Deployed soldiers begin to reconnect with family on Puerto Rico

Staff Sgt. Elvis Umanzor delivers water to Carmen Margarita Colon, a military spouse and mother, in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, Oct. 3, 2017. Her son 1st Sgt. Rafael Colon, is working with his unit providing medical treatment and pre-evacuation care in Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. They've been unable to communicate since Hurricane Maria.


By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 4, 2017

First Lt. Wilmarie Flores was desperate.

For the past two weeks, Flores had made repeated calls to her family in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico.

She had emailed disaster organizations, the Red Cross, friends on the island and others – anyone who might be able to find her family.

At the same time, Flores’s parents were just as concerned.

With no electricity and no working phone lines, they waited in line for hours to purchase gasoline so they could drive around Puerto Rico in search of a cellphone signal and a connection to their daughter a world away.

With her parents in Puerto Rico and she in Afghanistan, Flores said, she and her family were worried for each other.

“I’ve been calling every day to their cellphones and to the landline,” she said. “They were never able to reach me, either.”

Then finally, on Tuesday, Flores called and, for the first time, the phone in her parents’ home rang.

“They weren’t even aware their phone was working,” Flores said. “I’m very much relieved. I’m smiling today. I feel like my soul is back in my body.”

Weeks after Hurricane Maria became the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Puerto Rico since 1928, families are still piecing their lives back together.

Many of them have military ties, with the U.S. territory having a long tradition of military service.

Some, like Flores, are deployed to other parts of the world in support of ongoing U.S. missions.

Others, like 1st Sgt. Rafael Colon of the 602nd Area Support Medical Company, 261st Multifunctional Medical Battalion, are part of relief efforts elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Colon, one of nearly 80 soldiers from the Fort Bragg-based 44th Medical Brigade deployed to the U.S. Virgin Islands, is helping provide medical treatment in St. Thomas.

On Tuesday, another group of Fort Bragg soldiers – from the 49th Public Affairs Detachment of the 82nd Airborne Division – visited Colon’s mother, Carmen Margarita Colon, at her home in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico.

Like the Flores family, the Colons had not communicated with each other since Maria barreled across the island.

And like the Colon family, Flores is confident that her family is in good hands with U.S. troops providing aid in Puerto Rico.

“We are brothers in arms,” she said. “I know that the military and the personnel who are out there are doing their mission like we’re doing our mission here. I trust them to complete the mission and make sure everybody is safe out there.”

According to officials, there are now more than 9,000 U.S. military personnel participating in disaster and relief operations in Puerto Rico. They are helping to rebuild damaged infrastructure and distribute much needed supplies as the island pieces itself back together.

Flores said it has been difficult to view images of the destruction. She spent most of her life in Puerto Rico, moving to the mainland United States in 2014 after being commissioned as an Army officer from the University of Puerto Rico.

That same year, she joined the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg and now serves as a personnel officer for the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Flores and other members of her battalion deployed to Afghanistan earlier this year.

She said she was so focused on her job that Hurricane Maria caught her by surprise.

“I was tracking (Hurricane) Irma pretty closely,” she said. “I was not as aware of Maria.”

Flores knows first-hand the havoc a powerful storm can cause. In 1998, Hurricane Georges tore across the island, causing billions in damage and the deaths of eight people.

Maria was many times more powerful, causing widespread damage and killing at least 34 people.

“Georges was very bad. There was a lot of damage and a lot of people without resources for a long time,” Flores recalled. “It was scary.”

The thought of an even bigger storm was overwhelming, especially once Flores was unable to check in on her family across the island.

“I was able to talk to my mom the day before the storm actually hit the island,” she said. “But I didn’t have any other contact with them until yesterday.”

“It was a painful wait,” she said. “I was worried and I was a little overwhelmed.”

Flores found strength in the support of her fellow paratroopers, who helped her in trying to reach disaster organizations that might have had contact with her family.

Meanwhile, Flores said, she tried to stay focused on her job in Afghanistan and avoided social media so she would not see images that would worry her.

“The first minute I talked to them I just broke into tears,” she said. “You don’t know what you don’t know until you talk to them. And I was very desperate. I needed to know.”

Flores said her family is safe, although like many, they do not have water or electricity.

She also knows there will be difficult times ahead.

“You don’t only think about your house and your family, you think about what’s going to happen next,” she said. “How are you going to gather resources to survive without water and electricity?”

And for that, she’s thankful other troops are there to help.

“It’s a little bit calming,” Flores said. “Now knowing that they’re OK, being able to reach them every day, I’m very much relieved.”

Drew Brooks can be reached at dbrooks@fayobserver.com

©2017 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
Visit The Fayetteville Observer at www.fayobserver.com
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U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Joewie Melendez passes water cases to an emergency disaster responder in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, Oct. 1, 2017.

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