After seeing news reports of Hurricane Maria paralyzing most of Puerto Rico, Kevin Dent and Simon Sanchez found themselves viewing the destruction first-hand two months later.
Arriving with the New Mexico Army National Guard, they had flown more than 2,700 miles aboard a military aircraft to reach the Caribbean island. But if felt closer to home.
"It was a great thing being able to help fellow Americans. That was the best thing," said Dent, an Army Guard major who deployed as the judge advocate with the 111th Sustainment Brigade out of Rio Rancho, N.M., but works full time as an environmental law specialist at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
"It was one of the best experiences of my career," said Simon, a 34-year Army National Guardsman who served as the brigade commander sergeant major for approximately 5,000 Active Duty and Guard Soldiers.
"We called them our vecinos (neighbors). We were helping our neighbors," said Sanchez, a Hatch, N.M., native who works as an equipment specialist at the White Sands Center for Countermeasures.
When they arrived in the capital city of San Juan on Nov. 18, they found an island still in recovery mode from the direct hit it received in the pathway of the Category 4 hurricane unleashing sustained winds up to 155 miles per hour.
"It was amazing, the force of the storm," said Sanchez. "There wasn't a place you could look at and not see the destruction from the hurricane. Buildings made of wood were gone."
Their mission was two-fold: replace the New Jersey National Guard that had been in charge Joint Task Force Puerto Rico since the storm hit on Sept. 20, and to hand over recovery operations to the Puerto Rican National Guard.
Sanchez was out and about almost every day, sometimes traveling by helicopter to visit villages inaccessible by road. There he met with mayors and local residents who shared the major issues they were facing and showed what assistance was needed.
While the recovery effort in San Juan was going well, where restaurants were reopening and tourists were retuning on cruise ships, many villages farther out were still cut off or difficult to reach and remained dependent on generators for electricity and water purification systems for clean water.
"They were very glad to see us because they could address their personal concerns and know they were not forgotten, especially in the center of the island and the mountainous areas," said Sanchez. He was impressed at their resolve to move forward, and glad to play a part in helping themselves put their lives back together again.
"The people of Puerto Rico are very resilient. The cosmetics of destruction will eventually go away, but our presence will linger for many years to come. I'm sure many friendships were made. And as always, we learned a great deal from helping assist in a recovery effort."
Dent also spent a lot of time in the field where he was impressed at the effectiveness of the Puerto Rico National Guard and the Puerto Rico State Guard, a voluntary professional military corps and one of the subordinate commands of the Puerto Rico Military Forces. He said they worked with great efficiency in moving food and supplies from the distribution points to people in remote areas.
"Our Puerto Rico National Guard colleagues did a superb with the resources they had," said Dent. "The National Guard and State Guard really helped alleviate a lot of suffering."
"The amount of expertise the National Guard can bring is amazing, many who are just genuine experts in their field," said Dent. "We had a lot a lot of talent and it really helped."
Dent and Sanchez were certainly among those key Guardsmen, according to Col. Jamison Herrera, their boss and commander of the 111th Sustainment Brigade.
"Both were instrumental in success of the brigade's deployment to Puerto Rico," said Herrera.
Herrera lauded the performance of Sanchez in his demanding role as the command sergeant major for 5,000 Soldiers assigned to Joint Task Force Puerto Rico. Sanchez helped serves as the eyes and ears for Herrera, enabling him to better assess hurricane damage throughout the island through personal contact with citizens and officials and to determine the best way to assist those in need.
Those in need sometimes included members of the Puerto Rico National Guard who needed time away from their Guard duty to resolve their own hurricane-related problems.
"His language ability and compassion went a long way being able to relate and break down any communication barriers to better help us work as partners," said Herrera.
Herrera said Dent's legal expertise was critical in building partnerships and acting as his liaison with the authorities in Puerto Rico.
"Kevin was my right-hand man on all legal issues," that Herrera said included critical and sensitive issues such as respecting land agreements with local property owners to set up water purification equipment on their property. Doing so helped ensure the Guard was seen as being there to help, and not to take over.
Herrera also praised Dent for his role of acting as the Guard liaison with fellow relief organizations such as the FBI, FEMA and the American Red Cross.
His reward, said Dent, was being part of a team that made a difference and helped transition relief operations into the hands of local Guard leadership ready to continue the successful ongoing relief effort.
"It's a great feeling when you see the results of what you have done."