By T. Anthony BellOctober 9, 2017
FORT LEE, Va. -- Devastation caused by recent hurricanes in the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico has been a top news story on most 24-hour cable news outlets.
By now, Americans are used to seeing images of citizens scrounging for water, waiting in long gas lines or walking among the ruins of their homes trying to salvage belongings.
Command Sgt. Maj. Patricio Cardona Vega is all too familiar with Puerto Rico's perennial storm destruction, and it weighs heavy on his heart because he is a native who has relatives still living there.
The 16th Ordnance Battalion's top enlisted Soldier, however, did not exhibit any outward signs of distress about the fate of his homeland. In fact, there was an air of reassurance about him; a pride rooted in the island's 500-year history, its liberation from Spain and constant battles against natural disasters.
Resilience, he said, is part of the Puerto Rican DNA.
"It comes out of struggle; out of having come from nothing to becoming something, and then, all of a sudden having it taken away," said Cardona Vega. "You know what something tasted like, and you want that something all over again … I can't predict the future, but I can tell you the Puerto Rican people will come back. They will rebuild and we'll be better for it. We'll be stronger, and we'll provide the next generation a better environment for which to live."
The idea of making things better for the next generation resonated strongly in Cardona's grandfather, Patricio Cardona Cardona, who the CSM described as a man of few words but definitive action. In 1898, a young Patricio boldly sided with the Americans in the Spanish-American War, although there was a fair amount of sentiment for the Europeans.
"What I took out of that is he stood for something; he stood for something he thought would be better," said the 45-year-old, alluding to centuries of stagnation under Spain. "I associate that with the relationship we had with America, and the influence they had in our country at that time versus what we had while living under Spanish rule."
Christopher Columbus claimed Puerto Rico for Spain in 1493, but it became an American territory in 1898 under the Treaty of Paris. Puerto Ricans became American citizens in 1917.
Cardona Vega's grandfather went on to marry and raised 10 children (and at least two orphans) in a two-room structure built on stilts in a lagoon. The CSM's late father Daniel Cardona Marquez, who was the second youngest, went on to serve in the Army, as did three of his brothers.
With Puerto Rico's statehood-versus-independence sentiment swirling about as a divisive issue over the course of decades, Cardona Vega said patriotism among the islanders nevertheless runs deep, attributable to so many who represented their homeland as American citizens during times of war.
"I think it has to do with having 'skin in the game,'" he said. "That first generation (of Puerto Ricans) took the risk to affiliate themselves with America, looking to create a better future for their own. It wasn't so much what it would do for them, but what it would do for the rest of the generations.
"And here I am, wearing the uniform of the same country he served."
Cardona Vega grew up among the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder with his older sister and parents in the north central city of Bayamón. In 1990, at the start of the first Gulf War, he quit his job as a mechanic and enlisted as a wheeled vehicle repairer. Legacy figured into his decision, but Cardona Vega also was fulfilling a strong ambition to serve others.
"I've always been a person who feeds off helping people," he said. "That makes me feel good to be able to serve others. That happens to be a paradigm of military service. I think most of the people do it because they enjoy serving others."
In 27 years of service, Cardona Vega has checked off tours at locations the world over to include Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Ord, California; and Mannheim, Germany. He also completed two tours under Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and one in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Proud to call himself Puerto Rican, Cardona Vega said the country's diversity is a treasure to behold; something few nations can boast. He said recent conversations about immigration, race and ethnicity -- although uncomfortable -- is healthy as long as it is honest.
"For the longest time, we've been doing this experiment, we've been brushing things aside," he said. "We've been occult about some of the differences we have, and now all of a sudden, they're coming to the surface and we're able to deal with them. I think the best thing the Lord gave us is the ability to communicate. We haven't done that effectively, and that's why we have all the assumptions and perspectives. I think this conversation will be fruitful for all of us; it will expose a lot of ugliness and some hate, but it will resolve some things. At some point, we're going to run out of things to say. Once we get it out of our system or speak about it, it no longer has a place to reside."
Having made the Army his home for nearly three decades, Cardona Vega said he is often reminded of the special bond his fellow Puerto Ricans share -- borne out of the generational hardship and struggle the island has endured. According to the Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico, more than 45 percent of inhabitants live below poverty, which would make it among the poorest states. Cardona Vega said five centuries of survival is not marked by self-interest but of faith, family and community.
"(Family members in Puerto Rico) are willing to die for other family members," said Cardona Vega. "We're just that tight … That is legacy, and no one wants to let down the previous generation."
Maybe the best example of Puerto Rican legacy -- and patriotic pride -- is the island's 65th Infantry Regiment's participation in the Korean War. Nicknamed the Borinqueneers, 90 percent of the 3,000-man regiment were initially volunteers, and it was among the first units to see combat during the conflict.
By the end of the war, 743 Borinquneers had lost their lives and more than 2,300 were injured, according to militaryhistoryonline.com. The Borinquneers were honored with the Congressional Gold medal in 2016 and remain a beacon of Puerto Rican courage and sacrifice.
"When you have some of your own who have given their all for the defense of something or for the hopes of a better future, we owe it to them to be that better future that they laid their lives down for," said Cardona Vega.
Today, Cardona Vega is joined by more than 10,000 Puerto Rican men and women serving on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces, according to the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.
More than 200,000 have served since 1917.