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Puerto Rico's Citizen-Airmen find comfort in service after disaster

Staff Sgt. Jose Cepeda, 156th Maintenance Squadron, Puerto Rico Air National Guard, helps to unload a pallet of supplies from an Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico, Sept. 24, 2017. The Puerto Rico Air National Guard is working with numerous local and federal agencies in response to Hurricane Maria. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

Staff Sgt. Jose Cepeda, 156th Maintenance Squadron, Puerto Rico Air National Guard, helps to unload a pallet of supplies from an Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico, Sept. 24, 2017. The Puerto Rico Air National Guard is working with numerous local and federal agencies in response to Hurricane Maria. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

Senior Master Sgt. Mildred Gilbert a member of the command post, takes a break in the operations building at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico to share her firsthand account of surviving a natural disaster. She is one of hundreds of local Air National Guard personnel who showed up at the base, seeking to service his community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

Senior Master Sgt. Mildred Gilbert a member of the command post, takes a break in the operations building at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico to share her firsthand account of surviving a natural disaster. She is one of hundreds of local Air National Guard personnel who showed up at the base, seeking to service his community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

Master Sgt. Jaime Vega, who works in the command post, sits in the operations building at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico to tell his story. He is one of hundreds of local Air National Guard personnel who showed up at the base, seeking to service his community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

Master Sgt. Jaime Vega, who works in the command post, sits in the operations building at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico to tell his story. He is one of hundreds of local Air National Guard personnel who showed up at the base, seeking to service his community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

Airmen from the 156th Airlift Wing, Puerto Rico Air National Guard, unload supplies from a C-130 Hercules at Muniz Air National Guard Base in Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Maria, Sept. 23, 2017. The Puerto Rico Air National Guard is working with numerous local and federal agencies in response to Hurricane Maria. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

Airmen from the 156th Airlift Wing, Puerto Rico Air National Guard, unload supplies from a C-130 Hercules at Muniz Air National Guard Base in Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Maria, Sept. 23, 2017. The Puerto Rico Air National Guard is working with numerous local and federal agencies in response to Hurricane Maria. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

MUNIZ AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Puerto Rico -- For many of the Citizen-Airmen of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard’s 156th Wing, military service is helping them to cope with the massive damage done to their island by Hurricane Maria. 

Members of the 156th Airlift Wing are fully engaged in response to the damage caused by the hurricane since it hit the island early on Sept. 20. For several of the Wing’s Airmen, being part of the wing’s recovery is the best medicine.

To Senior Master Sgt. Mildred Gilbert, it meant just showing up and being available. 

“I’ve mopped water. I’ve been a runner. I’ve made coffee – made coffee with love,” Gilbert said of her tasks since she first reported to the base. “I’m at an age and a rank where those normally aren’t my jobs any more, but this is my family, and my family is hurting.”

Officially, Gilbert serves as the wing’s equal opportunity specialist. She previously served the wing as a command post controller and resumed those duties to help the wing since the storm hit.

“I am no longer qualified to stand a watch in the command post, but I got a hold of the superintendent and the wing commander. They provided the waiver so that I could come in here and provide some relief to those who are on duty and they need to get home and check on their homes and families,” Gilbert said.

All Air Force command posts are manned 24 hours a day – including during hurricanes. 

That duty and obligation is what brought Master Sgt. Jaime Vega in to the base a few days after the storm passed. He had no order to do so. 

He said it was more of a compulsion.

“I have been in this wing for 27 years,” Vega said. “My father was in the wing and when I started out, we used to car pool together.”

“I just had to come in here and see what was happening. I’ll stay and work a shift. If they need me, I will stay. If not, I will go and start getting my civilian job back together,” Vega said. 

During the storm, Vega hunkered down at home. He has a small room in the center of his house that has no windows. That’s where he put his two sons. He and his wife were nearby, watching and listening to the storm pummel their home. He said water was coming in via the dryer vent. A sliding glass door bowed in and out with the wind – but miraculously never broke.

“I have a cement home, so I was very lucky,” Vega said. “Many, many homes in my neighborhood had damage. The best way I can describe the sound was that the wind sounded heavy.”

Across the island, the hurricane left the entire island without power, very limited cell phone connections coupled with flooding and damage. Miles long lines can be seen at every operable gas station as homeowners and businesses seek fuel for generators. Vega was in line for $20 worth of gasoline – the limit – for 5 ½ hours one day, 2 hours the previous day. 

Gilbert said she felt as if she had done all she could to prepare for the storm. 

“I have a generator. I have extra gas. I have food and water, but where I live, just like every place else, there is so much damage. My parents’ home is no longer safe to live in. You just can’t prepare for that,” she said.