans.
Civic leaders, government officials, small business owners and local citizens alike demonstrated resourcefulness, hard work, and they showed how much they cared about each other. As dedicated and driven as the citizens of Puerto Rico are, the devastation is just too much to handle alone. They will need the United States military’s continued support to get back to the lives they knew before this year’s hurricanes and in some areas, it will likely take years before normalcy is restored.
My message to Puerto Rico is that the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense take tremendous pride in working alongside them as long as possible to help them get back on their feet.
Sometimes, that help comes from the sky.
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Immediately after Hurricane Irma, and subsequently Maria, devastated Puerto Rico, the Air Force began flying military supplies and equipment into the territory to provide relief to fellow Americans. Under the direction of Lt. Gen. Scott Williams at 1st Air Force, Tyndall AFB, Fla. Drawing from a wealth of experience, we knew the best way to make a difference was to open the island’s airfields and ports so that supplies and essential commodities could begin flowing into Puerto Rico. Within hours after the storm subsided, Airmen from Air Mobility Command, specifically the contingency response forces, leapt into action, just as they have done in response to military operations around the world. Among the first tasked was the 621st Contingency Response Wing and the 123rd Airlift Wing; these bold and innovative Airmen bring with them all of the cargo handling equipment, communications support, and airfield lighting necessary to control and download large aircraft filled with supplies. Their job was to establish a logistical head and open the airfield at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, before elements from other contingency response groups arrived to open airfields in Ponce, Aguadilla and Ceiba.
Opening airfields isn’t as simple as one may think. Our CRGs bring elements of a wide variety of airfield support functions from two electrical capabilities to tower airfield lights and navigational aids. They bring air traffic controllers, security forces, logisticians, material handling equipment, as well as communications and a host of other Airmen that perform necessary functions to ensure logistics supplies move through devastated airfields quickly and efficiently. They are expertly trained and equipped to begin cross-loading commodities from strategic airlift airplanes like the C-17 Globemaster III, C-130 Hercules, and C-5 Galaxy onto semi-trucks or rotary wing assets for rapid delivery of relief supplies to the most remote areas of Puerto Rico. Within hours of landing, they inspected the condition of Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport and reestablished its operational capability.
Make no mistake, the magnitude of this joint relief operation has been nothing short of astounding. To date, the Air Force has executed nearly 2,000 flights carrying more than 10,000 passengers and about 28 million pounds of cargo since hurricane season began.
The array of Air Force assets alone has been instrumental to both the DoD and FEMA as they executed their immediate mission to save lives and work to restore normalcy to the strong Puerto Rican people. The Total Force Air Mobility Command team leveraged almost every fixed-wing aircraft in the inventory, to include the C-5, C-17, C-130, and KC-135 Stratotanker. The relief efforts also benefited from historic levels of volunteerism from across the Total Force, which has made a tremendous difference in our ability to help. We’ve had Air Guardsmen and Reservists from almost every state supporting the airlift effort; indeed over half of the missions supporting hurricane relief operations in Puerto Rico have been flown by citizen Airmen who only wish to lend a helping hand to their fellow Americans in need.
Another amazing aspect to the relief operations is the eagerness sister services show in working together. Whether an individual is a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, Coastguardsman, or from the host of other agencies that swarmed to help the island — all I hear from these amazing individuals is the pride in getting relief out to Puerto Ricans. Our ability to come together quickly as a team is perhaps one of our military’s greatest strengths.
The joint interagency effort must continue to ensure supplies and equipment are provided to the most impacted citizens in the handful of isolated communities in challenging mountainous terrain. We will continue to supply those communities using rotary wing assets until we can clear roadways to provide additional resources. The amount of work ahead is immense but the effort I’ve seen first-hand has been humbling. We all recognize that these are our fellow American citizens and as such owe them our full support.
I want to close by saying that the work done by servicemembers happening right now in Puerto Rico demonstrates the values of the American people. It was immensely evident in a photo I saw of a young girl giving an Army Soldier a hug after receiving bottled water. The impact that precious moments like these have on our lives remind us why we serve, why we wear the uniform.
Gen. Sharpy served for several weeks as the Joint Force Land Component Command Deputy Commander for Air in Puerto Rico, working directly for the general officer who was in charge of Puerto Rico operations, Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, commander, U.S. Army North.