Fort Bliss Combat Aviation Brigade making 'huge difference' in Puerto Rico relief efforts
By DAVID BURGE | The El Paso Times (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 31, 2017
Every day, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico is making progress and recovering from the devastating aftereffects of Hurricane Maria, but more work needs to be done, said Fort Bliss soldiers who are helping with the relief efforts.
For the past month, about 240 soldiers from Fort Bliss’ 1st Armored Division Combat Aviation Brigade have been leading the Army’s aviation task force in Puerto Rico as part of the larger relief effort.
Led by brigade commander Col. Jay Hopkins and his headquarters staff from Fort Bliss, they have been joined by about 70 soldiers from a medical evacuation company from the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade out of Fort Campbell, Ky., and about 200 Marine aviators from North Carolina.
“I think we are making a huge difference, not just the aviation brigade, but collectively, on the island,” said Hopkins during a telephone conference call from Puerto Rico last week.
More than a month after the category 4 storm hit the island on Sept. 20, about 70 percent of the territory remains without power, the Associated Press reported Sunday. Winds of up to 154 mph caused widespread damage and the estimated cost of restoring the electrical system to the territory could come to $1.2 billion.
Fort Bliss soldiers, leading a combined aviation task force known as Task Force Iron Eagles, have been using Army Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters to deliver supplies, mostly drinking water, to remote places on the hard-hit island.
Task force soldiers have also been transporting medical patients back and forth between Puerto Rican hospitals and military medical facilities that have been set up, including the U.S. Navy Ship Comfort, a Navy hospital ship, that has been off the coast of Puerto Rico.
In addition, they are transporting officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency which is overseeing the relief effort, officials with other government or relief agencies and dignitaries who need to get around the island, Hopkins said.
Marine aviators are helping with their Osprey helicopters.
“Daily, we are seeing progress, and we believe we are a part of that progress,” said Hopkins, from Lancaster, Wis. “Unlike a combat mission, it is really about taking care of our fellow U.S. citizens. It is a very rewarding mission.”
There is no timetable set for their return from Puerto Rico.
“It is all about the people of Puerto Rico,” Hopkins said. “As long as it takes, that’s as long as we will be here.”
Task Force Iron Eagles is doing split operations out of San Juan, the capital, and Ceiba, on the eastern part of the island.
Fort Bliss aviators have been flying all over the island, but have mostly been used to reach the mountainous and isolated central part that most tourists never see, Hopkins said.
The task force includes not only elements from Hopkins’ brigade headquarters staff, but soldiers from sister units in the Combat Aviation Brigade – the 2nd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment; the 3-501st; and the 127th Aviation Support Battalion.
Sgt. 1st Class Eladio Tirado is a Puerto Rico native who serves as a platoon sergeant with Fort Bliss’ 3-501st. Tirado, from Carolina, Puerto Rico, said it has been an incredible feeling to come home after almost five years away and help out his home island.
“It feels really good to help and provide for what the people of Puerto Rico need,” he said.
Spc. Jose Olan, a Chinook helicopter mechanic with Fort Bliss’ 2-501st, is from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.
“It feels awesome to be back home and helping our people,” Olan said. “It feels good to be out there flying every day and delivering water and needed supplies. It is just awesome.”
Capt. Benjamin Stork, from Sarasota, Fla., is a flight surgeon from Fort Campbell and has been serving with the Fort Bliss task force in Puerto Rico. Fort Bliss soldiers have been joined by Fort Campbell’s Charlie Company, 6th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade.
Fort Campbell soldiers have been mostly doing the medical evacuation and patient transfer missions.
Stork said his unit has primarily been transferring patients between Puerto Rican hospitals and military medical facilities to help balance the patient load.
“Some hospitals are still on generator power; some are still having supply issues,” he said. “The transferring we are doing is helping them balance their patient load and take some of the load off local hospitals and give them time to recover.”
Command Sgt. Maj. J.T. Hall, the senior enlisted leader for Fort Bliss’ Combat Aviation Brigade, said he has been impressed with how young soldiers were able to set up operations from scratch and start helping with the relief effort within hours of arriving.
“Absolutely, no doubt, we are making an impact,” said Hall, from Dallas.
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