By Sean KimmonsSeptember 27, 2017
FORT GREELY, Alaska -- Thousands of miles from home, Staff Sgt. Jamie Montes wishes he could be back in Puerto Rico to help his family recover after Hurricane Maria pummeled the Caribbean island last week and left it in disarray.
As one of about 60 National Guard Soldiers from Puerto Rico assigned to the 49th Missile Defense Battalion, Montes knows the mission at this Alaskan post is too important to abandon.
At a moment's notice, the unit, which falls under the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, is capable of launching ground-based interceptor missiles to shoot down long-range enemy rockets heading toward American soil. While the mission is ongoing, current threats from North Korea have heightened its role.
"We in the military know that we always have a job to do and that job here is a no-fail mission, so we have to be here so our fellow Americans can sleep well," said Montes, a military police officer who is tasked with securing the missile fields at Greely.
Originally from Guayama, located on the island's southern coast, the 39-year-old has yet to hear from his mother and sister since the hurricane landed.
"I'm still trying to get in touch with my family. I know they're OK because there are no fatalities in the town," he said, adding he believes his mother's concrete home only received minor damage. "But I want to talk to them and know for sure that they don't have any needs."
At least 16 people have died as a result of the storm, and the death toll is expected to rise as officials continue to reach out to devastated communities.
One of those deaths was a police officer and an uncle to one of the battalion's Soldiers. The Soldier is a close friend to Montes and he said the tight-knit community at the post has been there for her and others dealing with affected families.
"That's the way we handle business," he said Wednesday. "We check on each other constantly."
The support system has helped the 210-member Alaskan National Guard unit -- of which about a quarter are Puerto Rican Soldiers -- remain vigilant for the vital mission. "We know that there are so many people that rely on us," Montes said.
Still, thousands of homes in Puerto Rico have been destroyed and a dam has also forced 75,000 residents to evacuate due to fears it may flood the area.
"They're displaced, but we just don't know where until we can make contact with them," said Lt. Col. Orlando Ortega, the battalion commander.
As news from the island trickles in, Soldiers at this remote Alaskan post patiently wait to hear back from family members. Mobile cell phone towers have been placed on the island, but phone calls still rarely go through.
"Every day it's something new because the infrastructure of Puerto Rico is coming online, so right now communication is a big key," said Ortega, who also has family there. "We just don't know what we don't know until they start communicating back with their loved ones."
Some of the battalion's Soldiers have been allowed to travel back to the island and Florida to assess the damage, he added.
Many of the Soldiers, though, have stayed behind to keep the mission going.
Before the storm, Spc. Lilybeth Garcia, a human resources specialist with the battalion, had daily phone calls with her mother back in Caguas near San Juan, the capital. Now, most of her follow-up calls go unanswered after she initially talked to her mother after the storm.
"I know it has been hard for the island," the 31-year-old said. "I was one of the few lucky people to talk with them right after the hurricane so I know they are OK."
After another storm, Hurricane Irma, dumped torrential rainfall on the island earlier this month, her brother's home is now destroyed with the roof completely ripped off.
"When he came back, he saw that he had lost everything," she said of her brother, who evacuated to their mother's home when Hurricane Maria hit.
While Garcia wants to help her family, she knows the mission here is still essential to keep all Americans safe. In just minutes of a launch being detected by radars, an interceptor missile could be fired into space to destroy an intercontinental ballistic missile speeding toward the United States.
"It is hard. You feel impotent. You just want to be there for them," she said of her family. "I try to leave all my worries at my house and just come to work and complete the mission, then go back and keep trying to call them. I may not be able to help my family, but I will be able to help others."
Soldiers in the unit have started to collect basic necessities they hope to send to the island soon to assist those affected by the storm.
Montes and others also know that National Guard Soldiers in Puerto Rico are helping their families, while he and other Puerto Ricans stay vigilant up north for the entire nation. More than 2,000 U.S. troops have been deployed to the areas affected by the hurricanes.
"It's very important for me to be here," he said. "I know that people in Puerto Rico will be taken care of. My brothers-in-arms are right there and they know that it's not just me. There are numerous Puerto Ricans giving them peace, so they are going to take care of our loved ones."