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Puerto Rican Engineers Depart Kuwait Following Hurricane Maria

By Army Capt. Margaret Ziffer, 35th Infantry Division

CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait, Oct. 19, 2017 — Soldiers with the Puerto Rico Army National Guard’s 215th Engineer Company are on their way home after a transfer of authority ceremony conducted with the Army Reserve's 306th Engineer Company from Farmingdale, New York, at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, Oct. 16.

The transfer of authority was moved up a week 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 Army Lt. Col. Jean Plamondon, commander of the 854th Engineer Battalion. “While they may have been physically here, we understand that their minds have been back home in Puerto Rico, rightfully so.”

Meterologists have said Hurricane Maria was the 10th-most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, causing catastrophic damage and a major humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. Approximately a month after the hurricane hit the island, many residents still lack access to food, water and electricity.

Plamondon said that the inability to communicate with or help their family members back home had taken a toll on many of the guardsmen.

“Our prayers are with all of the soldiers and their families as they return home to rebuild their communities,” he said.

Several soldiers lost their homes and suffered severe property damage following the storm, which hit Puerto Rico Sept. 20. Fortunately, no one in the unit lost a family member or had any serious injuries reported.

Mission Complete, Going Home

Morale skyrocketed the day that the unit was told their departure date was being changed, said Army Capt. Luis Camacho Santiago, commander of the 215th Engineer Company. “The soldiers were happy [and] they were focused on doing whatever they needed to do to leave a week early.”

Although they were departing ahead of schedule, the unit completed its mission -- which included force protection, partnership engagements, structural assessments and health and safety assignments throughout the U.S. Central Command area of operations.

“As the commander of the unit, it was a challenge,” Camacho Santiago said. “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 one of the division leaders in attendance at the transfer of authority ceremony. Made up of Kansas and Missouri Army National Guardsmen, the 35th Infantry Division has served as the 215th's division headquarters since June.

“We were in a unique position to adjust the [transfer of authority] date and get them back earlier than schedule,” Newton said. “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,” Camacho Santiago said. But, he said, the Army determined that 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,” the captain said.

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,” he said. “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.”

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