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Puerto Rico: Veterans Day in the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria

Korean War Army veteran Rafael Gomez and Vietnam veteran Javier Morales present the POW/MIA flag during a Veterans Day event in Catano, Puerto Rico, on Nov. 11. (Stars and Stripes photo/Carlos Bongioanni)
Korean War Army veteran Rafael Gomez and Vietnam veteran Javier Morales present the POW/MIA flag during a Veterans Day event in Catano, Puerto Rico, on Nov. 11. (Stars and Stripes photo/Carlos Bongioanni)

CATANO, Puerto Rico -- For the more than 95,000 veterans on this island of 3.5 million people, Veterans Day marks the tremendous pride many here have in their service. They put on their uniforms, don their pins, badges and caps and stand proud as they are recognized.

Saturday's commemoration had all of that. But on this island, where Hurricane Maria took straight aim seven weeks ago, the storm's aftermath was very present.

Veterans spoke of their experiences as the hurricane made landfall, of the loss sustained across this territory and of the need for recovery. Generals and other U.S. Army officials from the mainland sat alongside Puerto Rican officers on the dais, who thanked them for coming to help Puerto Rico.

People lined up at a table where the Red Cross was handing out cases of bottled water. And memories of Iraq and Korea were punctuated by the terror of Sept. 20 and the relief that friends, family or their homes were still here.

For some, it was a chance to catch up after the devastation. For 89-year old Korean War veteran Rafael Gomez, it was a chance to be thankful for being spared.

This year, "it's different," said Gomez. "This is like a celebration."

Gomez was wounded by artillery fire in 1951 when he was trying to retrieve the body of a dead soldier. As in past years, he helped place the POW/MIA - or prisoners of war, missing in action -- flag. It's a reminder that soldiers like the one whose body he couldn't retrieve were never accounted for.

"We (have to) forget about the past," Gomez said - as easily referring to the terror of Maria as to the horror of war. "Otherwise we grow crazy."

Troops winding down

Nearby in the gathered crowd, the top commander overseeing U.S. military response to the disaster, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, stopped to pose for pictures and shake hands with veterans.

Buchanan announced Friday that some of the 10,000 federal troops on the ground would soon begin winding down operations in Puerto Rico as relief efforts shift from crisis mode. He is scheduled to redeploy from the island on Monday, according to a statement released by the Joint Forces Land Component Command.

Some active duty forces will remain, particularly in medical and communications areas, the statement said. Other tasks will be taken on by local National Guard and reserve forces, and civilian agencies.

"We are moving clearly towards recovery," Buchanan told Stars and Stripes. "The military is here predominantly for emergency response. It is slowly moving toward -- I wouldn't say normalization but -- stabilization."

Hurricane Maria knocked out water, power and communications to most of the island. Many homes were destroyed. Downed bridges, trees, electrical poles and wires blocked access to neighborhoods. Initially, Marines, soldiers and National Guardsman from other states were sent in to help distribute food and water, clear the roads and address other emergencies.

That urgency has now been replaced with the slow work of trying to restore everyday life here. In the hardest hit areas, many are still isolated without power or water. About 44 percent of power has been restored, mostly in the bigger cities and towns and to hospitals and other big facilities.

"The recovery is going to last for years," Buchanan said. "FEMA is going to be here for years."

National Guard getting paid

Also shaking hands in the crowd was Brig. Gen. Jose Reyes, assistant adjutant general of the Puerto Rican National Guard.

Reyes said there are 5,000 Guardsmen responding to the crisis -- 3,400 of them Puerto Ricans who were mobilized after the storm. It wasn't until this week, however, that the paperwork and funding caught up with the mission.

For nearly six weeks, the Puerto Rican Guardsmen were not compensated, Reyes acknowledged. "Yesterday, they were paid up until Oct. 15," he said. The total was $5.53 million.

"We are in the process of preparing the payroll from the 16th to the 30th.... And I think we are back on track."

While that was going on, a percentage of the Guardsman stopped reporting to duty - they needed to work or tend to their families, Reyes said. He did not say how many didn't show up to work.

"Some of the soldiers had to go back because of their businesses and day jobs," he said. "We have to get the economy back up."

Helping each other

In her wheelchair and wearing an unwavering smile, Army veteran Alba Rivera de Jesus said the Veterans Day event this year was more than a commemoration of service.

For her, it was a chance to catch up with friends and see how they fared in the storm.

"Some lost their houses but at least they are OK," said the Army chief warrant officer 4, who was medically retired after injuring her back and legs in a fall in Iraq in 2009.

Rivera de Jesus was in Washington ahead of Maria, competing in an Army-Navy half-marathon wheelchair race Sept. 17. Afterward, all she could focus on was getting back to Puerto Rico before the storm.

"I had to be with my family," she said. She boarded a plane on Sept. 19 -- the day before the storm hit, and rode out the hurricane with her parents in their home in the mountains. She has been going back and forth from her home in San Juan to her family with supplies since then.

"It was horrible," she said. "Maria was worse than Iraq. Because Iraq was a deployment to a different place, I got to come home. But Maria was in my house. It was totally different."

"But we are alive," she added, "and helping each other."

Playing the music

On the stage, members of the Puerto Rico National Guard's 248th Army Band readied their instruments ahead of the ceremony, just like they do every year.

But the band's been busy this year. Since Oct. 10, they've been playing for fellow Guard and reservists who have been mobilized to help with the recovery, said Sgt 1st Class Pedro Sanchez, the non-commissioned officer in charge and acting commander.

Sanchez, a trombone player, said the band was slated to start traveling the island to perform for other units mobilized to respond to the disaster. It helps boost morale, he said.

"We hope the soldiers and veterans get cheered up through our music," he said. "Every time we play they change their attitude and motivation. They feel a bit of release."

Related Topics

Headlines Veterans Day Hurricane Disaster Recovery National Guard

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