JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. -- On Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma ravaged the northeast side of Puerto Rico, leaving almost one million people without power.
Weeks later, Hurricane Maria limited communications, uprooted trees and created a labyrinth of inaccessible roads and highways throughout the already devastated country. As the nation continues to rebuild, some citizens are forced to sleep in their damaged homes with nowhere else to go; many without basic essentials like electricity, food and water.
For U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Hector G. Gonzalez, 305th Maintenance Group quality assurance supervisor, the devastation hit a little closer to home.
“I had a heavy heart when I was on the phone with my cousin there on the island all the way up till Maria hit, and I could just hear the wind in the background. Then, all of a sudden, the cell signal was lost,” said Gonzalez. “The hurricane was over the island, and I felt helpless; I wanted to do something, but I couldn’t really do anything with no planes coming in or out. It was just me feeling helpless, and I wanted to help my family.”
When the 6th Airlift Squadron’s C-17 Globemaster III touched down in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 6, its belly was full of FEMA gear, pallets of supplies, food, water and aid as part of a humanitarian response. The goal of the mission – to resupply Puerto Rico while also transporting a medical battalion to the east side of the island. And a bonus was getting Gonzalez home to check on his family.
When Gonzalez’s family in the U.S. learned of his grandfather’s situation, who was back in his home since the flood waters receded and struggling to get food and water, they decided to ban together creating care packages of survival basics including food, water, LED lights, water purifier, first-aid kits and a generator so he can have electricity again.
“His home was full of at least a foot and a half of flood water,” said Gonzalez. “The house was still standing, but destroyed. Everything was lost.”
For the first time in two years, Gonzalez was face-to-face with his grandfather; finally able to make sure he was OK.
“Honestly, the first thing I could do was just give him a big hug and that’s all that we could do for a while,” said Gonzalez. “We couldn’t really talk because it was just very emotional.”
Despite serving in humanitarian missions in the past, the 6th AS crew was able to help the family of one of their own.
“When we are going and helping people out, that’s the best kind of mission that we can do,” said Capt. Garrison K. Boone, 6th AS instructor pilot and aircraft commander. “Especially when you can be connected to someone’s family, so we were more than glad to help out.”
As the Gonzalez family works to rebuild their life in Puerto Rico, the relief that arrived on the C-17 Globemaster III was more than could fit on a pallet.
“Words cannot describe what that meant to him,” said Gonzalez. “He will remember that forever."