HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
Clear blue skies lazily stretch overhead as a warm sun smiles on the beach. The smell of salt water and wild hibiscus fills the air as the sound of ocean waves lap against the shore. The soft sand waits to give a warm embrace to any bare feet passing by.
Slowly, the cheerful skies sour and stain into a dark ashy gray. A powerful wind gusts through the island. It grows and swells – shaking and splintering trees to their core. The once calm ocean waves are now angry, clawing at the land, causing the islanders to flee for shelter.
Hurricane Maria is unleashing her wrath on Puerto Rico.
On Oct. 16, 2017, Staff Sgt. Jorge Garcia-Gonzalez returned to what he once called a home, in shambles.
“I knew that there was devastation,” said Garcia-Gonzalez. “I knew that there was some destruction, and just knowing the force the hurricane had, I knew that things were going to go bad. But, I was not expecting for the majority of the island to be affected the way that it was. To see the devastation that the hurricane brought was very emotional.”
For 30 days, Garcia-Gonzalez was part of a deployed team who consisted of four chaplains and two assistants. This team was then embedded with the Emergency Medical Support team from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. This team forward deployed to Puerto Rico to support emergency relief operations.
“While I was working at the clinic, I had the opportunity to ask questions about how people’s experience was with the hurricane,” said Garcia-Gonzalez. “Many of the points discussed were the sounds of the winds, the way the hurricane felt and the devastation it brought. People who shared their stories expressed that there were moments in which they had to hold their doors shut in order to keep the storm from wiping away the things inside of their home. The resiliency these people had was amazing.”
Garcia-Gonzalez, a 49th Wing chaplain’s assistant, supported the humanitarian relief mission by going to different towns in Puerto Rico. They provided meals and water to those in need while also providing spiritual support to the local community with medical translations.
“One of our Air Force core values is Service Before Self, but as a chaplain’s assistant, it is more about self-giving,” said Garcia-Gonzalez. “We are serving those who serve.”
Garcia-Gonzalez was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He moved to the United States when he was 14 years old, but his heart never left.
“This is the first time I’ve been back home, for this long, in 12 years,” said Garcia-Gonzalez. “Nothing compared to the feeling of knowing that I could return home to help my family.”
One of Garcia-Gonzalez’s hopes prior to receiving this temporary deployment opportunity was to return home and visit his grandmother.
“I already had in mind to go to Puerto Rico, and this came out of nowhere, which was amazing,” said Garcia-Gonzalez. “When I had the opportunity to go down to Aibonito, where I was raised, to go see her, everything changed. Just seeing her face, and being able to be there and provide that support, and provide that comfort that she needed was a very touching experience. It is one that I am grateful for, and one that I will not forget.”
After visiting his grandmother, Garcia-Gonzalez re-focused on his mission at the Federal Emergency Management Agency clinic in Puerto Rico.
His dedication was also fueled by a personal desire to re-build his old home. After 30 days of hard work and outreach, Garcia-Gonzalez helped FEMA deliver more than three million liters of water and one million meals to families affected by the hurricane.
Due to their efforts, Garcia-Gonzalez and his team were recognized worldwide by the Air Force chaplain core.
“We are so proud of not only his work here at Holloman but his work worldwide,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth Johnson, 49th Wing chaplain. “G.G. recently joined our chaplain team but has hit the ground running with his work. We are proud of his dedication to the mission.”
Despite the praises for their efforts, Garcia-Gonzalez found his personal reward in serving.
“It has been an honor and a pleasure,” said Garcia-Gonzalez. “It has been an amazing experience that I will never take for granted and one that I never even thought that I would be able to do.