By Air Force Airman Ilyana Escalona
/ Published November 29, 2017
Slowly, the cheerful skies sour and stain into a dark ashy gray. A powerful wind gusts across Puerto Rico. 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 had unleashed her wrath on Puerto Rico. On Oct. 16, Air Force Staff Sgt. Jorge Garcia-Gonzalez returned to what he once called home, now in shambles.
‘There Was Devastation’
“I knew that there was devastation,” Garcia-Gonzalez said. “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. The team 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,” Garcia-Gonzalez said. “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. He and his comrades 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,” Garcia-Gonzalez said. “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 in 12 years,” Garcia-Gonzalez said. “Nothing compared to the feeling of knowing that I could return home to help my family.”
Visiting With Grandmother
One of Garcia-Gonzalez’s hopes 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,” he said. “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 refocused on his mission at the Federal Emergency Management Agency-managed clinic in Puerto Rico.
His dedication was also fueled by a personal desire to rebuild 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’s Chaplain’s Corps.
“We are so proud of not only his work here at Holloman but his work worldwide,” said Air Force Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Kenneth Johnson, 49th Wing chaplain. “G.G. recently joined our chaplain team but he has hit the ground running with his work. We are proud of his dedication to the mission.”
Garcia-Gonzalez said he found his personal reward in serving.
“It has been an honor and a pleasure,” Garcia-Gonzalez said. “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.