Soldier in Puerto Rico: 'As long as they need me, I will be here'
By AMANDA DOLASINSKI | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: October 13, 2017
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Sgt. 1st Class Jose Graulau navigated a Humvee through debris littering the streets of Puerto Rico.
There was a sense of familiarity in the damage and destruction, since he and other soldiers had spent the past month helping victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida. But, now in Puerto Rico to help Hurricane Maria survivors, the mission had become personal.
Graulau’s Humvee crept along the tree-laden streets until it reached his childhood home. He hopped out and began calling for his parents.
He didn’t stop to knock — he barged in, embracing his parents as they walked down the stairs after being awakened early.
“I was very grateful,” Graulau said Thursday from the island. “They mean the world to me. They’re the ones that raised me. I was grateful to come over here, to see them, help them and help the people of Puerto Rico.”
Graulau is part of a small team of soldiers from the Fort Bragg-based 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command who have been deployed to Puerto Rico to help hurricane survivors. The soldiers, who specialize in logistics and distribution management, arrived five days after Hurricane Maria struck.
The hurricane, which formed Sept. 16 in the Atlantic Ocean, made landfall in Dominica with Category 5 strength on Sept. 18, and only slightly weakened as it struck Puerto Rico the following day. At least 45 people on the island have died, according to Gov. Ricardo Rossello.
U.S. military assets supported the Federal Emergency Management Agency as it worked to support state and local authorities.
Graulau, who was born in San Juan, grew up in the town of Bayamon with two loving parents and two brothers.
“It was a perfect childhood,” he said. “It’s a very, very safe place. A tropical place. We are very humble people.”
Graulau’s older brother left home when he enlisted in the Army and is now a Kiowa pilot.
Graulau started college, but at 19, followed in his brother’s footsteps and also enlisted in the Army.
Over his 15-year career, he’s been deployed to Iraq four times, where he conducted convoy operations and worked at the airport in Baghdad, he said.
As a mobility noncommissioned officer in charge for 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, Graulau is responsible for coordinating transportation for the delivery of supplies. His teams surveyed Puerto Rico to determine the best locations for supplies to be delivered by boat or aircraft so they could be distributed across the island, he said.
In rural parts of Puerto Rico, residents are relying on food and water to be delivered by airlifts, according to the Army.
As of Tuesday, 64 percent of the residents on the island had access to water, 78 percent of the gas stations were open and 87 percent of the supermarkets were open, according to the Army.
Graulau said he talked to his parents the night before the hurricane made landfall. They were calm and seemed ready, he said. After all, they’d been through hurricanes before.
Hours later, Hurricane Maria struck, ripping down power lines and toppling homes.
For four days, Graulau’s calls to the island were a dead end.
“It was very stressful,” he said. “I felt hopeless for four days. I couldn’t help my people.”
He and other soldiers from the sustainment command had been on back-to-back hurricane relief missions in Texas and Florida, but he didn’t hesitate when there was talk of going to Puerto Rico.
“I was ready,” Graulau said. “I was ready to do my job and help everyone that is in need.”
A military aircraft delivered the soldiers to the island in the nighttime just days after the hurricane struck. The next morning, Graulau braced himself to look around the tropical island where he grew up.
Debris littered the streets.
People were struggling to find water.
Long lines formed in front of gas stations and supermarkets.
“The devastation that I saw … I will never imagine Puerto Rico looking like this,” he said. “It looked like a bomb went off in Puerto Rico. When you see poles for electricity broken and these are cement, broken because of the wind, it’s significant.”
While he was working, Graulau ran into neighbors and friends from school. His motivation to help provide relief intensified.
“The faster we get these places set up, the faster (supplies) is going to be distributed,” he said. “I was really shocked by what I saw, but my mind was focused on the mission.”
Residents have welcomed the soldiers, many embracing them and making handmade thank you signs to wave in the streets.
“They are very grateful for the military response,” Graulau said. “These people are very resilient and grateful that all these federal agencies are helping out. The routes are getting clearer every day. At the beginning, there were long lines at gas stations, supermarkets, ATMs. Now you don’t see as many. Now you see lights coming on. Now you see people getting water turned back on. It’s a relief to see things like that.''
Graulau misses his family in North Carolina. He has three young children, and his wife is stationed at Fort Bragg, where she serves in the operations shop for the 82nd Airborne Division.
But, he said, his family understands the critical needs of his home.
“As long as they need me, I will be here,” he said.
©2017 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
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Sgt. Crew Gill, a military police officer assigned to the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, and Spc. Joksan Toro, a motor transport operator assigned to Puerto Rico's 755th National Guard Transportation Unit, prepare to unhook pallet nets from around Meals, Ready-To-Eat October 2, 2017, in the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
DONNA DAVIS/U.S. ARMY