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Fort Carson troops finding 'a new normal' in Puerto Rico amid long days

October 25, 2017 Updated: October 25, 2017 at 1:05 pm
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A U.S. Army helicopter transports material to repair the Guajataca Dam, damaged during Hurricane Maria, in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. The dam was built around 1928, and holds back a man-made lake. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Fort Carson soldiers say things are returning to normal in Puerto Rico, where 200 GIs from Colorado Springs are helping in relief efforts.

But over a month after a powerful hurricane swept the island, many places still lack electricity and thousands of residents are relying on Fort Carson soldiers for food and water.

"It's a new normal," said Col. Geoff Kent, who is leading the post's 4th Sustainment Brigade on the island.

Kent's troops have become some of the Army's most skilled at hurricane relief. They had helped Texas recover from Hurricane Harvey when they were ordered to Puerto Rico a month ago.

Now, most roads are open and power is back on for much of the island. But thousands of Puerto Ricans are still suffering.

"There are still pockets on the islands that are affected by the hurricane," Kent said.

The Trump administration faced criticism for the government's response to the Puerto Rico disaster. The furor was fueled in part by social media posts by President Donald Trump, including a Twitter missive that blamed some of the island's problems on lack of local effort.

"They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort," Trump wrote on Twitter.

U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, which oversees the Pentagon portion of the relief effort, has sent more than 8,000 troops to the island. Army engineers are rebuilding and clearing roads, Marines and soldiers are distributing supplies and Navy and Air Force doctors are offering medical care.

Kent said he's watched the Defense Department effort pay off.

"What we have seen is a lot of new growth and a lot of stabilization across the island," he said.

Kent's forces are based at the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on the southeastern tip of Puerto Rico.

"Our mission is to support (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and other federal agencies and the Puerto Rico government to assure that commodities coming by air or sea are pushed out across the island," he said.

Getting the mission accomplished has involved problems from dealing with debris-tangled roads to gaining trust from local leaders who oversee the distribution of supplies.

"What we have learned here is that you have to be prepared to work through a lot of friction," Kent said. "There are a lot of things that come into play that create friction on the ground."

His troops have put in long days, especially his water purification troops who have worked 18 hours a day to distribute more than 400,000 gallons of water to communities.

"We have established water distribution points across the island," he said.

The soldiers started their mission living in abandoned buildings. Some of them have now moved into newly reopened hotels. But it's still a spartan life, with four soldiers billeted in every room.

Long days and low-rent accommodations haven't dampened morale, Kent said.

"The soldiers are very engaged and very motivated," he said.

"This is a mission unlike other missions. This is a mission of the spirit and a mission of the heart."

National Guard troops are readying to take over work on the island. The Fort Carson contingent could be back in Colorado Springs in a few weeks.

Kent said he's satisfied that Puerto Rico is on a better path.

"When we first got here four weeks ago, every leaf on every tree was stripped and every branch was broken," he said. "Today a lot of that greenery is coming back. That's very symbolic."

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