What I Saw in Puerto Rico

  • Published
  • By Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing

What one sees often largely depends on where one chooses to look.


Having collapsed on to my bed at the end of another 16-hour work day, my uniform again soaked through with sweat, I saw that day's latest headline: Inadequate hurricane response in Puerto Rico.


Where, I wondered, were these reporters looking? That very day, this Michigan Air Guardsman had worked directly with Citizen-Airmen and Soldiers from Puerto Rico, Kentucky, Iowa, Arizona, Ohio and Colorado to support the airlift of goods, supplies and personnel from the mainland U.S. to Puerto Rico. I was fortunate enough to be in the first wave of National Guard responders to Hurricane Maria, which slammed the U.S. island territories of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Sept. 19-20.


My field of vision those first weeks in Puerto Rico was very small. I saw San Juan International Airport, Muniz Air National Guard Base and my hotel – all within about a 5-mile radius. I was assigned to tasks at the air base and the airport. At the hotel, I slept. What was happening outside my bubble? I had no idea.


What did I see?


I saw Puerto Rican Airmen who, after two weeks of 16-hour days, humbly came forward and asked if they could have a day off to ensure the safety of their ailing mother. I saw Puerto Rican Airmen who daily walked downstairs from their 14th floor apartment in the city – with no working elevator – to report for duty. I saw Puerto Rican Airmen who had multiple families living in their homes due to hurricane storm damage, but still never so much as showed up a single day late to work.


I saw Airmen and aircraft from dozens of states roll in to Puerto Rico, part of the national response where the National Guard family – and make no mistake, peel away all the regulations, ranks and duty titles, and the National Guard is a family – came together to lend a hand to their brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.


I know, however, I did not see all. It was nearly a month after the storm hit the island before I was able to see parts of the rural countryside, having volunteered to join a water delivery mission to the interior of the island of Puerto Rico. On the mission, again, I saw Citizen-Airmen, many of whom were volunteering on their first day off in nearly three weeks, working together to provide relief to the people of Puerto Rico. I also saw, perhaps, some of what the media had been talking about when it suggested that the response to the hurricane was not sufficient.


Too often, we take great offense when another party sees our project in a different light than we ourselves see it.


“They are getting it wrong!” we shout, certain that we know the real truth.


We know what we see -- because we know where we are looking.


As a Public Affairs Airman, part of my job is to ensure that the American public, often through the media, also sees what I am able to see. This is often a challenge, as we can be so busy with the mission, we don’t want to take the time it takes to allow everyone to just stop and have a look-see.


Those times, however, when we are consumed with the busiest, most important missions, are often the most critical times to allow others to look. And to see.


On the flight line in the days after a hurricane, at a temporary airlift operations center on the side of an airport or out in a community where the challenges are both real and evident – what we see depends largely on where we look.