By Sgt. Thomas CalvertOctober 13, 2017
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- "Don't worry, we're going to do some good today," Maj. Manuel Menendez says with a wink.
The wink seems almost unconscious, like he doesn't realize he's doing it -- like you're both sharing a joke, but the situation isn't one to laugh about.
Menendez, commander of the 759th Forward Surgical Team, 44th Medical Brigade out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and a native of Isla Verde in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is just one of many service members currently contributing to the relief efforts in Puerto Rico in the wake of the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria.
Menendez volunteered to work with the 14th Combat Support Hospital, 44th Medical Brigade from Fort Benning, Georgia when he heard they were heading to his island to open a field hospital to assist the Humacao, Puerto Rico municipality in providing lifesaving healthcare to their citizens.
The community around Humacao was heavily affected by the Category 5 storm. Most homes and businesses still have only generator power, and cell phone service has been intermittent since the hurricane made landfall.
"There's more need here than what they have," Menendez said. "There's people here that don't have means, and they need help so that's what we're doing."
A few weeks ago, back on the mainland Unites States, Menendez received a call from his brother, a brigade commander in Fort Carson, Colorado. A woman he knew from Puerto Rico hadn't heard from her mother in 10 days. Her mother, Luz Milagros Santana-Rodriguez, lived in the area around Humacao, and has diabetes and Addison's disease.
The woman feared that her mother might run out of medicine or that something had happened to her. Menendez knew the feeling well. One of the first things he did when landing on the island was tracking down his aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandmother.
"That feeling of not knowing is worse than knowing that they're hurt," Menendez said. "Being able to put myself in their shoes? I mean, those we're my shoes, man."
Menendez's brother gave him an address, and pleaded for him to please find Ms. Santana-Rodriguez. He did his best to help.
"After I got here and came down to Humacao to do my initial recon, I actually found some of the local police, and they drove me around until we went to her house and found her," Menendez said. "We checked her medication status and she was running short. She probably had about three or four days until she completely ran out."
Ms. Santana-Rodriguez only needed enough medication and insulin to last until her flight to the United States to stay with her daughter. Her local pharmacy where she usually filled her prescriptions was destroyed, so she walked to a different pharmacy to get the medication she needed to live a healthy life.
"She goes to the pharmacy and waits for two-and-a-half hours to get told 'sorry, no meds,'" Menendez said.
So that was the mission for the morning: get Ms. Santana-Rodriguez the medication she so desperately needed.
This isn't an out of character objective for Menendez, said Sgt. Thomas Chudzik, the Noncommissioned Officer in Charge of Intensive Care Unit 2 in B Company, 14th Combat Support Hospital. He worked under Menendez previously in Africa providing hospital care.
"We would stay late running around taking care of people, even if it was just one patient," Chudzik said. "He'd just be like 'Hey, we'll take care of this guy and then we're going to go,' and that one guy would turn into five, 10, 15 different things and we took care of them, too. We saved peoples' limbs, a few times we saved some peoples' lives."
Menendez was at the field hospital that morning, which sits in the damaged Humacao Arena. Where normally you'd see basketball games and community events were now Soldiers carrying in cases of equipment and building tent platforms out of plywood.
Amidst the flurry of activity, Menendez met with some city officials and mentioned Ms. Santana-Rodriguez's situation to the group.
Jose Rodriguez, Manager of Operations of the municipality of Humacao, knew of the situation already. When given a description and general location, he said, "Oh yeah, Wendy's mom!"
"I was like 'What?! Is the town that small?,'" Menendez said. "He said no, that he had to take her to the airport on Thursday, of which she had no idea."
They took off to find Ms. Santana-Rodriguez with Rodriguez guiding their way.
The island's communication services are getting better every day, but intermittent cell phone service has been a challenge facing the entire island of Puerto Rico. It's the reason the group was slowed by morning rush-hour traffic simply to get the list of medications that Ms. Santana-Rodriguez needed.
As the driver cut through the side streets on the way to the pharmacy and went maybe a little too fast over a speed bump, Menendez joked to Rodriguez about his driving.
"Hey, look! He's a local already!"
Menendez arrived to the pharmacy, and the people standing in line are gracious enough to let him up front after explaining the situation.
"That effect, right?" Menendez said. "Doing good things for good people. I think that influencing an individual in that small [way] is amazing; the interaction with the pharmacist who immediately was like 'Oh, wow. That's cool. Please let me help you.' The people in line that let us up who started asking questions, and we explained what we were doing and they were like 'That's awesome, I love the military. I'm so happy that you're doing this.' And now they're going to go tell everyone."
The pharmacist explains that a new prescription from a local doctor is needed to fill Ms. Santana-Rodriguez's insulin. The group arrives at the physician's office of Dr. Manuel Guzman-Solis, who since Hurricane Maria has been operating his clinic on generator power and trying to see as many patients as possible per day. Upon hearing the details of Ms. Santana-Rodriguez's situation, he called Menendez back and wrote a prescription right away. They took off for the pharmacy, bought the medication, and went right away to the woman's home.
On the way, traffic hit again: it was the usual lunch rush. As the car got closer to the woman's home, Menendez grew noticeably more impatient with the wait, until finally, he opened the car door and took off in a brisk run towards Ms. Santana-Rodriguez's doorstep.
"I don't like standing around," Menendez said. "If you're going to help, if you're going to do something, then do it. Just get it done."
After arriving, Menendez explained to her the ins-and-outs of her dosage, treatment, and how she should take her medicine safely after rationing it for a period of time.
The two sat on the couch in her dimly lit living room with photos of family members lining the bookcase and chatted about all the day's events.
"Well, like your partner said, mission complete," Santana-Rodriguez said. "I got my insulin; I was very worried about that. I was very, very anxious because I thought I wasn't going to get the medication on time. I should have confided in the U.S. Army."
She also had some very kind words for Maj. Menendez.
"I am very grateful for your efforts, and I wish you many blessings and that all your wishes and your goals could be reached in your lifetime, and God bless America for having Soldiers like you," she said.
Even though this is just one event, it's a snapshot of progress happening across Puerto Rico, with government agencies working hand-in-hand with local government to provide disaster survivors the support they need.
"If there's a reason to have an Army, it's to make a difference," Menendez said, "and if this isn't making a difference I truly don't know what it is."
The entire trip has been an interesting one, Menendez said.
"It's like seeing my one family meet my other family," he said with a smile.
Menendez has noticed that his caring mindset and get-it-done attitude are widespread amongst the Army medical community. He believes the 14th Combat Support Hospital will keep that attitude moving forward as they assist the local community of Humacao with lifesaving efforts.
"This group gets it," Menendez said. "I think folks understand; just picking up that one branch and moving it out of the way, taking that one lady and helping her into the car at the hospital. You just have got to care, just enough, and people see that."