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Fort Carson troops working long days in Puerto Rico

Soldiers with the 247th Composite Supply Company, 68th Combat Support Supply Battalion, 4th Sustainment Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo., fill a water storage bladder with purified water in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico, Oct. 9, 2017.

ELVIS UMANZOR/U.S. ARMY

By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 25, 2017

Fort Carson, Colo.-based soldiers say things are returning to normal in Puerto Rico, where 200 soldiers from Colorado Springs are helping in relief efforts.

But over a month after a powerful hurricane swept the island, many places lack electricity and thousands of residents are relying on Fort Carson soldiers for food and water.

"It's a new normal," said Col. Geoff Kent, who is leading the post's 4th Sustainment Brigade on the island.

Kent's troops have become some of the Army's most skilled at hurricane relief. They already had helped Texas recover from Hurricane Harvey when they were ordered to Puerto Rico a month ago.

Now, most roads are open and power is back on for much of the island. But thousands of Puerto Ricans are still suffering.

"There are still pockets on the islands that are affected by the hurricane," Kent said.

The Trump administration faced a storm of criticism for the government's response to the Puerto Rico disaster. The furor was fueled by social media posts by President Donald Trump including a Twitter missive that blamed some of the island's problems on lack of local effort.

"They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort," Trump wrote on Twitter.

U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, which oversees the Pentagon portion of the relief effort, has sent more than 8,000 troops to the island. Army engineers are rebuilding and clearing roads, Marines and soldiers are distributing supplies, and Navy and Air Force doctors are offering medical care./

Kent said he's watched the Defense Department effort pay off.

"What we have seen is a lot of new growth and a lot of stabilization across the island," he said.

Kent's forces are headquartered at the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on the southeastern tip of Puerto Rico.

"Our mission is to support (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and other federal agencies and the Puerto Rico government to assure that commodities coming by air or sea are pushed out across the island," he said.

Getting the mission accomplished has involved problems from dealing with debris-tangled roads to gaining trust from local leaders who oversee the distribution of supplies.

"What we have learned here is that you have to prepared to work through a lot of friction," Kent said. "There are a lot of things that come into play that create friction on the ground."

His troops have put in long days, especially his water purification troops who have worked 18 hours a day to distribute more than 400,000 gallons of water to communities.

"We have established water distribution points across the island," he said.

The soldiers started their mission living in abandoned buildings. Some of them have now moved into newly-reopened hotels. But it's still a spartan life, with four soldiers billeted in every room.

Long days and low-rent accommodations haven't dampened morale, Kent said.

"The soldiers are very engaged and very motivated," he said.

"This is a mission unlike other missions. This is a mission of the spirit and a mission of the heart."

National Guard troops are readying to take over work on the island. The Fort Carson contingent could be back in Colorado Springs in a few weeks.

Kent said he's satisfied that Puerto Rico is on a better path.

"When we first got here four weeks ago, every leaf on every tree was stripped and every branch was broken," he said. "Today a lot of that greenery is coming back. That's very symbolic."

(c)2017 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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