Puerto Rican soldiers go from helping at home to supporting the Afghan mission
KABUL, Afghanistan — Every Friday, the sounds of the El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico salsa orchestra grace an improvised dance floor at a cafe on NATO’s headquarters base.
In their spare time, this is where several of the Puerto Rico Army National Guardsmen here meet to talk, dance, laugh and, when necessary, comfort each other.
“We get together every weekend, we play some dominoes, we dance salsa,” said Cpl. Ruby Cruz, 24, a native of Jayuya, in Puerto Rico’s interior.
Cruz is one of the 35 members of the 191st Regional Support Group Forward who deployed to Afghanistan just months after helping rebuild their home island, following a devastating hurricane that destroyed the island’s power grid and a third of its homes.
Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico – one of three hurricanes that struck the U.S. within weeks, causing an estimated $265 billion in damage – soldiers reflected on the aftermath.
Cruz managed logistics, helping to move vehicles and making sure help got to where it needed to go.
“It was kinda crazy, there were huge lines for gasoline, and then we were without power for months,” Cruz said. “We helped everybody with food, water, we tried to help for almost six or seven months.”
Nearly 1,500 homes remain without power after Maria, and more than 60,000 homes still have tarps for roofs, commonwealth Lt. Gov. Luis Rivera Marín told the Miami Herald recently.
Pfc. Jorge Mendoza, another Puerto Rican soldier in Afghanistan, deployed to the island last year with the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade. Mendoza, a native of Mayaguez, volunteered for a deployment to his home island after the storm.
He went house to house, delivering supplies while acting as an interpreter and maintaining aircraft.
“I saw a lot of people without food or water,” said Mendoza, who now repairs aircraft at Mazar-e-Sharif. “It was really sad, but I had the opportunity to help my people.”
Puerto Rico has been part of the U.S. since the Spanish-American War. As of 2010, 116,029 Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. military, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In Afghanistan, Puerto Rico-based troops help run the dining facility, water purification, base security and morale programs at NATO’s Kabul headquarters. In the process, they’ve contributed a piece of their culture in a bid to liven things up for other U.S. and allied servicemembers.
“[Salsa] is big for us,” said Sgt. Carlos Serrano, 55, of Bayamón. “When the people just see us throwing those steps, it makes everyone want to get involved.”
The island is starting to recover, said Serrano, who said his uncle is one of the more than 1,225 Puerto Ricans who have died while serving in the U.S. military.
“My family’s four generations of military,” Serrano said. “They look forward to us going home so we can continue the progress there.”
Chad Garland and Phil Wellman contributed to this article.