Flowers blooming and leaves returning to the trees usually signal the first signs of spring – new life and a fresh beginning. For the Soldiers of Fort Drum’s 510th Human Resources Company, the usual signs didn’t mean spring at all; in fact, they came in November. Nevertheless, green leaves and trees (and even the green of the stoplights finally powered back on) meant progress was underway in Puerto Rico, and each day of progress meant one day closer to home.
In late September, some 15 Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division Sustainment Brigade’s 510th Human Resources Company set off to Puerto Rico, leaving with only 24 hours’ notice and an open-ended timeline for return, in order to support Hurricane Maria relief efforts.
The team of human resources specialists embarked on what would become an almost two-month mission, performing theater gateway operations for all active-duty and National Guard joint-operations on the island – approximately 12,000 people.
"We spent approximately nine weeks in Puerto Rico," said 1st Lt. Tessa Harbison, the company’s executive officer and the platoon leader for the team. "We had no idea when we left how long they would need us – for all we knew it could have been two weeks or up to several months."
Upon arrival in Puerto Rico, the team split up and spread across the island, where they were stationed in airports and worked with local residents to in-process military personnel and keep accountability of their presence and needs. Those early days when they first arrived, they said, were rough.
"The road was completely flooded when we first got there," said Spc. Chris Milligan. "We basically had to ford the road with our vehicles. The building we were in was flooded at first too – any time it rained we’d have to throw down sandbags and push the water out so we could continue the mission."
For most of them, the level of devastation across the island was unlike anything they had seen before.
From gigantic highway signs on top of houses to cars completely submerged to sailboats in the middle of the road between buildings, the Soldiers each had vivid examples of the severity of destruction that they witnessed.
"There wasn’t a single leaf on a single tree on the entire island," said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Taylor, the group’s platoon sergeant. "It finally started growing back about a month after we got there."
While the Soldiers each said he or she gained important perspective throughout the experience, from practicing flexibility to experiencing gratitude, the mission also was an opportunity to learn a new skill set within the military occupational specialty, said Sgt. Carol Jones.
Jones, who has spent her whole career as a human resources specialist, said she has only ever performed S1 functions, so running theater gateway operations gave her a new, valuable skill set and helped her learn a different aspect of her job.
"I got to learn a whole new part of my job that I haven’t had the chance to do before," she said. "That’s something I’ll be able to use to progress my career."
And as the Soldiers progressed in their knowledge and skill, the island progressed along with them.
"You’d see the change day by day," said Spc. Makel Powell. "You’d see street lights coming back on, and then you’d see some houses getting power, and the restaurants opening back up – and that’s how we knew we’d be going home soon – because things were getting better."
"As long as Puerto Rico was getting better, that’s all I cared about," agreed Pfc. Pat Smith. "The days would go a lot quicker when you stayed positive."
The Soldiers took their mission – with all of its unknowns – in stride.
"You just learn to be flexible and to go along with whatever the mission requires," said Sgt. Joshua Overton. "On a regular deployment, you know you’re going to be there for six months, for nine months – we didn’t have that. But you learn to deal with it and just focus on the mission at hand."
While they were relieved to come home, most of them arriving just before Thanksgiving, the Soldiers said they will continue to value the lessons they learned in Puerto Rico and the people who stood out – in particular, an airport security employee named Linda Rodriguez, who the team agreed played a huge part in their morale.
"We gave some (Meals Ready to Eat) to the airport security, and one lady felt so bad for us for having to eat them that she cooked us all a meal – she had no power or anything at home, but she still made us a meal," Taylor said.
Rodriguez, who some of the teammates said became like a mother to the group, had lost everything but the foundation of her home. The Soldiers agreed that her positive attitude despite the circumstances gave them personal perspective and boosted their morale.
Overall, the Soldiers said they were proud of the work they did in Puerto Rico – just as Maj. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum commander, said they would be when they departed in September.
"I think we’d all say it was an honor to represent the 10th Mountain Division and to go when we were called," Taylor said.