CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait – Soldiers of the 215th Engineer Company (Vertical), Puerto Rico National Guard, are on their way home after a transfer of authority ceremony conducted Monday with the Army Reserve's 306th Engineer Company (Vertical) from Farmingdale, New York, at Camp Buehring, Kuwait.
The transfer of authority was moved up a week early to allow the 215th to return home to their families in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
"The 215th Soldiers have shown extreme resiliency during these last few weeks of their deployment," said Lt. Col. Jean Plamondon, 854th Engineer Battalion commander. "While they may have been physically here, we understand that their minds have been back home in Puerto Rico, rightfully so."
Hurricane Maria is the tenth-most intense Atlantic hurricane on record and caused catastrophic damage and a major humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. More than three weeks after the hurricane hit, many residents still lack access to food, water and electricity.
Plamondon said that the lack of communication back home with family members had taken a toll on many.
"The lack of communication with family members and not being home to assist them has been troubling for many of the 215th Soldiers," said Plamondon. "Our prayers are with all of the Soldiers and their families as they return home to rebuild their communities."
Several Soldiers lost their homes and suffered severe property damage following the storm, which hit Puerto Rico in September. Fortunately, none of the Soldiers lost any family members or had any serious injuries reported.
"Since the day that the brigade and the battalion informed us that we were going to be pushed to the left, the morale of the unit skyrocketed," said 215th Engineer Company Cmdr. Luis Camacho Santiago. "The soldiers were happy, they were focused on doing whatever they needed to do to leave a week early."
Although they were departing ahead of schedule, the 215th was able to accomplish their mission thoroughly, which included force protection, partnership engagements, structural assessments, and health and safety jobs throughout the Central Command area of operations.
"As the commander of the unit, it was a challenge," said Camacho Santiago. "We worked in six different countries, and completed over 40 projects. Every Soldier is going back to Puerto Rico being a better Soldier than they were. So it was a great learning experience for all of us."
35th Infantry Division Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Newton was among division leadership in attendance at the ceremony. Made up of Kansas and Missouri National Guard members, the 35th Inf. Div. has served as the 215th's division headquarters since June.
"We were in a unique position to adjust the TOA date and get them back earlier than schedule," said Newton. "The military is a family. So taking care of our members and their families is a priority."
"There is a saying that the mission is always first, and it has been first," said Camacho Santiago. "But there was a balance in seeing how the return process could be expedited. "Being able to finish our missions - being able to work until the last moment - but also being released a week earlier, it meant to us that everyone in the chain of command heard about us and our families, and they were there to support us."
Concluding the ceremony, Plamondon welcomed the 306th Engineer Company to the team.
"To the Soldiers of the 306th, you have very big shoes to fill, as the 215th set the bar high," said Plamondon. "I have faith and confidence in the 306th to get the mission done and serve with the same esprit de corps and motivation that your predecessors have done."