FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md., Dec. 29, 2017 — When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 it caused widespread destruction that continues to impact the U.S. territory’s more than 3 million people.
For one soldier, the opportunity to make a difference in the place he calls home was a calling he could not ignore.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Rafael Ortiz, a cybersecurity noncommissioned officer with the 781st Military Intelligence Battalion here and a newly minted Red Cross team leader, used his personal leave time to cover his 21-day deployment to Puerto Rico with the Red Cross to assist others during this humanitarian crisis.
Volunteers for Humanitarian Mission
“My family — parents, grandmother, sister, uncles, aunts — live in Puerto Rico. Immediately after the hurricane, a lot of people were doing fundraisers. I felt that I could be more useful by going myself as volunteer,” Ortiz said. “So I sent a lot of applications to different organizations to become a volunteer to go to Puerto Rico. The Red Cross was the first one that responded to my application. I went through an interview process, then a deployment briefing, and finally I received my assignment.”
When Ortiz arrived in Puerto Rico on Oct. 13, his initial responsibility was reunification. His job was to assist the people living outside Puerto Rico to reconnect with their family members on the island.
Ortiz asked to be moved to a section called bulk distribution because he wanted to be close to the people.
“For 16 consecutive days I was the team lead of a group that went out with a truck to distribute food, water, hand sanitizer, tarps, and other items to different municipalities,” he said. “We visited 13 municipalities — sometimes more than once.”
Ortiz said while his Red Cross team had a direct impact on over 18,000 people, it wasn’t enough. He wanted to do more.
“I saw a little bit of everything. I saw people with no power, water, food, jobs, home … I saw others in better conditions. [Today] most of the island is in bad shape, especially the inside of it. In the mountains the situation is bad,” Ortiz said. “One of the things that I will never forget is when we ran out of items at the distribution site. I had to tell about 400 people that we didn’t have any more food and water. It broke my heart. It happened almost everywhere we went. Some people left crying.”
Helping People in Need
Ortiz recalled his visits to the municipalities of Utuado and Aguas Buenas.
“Utuado was the worst-affected area. After I went there the first time, I asked to be sent again,” Ortiz said. “The need in Utuado is big. During my third time there, people immediately knew who I was. They were so happy to see us back.
“The second memory is the visit to an orphanage in Aguas Buenas,” he continued. “We had some food and water left, so I asked the local police if they knew of a place where what we had was needed. They took us to an orphanage and we left everything there. Those kids marked my life.”
The people of Puerto Rico are grateful for the help and have a good attitude, Ortiz said.
“The people were smiling and thankful for the assistance,” he said. “They understand it will take hard work and a long time for things to get back to normal. However, they take one day at a time. The best way to describe the people there is with one word: resilience.”