Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times, and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.
My heart sank when I arrived in Puerto Rico and saw Hurricane Maria’s destruction first hand. After spending two weeks traveling to different regions, the devastation of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was visible, but more apparent was the resilience and strength of the Puerto Ricans.
Government officials, small business owners and local citizens alike demonstrated resourcefulness, hard work, and how much they care about each other. As dedicated and driven as the citizens of Puerto Rico are, the devastation is just too much to handle alone. They will need the United States military’s continued support to get back to the lives they knew before this year’s hurricanes.
Sometimes, that help comes from the sky.
Immediately after Hurricane Irma, and, subsequently, Maria, devastated Puerto Rico, the Air Force began flying military supplies and equipment into the territory. We knew the best way to make a difference was to open the island’s airfields and ports. Within hours of the storm, Air Mobility Command airmen, specifically the contingency response forces, leapt into action, just as they have done in response to military operations around the world.
These bold and innovative airmen bring with them all of the cargo handling equipment, communications support, and airfield opening skills necessary to control and download large aircraft filled with supplies. Their job was to establish a logistical head at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan before other contingency response elements arrived to open airfields in Ceiba, Aguadilla, and Ponce.
Our CRGs bring together a wide variety of airfield support functions. They bring air traffic controllers, security forces, logisticians, material handling equipment, as well as communications and a host of highly skilled airmen capable of moving supplies and people through damaged airfields quickly and efficiently.
They are expertly trained and task-organized to begin cross-loading commodities from strategic airlift aircraft onto semi-trucks or rotary wing assets for rapid delivery of relief supplies. They were critical to getting relief to the most remote areas of Puerto Rico, particularly when many of the roads were still blocked.
To date, the Air Force has executed over 2,000 flights carrying more over 11,000 passengers and over 28 million pounds of cargo since hurricane season began. The Total Force Air Mobility Command team leveraged C-5s, C-17s, C-130s, and KC-135s.
The array of Total Force Air Force assets has been instrumental to both the DoD and FEMA as they executed their immediate mission to save lives and continue to work to restore normalcy to the island. The relief efforts benefited from historic levels of volunteerism from across the Total Force; Air Guardsmen and Reservists from across the United States stepped up to support the airlift effort — the majority of missions supporting hurricane relief operations in Puerto Rico have been flown by citizen airmen who only wish to lend a helping hand to their fellow Americans in need.
All I heard from the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and the host of other agencies that swarmed to help the island was the pride that they felt in delivering relief to Puerto Rico. Our ability to come together quickly as a team is one of our military’s greatest strengths.
The joint interagency effort must continue to ensure supplies and equipment are provided to the most impacted citizens in the handful of isolated communities in challenging mountainous terrain. Rotary wing assets are being used to supply communities until roadways can be cleared. We recognize and take great pride in providing our full support.
The work done by service members in Puerto Rico demonstrates the values that we espouse as Americans. The impact of what we do in Air Mobility Command was clearly evident in a photo I recently came across. It was a young girl giving an Army soldier a hug after receiving bottled water. It is precious moments like these that remind us why we serve, the lives that we impact, and why we wear the uniform.
Our Total Force airmen make me proud to be an airman.
Maj. Gen. Thomas Sharpy is the deputy commander of Air Mobility Command. He served for several weeks as the Joint Force Land Component Command’s deputy commander for air, working directly for Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the general in charge of Puerto Rico operations.