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Puerto Rican Airmen back on duty after surviving Hurricane Maria

By Tech. Sgt. Daniel Heaton | 156th Airlift Wing | Oct. 3, 2017

MUNIZ AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Puerto Rico – Tech. Sgt. Radames "Mickey" Mercado pushes away from the table in the aircrew life support shop at the 156th Airlift Wing in Puerto Rico.

"I don't think I can do this," he said as he stands up from the table and steps out from the room. Twice he tries to come back into the room to finish his story. The third time, he is able to stay.

"This is so hard for me. I joined the Guard to be the one to help, to be the one to give relief," he says and then his voice trails off, unable to finish his thought.

Mercado's home flooded when Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. Three days after the storm, he made the trek to his duty station at Muniz Air National Guard Base by inflatable raft before he was met by a friend with a car and taken the rest of the way. The day before, he managed to only travel about half of the roughly 25 miles from the base to his home in Toa Baja before floodwaters forced him to turn back.

"I never thought it would be this bad. Where I live, it is flat, there's no mountains," he said. "But there was 14 feet of water in my neighborhood. I live on a raised area, but there was still 2 ½ feet of water inside my house."

"I don't know…," he said. "[I guess] we'll start from the bottom and start over."

His coworker, Staff Sgt. Yaritza Maldonado, sits across the room from Mercado and is a study in conflicting emotions.

She is happy to share her excitement of knowing her parents are okay; however, her joy is interrupted by the memories she still carries of Hurricane Hugo 25 years ago. As a native of Vieques, a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico, she remembers the fear she felt as a young girl when Hugo hit and the massive destruction that was left behind, an event that now seems small in comparison to what she is living through in the aftermath of Maria.

Now an adult, Maldonado experienced Maria in a much more comprehensive way, and with that came the reality of being separated from her parents, still residents of Vieques.

"After Hugo, everything changed. Now, after Maria, everything will change again," she said.

A week after the storm, a government search and rescue team in Vieques went door-to-door offering emergency support and came across Maldonado's parents. Through the use of a satellite phone, Maldonado was finally able to learn that her parents had survived the wrath of Hurricane Maria, "I was so overwhelmed to hear from her. To know that my parents are safe. But my island – my island has been destroyed," she said. Hearing her mother's voice, Maldonado took on a far-away look in her eyes, as if perhaps, just for a moment, she is home, rather than at Muniz Air National Guard Base. She cherishes the simple words she heard from her mom, "I'm safe. I love you. I can't wait to see you."

Mercado and Maldonado are co-workers at the 156th Airlift Wing and are finding great solace in similar surroundings – the familiarity of returning to some degree of normalcy by reporting for work, and being around their Air Guard family.