Driving a High Mobility Multi Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) through the local Vayas barrio, north of Mercedita International Airport, brought many stares and awkward glances by the locals, unsure what exactly we were doing there. The initial trip into the barrio was a scouting trip to see if anyone required food (comida). While driving through, we noticed many buildings had been affected by the recent hurricanes. Some were missing roofs, others were missing windows, and a few had even totally collapsed. It was evident that this barrio was still trying to recover.
We returned to Mercedita Airport and began loading 20 cases of MREs onto the open back HMMWV.
Upon returning to the barrio we stopped at a baseball/futbol field where some teenagers and young adults were hanging out and getting haircuts. After attempting to talk with one person, and failing miserably, a boy of about 12-13 said that he spoke some English. After describing out intentions to distribute comida to the barrio, he enthusiastically acted as a guide through the barrio. Staff Sgt. Kaleb Stout drove the vehicle while Master Sgt. Moore walked along with the boy, who was showing those most in need and definitely scoring some rations for his immediate family. We ran out of comida after only getting through about two “blocks” of the barrio, about halfway. The whole time, broken English and semi coherent toddler Española somehow managed to get the job done.
We decided to return to Mercedita Airport again and reload the HMMWV with more available MRE comida and returned to the barrio to pass out what was left.
Moving deeper into the barrio this time there was more hurricane induced destruction, but we noticed more neighbors working to rebuild houses, some starting fresh after clearing the foundation off.
On the back side of the barrio one women who was fluent in English spoke with us about her children; an eight-year-old girl and twelve-year-old boy that were the same height. After the anecdote she inquired, “What about water? That is what most people need around here.”
Knowing we had a few more MREs back at the Airfield, we decided to go back and find some cases of water to distribute as well. While taking the boy back to his house we came around a corner where a few of his friends came up to inquire about comida and water as well. Some confusing words from both sides and the boy told them we would make one more trip.
Before we left Stout noticed the kid’s interest in the HMMWV and took some pictures with their phone of them on the vehicle. One girl was very delighted to sit in the driver’s seat and was grinning ear to ear the whole time.
Upon returning to Mercedita, Moore scrounged six cases of water from the local FEMA representatives and another six cases from other Air National Guard units on the airfield. Stout took the time to load another eight MRE cases that he had located, and off we went.
While making the final 2-km trip to the barrio with the water, an older gentleman driving the vehicle in front of us noticed the cases of water and stopped in the middle of the road. He flagged us to come up next to his vehicle, and asked for “agua.” Stout loaded a case of water into the back of his vehicle for him, but before we could proceed on, more vehicles had pulled up blocking the road and asking for “agua.”
Finally arriving to the barrio, we noticed that we had already distributed half of the water supply. We found the boy again who quickly took one case up to his grandmother and mother. We then went into the back side of the barrio and distributed water to many people. All saying “gracias” and looking very relieved to have at least a little bit more clean drinking water.
We were sent to Ponce, Puerto Rico to provide air traffic control services to a beleaguered airfield handling a large influx of Army Helicopter Ops and Air Force cargo planes, on top of the normal civilian general aviation and commercial flights. We knew we were helping in an indirect manner to assist with the hurricane recovery, but we were feeling very disconnected with what was happening around us. Those few hours changed that. Seeing the smiling faces of the family members meekly accepting aid engendered a stronger connection, a feeling of actually helping people in need.