Puerto Rican Airmen lean on each other to continue mission

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Julio Olivencia Jr.
  • 156th Airlift Wing, Puerto Rico Air National Guard

MUÑIZ AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Puerto Rico – If character is built in the face of adversity, the Airmen assigned to the 156th Airlift Wing of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard are role models every American can look up to.

Few units experienced as much hardship and tragedy in such a short amount of time as the 156th.

The wing was critical in the recovery from Hurricane Irma and was ground zero for Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island, shortly thereafter.

As Puerto Rico moved toward a full recovery, this close-knit unit experienced an immeasurable loss.

A WC-130H assigned to the 156th crashed on May 2 in Savannah, Georgia, killing all nine crew onboard.

Despite the immense challenges of the last several months—or perhaps because of them—the 156th is resolved to continue their mission with a renewed sense of pride and motivation.

Col. Raymond Figueroa, commander of the 156th, was confident his unit would bounce back from these challenges.

"We are no stranger to adversity," Figueroa said. "From Maria to the loss of Rican 68, we have much to reflect upon. We must now press forward and overcome by honoring our fallen brethren and continuing the mission."

The road back to some sense of normalcy is long and winding.

Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, 2017, battering the commonwealth with heavy rain and sustained winds of 155 mph.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the storm dropped 25 to 40 inches of rain in some interior portions of the island and was the tenth most intense storm in the Atlantic Ocean on record.

It was in these harrowing conditions that the resiliency of the Flying Buccaneers, or Bucaneros as they are referred to in Spanish, was on full display.

This resiliency in the face of Maria took many forms.

It was Staff Sgt. Hector de Jesus carrying his son to safety, only to turn back and wade through chest-deep waters, fighting the surging current, to help his neighbors clear debris from a storm drain to help with the flooding.

It was Staff Sgt. Carlos Arroyo working diligently to ensure the generators around the base were fueled, so critical airlift missions could occur. Arroyo was joined by Airman 1st Class Pedro Pedraza. Pedraza was assigned to the 141st Aircraft Control Squadron in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. The storm made the more than 2-hour drive from his home to his unit impossible, so he put on his uniform and reported to the 156th, which was closer.

It was Senior Master Sgt. Mildred Gilbert setting aside her rank to mop, make coffee and act as a runner, so that other Airmen were free to accomplish critical tasks for the recovery.

It was Capt. Mireily Rabelo, a chaplain, traveling to the tiny village of Los Naranjos to deliver food—marks on the walls of the houses told of water levels 10-12 feet high in the previous days.

It was Senior Airman Roberto Espada, a self-taught barber, giving free haircuts to more than 20 of his wingmen to keep them within Air Force standards. He would later pay the ultimate sacrifice in the crash.

And it was every Airmen who left their families to report for duty and help their homeland.

The National Guard is the first military responder supporting civil authorities to facilitate a unified and speedy response when disaster, whether manmade or natural, strikes. This response is possible because of Airmen like those in the 156th.

Lt. Col. Luis Martinez, the 156th Operations Support Squadron commander, said the hardest thing for his Airmen responding to Maria was them being away from their families.

"The biggest challenge [for our Airmen] during Maria was to be away from home and then not having any communication at all with their families," Martinez said.

The territory is still in recovery. Thousands are still without power and the effects of Maria can be seen everywhere in the destroyed buildings and turned signs.

Just as a sense of normalcy was washing over the island and the unit, ‘Rican 68’ went down—a tremendous blow to a wing that already endured so much.

Espada was among the fallen, along with Maj. José Román, Maj. Carlos Pérez-Serra, Senior Master Sgt. Jan A. Paravisini-Ruiz, 1st Lt. David S. Albandoz, Senior Master Sgt. Victor Colón, Master Sgt. Mario Braña, and Master Sgt. Jean M. Audiffred Rivera.

The wing looked to their director of psychological health, Sonia Rodriguez, as well as outside mental health professionals.

Rodriguez said one of her greatest tools are the Airmen themselves. She cannot be everywhere at once so she asked Airmen to watch out for their wingmen and let her know if there is anyone that needs additional assistance.

"Mental health stressors do not always manifest immediately, sometimes it takes a while," Rodriguez said.

Martinez commended the mental health professionals. 

"They did a great job and they were here from day zero." Martinez said. "We’re still using their services."

Master Sgt. Jose Fontanez, the 156th Security Forces Squadron operations superintendent, went to basic training with Román and worked with some of the others who perished onboard.

He said that in the Guard, and specifically at the 156th, Airmen are close and get to know each other over multiple decades, making the crash that much more difficult.

Fontanez was pleasantly surprised that his Airmen did not hesitate to use the mental health resources to begin the healing process.

"You would think that, being security forces, the guys and girls weren’t going to talk about their feelings," Fontanez said. "It was totally the opposite. We talked, we cried, because we knew these people."

Martinez added that one of the greatest resources was each other. He noticed that former 156th Airmen now in the states had a harder time with the loss than those still here.

"They were more affected than we were on the island, because we have each other," Martinez said. "An important resource is talking to your peers and try to comfort each other. Each of us were here for each other. It’s difficult when you’re by yourself."

The Bucaneros pressed forward with the mission even during the painful grieving period when their brothers were returned home and buried.

The 156th SFS hosted more than 70 Soldiers assigned to the 755th MP Company, Puerto Rico Army National Guard, for airfield security training, continuing a partnership that will help the Soldiers complete an ongoing security mission in Honduras.

The 156th Civil Engineer Squadron prepared, trained and deployed more than 30 Airmen to Latvia to aid the Eastern European country by building barracks for the army there.

The deployment is critical to the Air Force. Last year alone, more than 2,800 Guard Airmen from 48 units served in nine different locations while filling 46% of the Total Force’s civil engineer needs overseas.

Additionally, Airmen from across the base come to work and ensure the day-to-day operations continue.

The 156th demonstrates it has strong, resilient 21st-Century Guard Airmen, a sentiment echoed by Figueroa.

"We must press forward," Figueroa said. "We must restore and maintain operations and get back to work. It is our solemn duty and obligation."