By Staff Sgt. Tegan KuceraJune 12, 2018
DRAWSKO POMORSKIE, Poland -- When Hurricane Maria decimated their island, the military police of the Puerto Rico National Guard stepped up to take care of the citizens affected by the storm.
Now, over eight months later, they are putting the experiences they learned to use in Poland during Saber Strike 18, a long-standing U.S. Army Europe-led cooperative exercise designed to enhance the interoperability among the 19 nations who are participating in the month of June.
"This is something that should happen more often. We've got allies, and we should work with them," said Spc. Faviani S. Ramos, an intelligence analyst with the Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 125th Military Police Battalion, based in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Ramos lives in Fort Meyers, Florida, but commutes every month down to Puerto Rico to attend drill. In September, he made a special trip when he went on the first flight he could book to see how his friends and family fared during the hurricane, since most communications on the island were down.
"I would do it again in a heartbeat," said Ramos.
Shortly after Ramos arrived, he and many other National Guard Soldiers were called in to help with the island's state of emergency. He was down in Puerto Rico for three months helping with the logistics of the operation the Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 125th Military Police Battalion performed. He said Puerto Rico hadn't seen such damage since Hurricane George over 20 years ago.
"When I got communication back home I learned everyone was physically safe, [which was] the most important part," said Pfc. Emmanuel Rivera, a chemical specialist with the Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 125th Military Police Battalion.
Rivera was not in Puerto Rico during the hurricane, because he is a security supervisor with a civilian company who was working in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. St. Croix was hit shortly before Hurricane Maria by Hurricane Irma. He was in place when Maria came through the Virgin Islands, so he was not home to see the damage the storm brought to his hometown of Utauda, Puerto Rico.
"My family was safe, but everything in my house was destroyed, including my house," said Rivera who now resides with his grandparents while he looks for a new home.
Due to Rivera's previous efforts helping with a hurricane, he was not put on active duty orders for Hurricane Maria. Also, most of his military-issue equipment had been in his house, so he no longer even had a uniform to wear. After returning to what was left of his home, Rivera was able to see what Maria had taken from him personally.
"It was the biggest catastrophe to ever hit Puerto Rico," said 1st Lt. Luis Feliciano, the commander of the 544th Military Police Company attached to the 125th Military Police Battalion. "I have been in Puerto Rico when hurricanes have gone through, and it was never like Maria. It never required the effort of the active Army and all the federal agencies placed in Puerto Rico to help it recover."
Feliciano, who lives in Kissimmee, Florida, and also makes the commute every month to drill, was there during the hurricane because he was preparing to take command of the company. He was also in place to lead the company when they were called up to help. He and many of his soldiers were staying in the armory for months on end because the days were so long they couldn't go home, and for some they no longer had any other place to stay.
"For some in the Puerto Rico National Guard, it was really hard to respond to a catastrophe where you were a victim, so we were pulling 12-14 hour shifts doing all those missions to help the people get water, help purify the water and then to go home and face the hardships there. It was challenging to some of the soldiers, but in the Guard and Reserve we are more like a family so we try to help each other," said Feliciano.
Now this family of Soldiers is putting their efforts and the many things they learned to use during Saber Strike 18.
Feliciano feels his and the unit's efforts can safely shift focus to Saber Strike 18 to help lead the way for their subordinate units like the military police units from the Michigan and Indiana National Guard as well as a few companies from the active army. They are all pulling together to make sure their portion of Saber Strike 18 is successful and helps improve interoperability between components of the military.
"Being able to help with Hurricane Maria was very good for me," said Feliciano. "Even though I'm living outside I was putting all of my effort into helping put the island back on track."
Feliciano will never forget the bad things he saw while he was on emergency duty, from all the houses destroyed to the families on the street. What he desires to remember is the character of the people he saw.
"One thing about the Puerto Rican people is their character," said Feliciano. "Even though they were in a bad situation, the civilians always had a positive attitude, and that helped a lot. They saw everybody that was going to Puerto Rico as someone who came to help, and they opened their arms to it,"
According to Feliciano, many of the citizens were out clearing the roadways to help the Soldiers and many other emergency workers get through.
Whether they live on Puerto Rico or just attend their one weekend a month there, the soldiers of the 125th Military Police Battalion work tirelessly to help the island and the people who reside there.
Now they offer that helping hand to the partners coming together for Saber Strike 18.