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Citizen Airman aids Hurricane Maria victims in Puerto Rico

Rescue Airman aids families in Puerto Rico

Master Sgt. Gerardo Ramos, 720th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron HC-130 flight chief, poses in front of an HC-130N Oct. 17 at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. Ramos traveled to Puerto Rico Sept. 27 to Oct. 4 to provide humanitarian relief to his family and other residents after Hurricane Maria. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Lindsey Maurice)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Having just experienced the wrath of Hurricane Irma as it tore through his hometown of Melbourne, Florida, early September 2017, Master Sgt. Gerardo Ramos was on pins and needles as he watched the next Category 5 hurricane, Maria, ravage Puerto Rico, the island where he spent the first 21 years of his life and where his parents, brothers and in-laws still reside, a mere several weeks later.

“It was really tough watching the news and not being able to contact my family,” said the 720th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron HC-130 flight chief. “They live in Yauco, on the south side of the island. All the early reports said it was impossible to access because the river that goes through the town flooded the roadways.”

It wasn’t until Sept. 25, five days after the hurricane barreled through the island, that Ramos saw the first news report of people able to reach the residents of Yauco.

“As soon as I saw that, I knew I had to get to my family and do whatever I could to help,” said the 21-year Air Force veteran.

Ramos spoke with his supervisor about taking leave to check on his family.

“I supported his trip to Puerto Rico because I could see how passionate he was about rendering aid,” said Chief Master Sgt. John Sosko, 720th AMXS superintendent. “The whole unit donated goods which were sent with him. Without Gerry, that wouldn’t have happened.”

Once approved, Ramos found out some coworkers who run a non-profit organization called Alpha CREW, were in need of an escort to accompany a shipment of life-sustaining supplies bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico on a National Guard C-130 aircraft out of Savannah, Georgia. Ramos agreed to be the escort and packed his own case of supplies for his family to include a small generator, batteries, gas tank and groceries, before heading out of state.

After a 10-hour wait due to cancelled flights and a massive amount of travelers trying to get to Puerto Rico on a space available basis, Ramos finally caught a flight, arriving in San Juan around 5 a.m. Sept. 27.

Ramos spent the better half of his first day guarding the Alpha CREW shipment until it reached the hands of the Puerto Rico National Guard. With that part of his mission behind him, he was now free to focus on reuniting with his family.

“I started my journey pretty much selling gas for rides,” he said. “I would wait in line, fill my little gas tank and then dump that gas into the tank of whomever would give me a ride.”

Ramos said he made it halfway to his destination before having to stop for the day due to the island-wide curfew implemented after the hurricane. Luckily, he found a police station in Salinas that allowed him to spend the night.

“The following morning I continued doing the same thing until I made it home,” he said. “It’s a trip that normally takes two-and-a-half hours. It took me well over 12 hours to get there.”

Ramos said he was surprised to see the river already receding and the roads clear in the town.

“Visually I could see the damage of Maria,” he recalled. “The rails on the side of the street were bent and mangled like something had hit them really hard. I was told that was from the force of the water. The concrete electric poles were snapped in half from the force of the wind. There were wires everywhere. It was just a mess.”

Ramos said it was a very emotional reunion when he finally reached his parents.

“They had no idea I was coming and couldn’t believe I was there,” he said. “There was a lot of crying.”

His family, like most, had very little food and water and were without power. He made a trip to the only operating bakery in town for a loaf of bread.

“The line wrapped around the outside of the store multiple times,” he recalled. “When people found out I was in the military they told me to go right in. The lady behind the counter gave me two big rolls of bread and refused to take my money. She said ‘No, you are here to help.’”

Upon returning home, he hooked up the generator and plugged in the refrigerator. Next, Ramos gathered all the empty water bottles, filled them with potable water and loaded them into the fridge to cool.
After taking care of his family, Ramos’ mother fed him a little rice before he headed out to see if any neighbors needed assistance.

“I first thought of the front neighbor, a really nice elderly lady in her 90s,” he said. After speaking with her, he found that she had not had anything to eat or drink in the last few days other than a few crackers. Ramos said he ran home and grabbed the little bit of leftover rice he had from lunch and a bottle of water from the fridge for her.

“I remember the bottle wasn’t very cold as I had just put it in the fridge not long ago,” he recalled, “but when I handed it to her, she said ‘Wow; it’s still cold! God Bless You!’”

“She gladly accepted the water and rice,” he continued. “The fact that somebody was eating out of my leftovers, and she was so thankful, is something I will never forget. I can’t.”

After getting a little rest that night, Ramos went to check on his mother-in-law the following morning. She also had no running water, no power and little food, but she doing okay. Her adult children were looking after her. After giving her the little bit of supplies he brought with him from Florida, he went to find his brother, a police officer in Puerto Rico, to see how he could assist.

Together, they decided to start going door-to-door to see if there was anyone in need of help.

Ramos recalled the first house he visited belonged to another elderly woman in bad shape.

“I heard a faint voice saying, ‘come in,’” he said. “When I opened the door there was this weak looking woman in a wheelchair. She hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in days. It was heartbreaking. I reached in my backpack and pulled out what little food I had packed for myself that day – a bottle of water, an apple and some crackers with peanut butter and jelly, and I gave it all to her. I wish I had more to give to her.”

Ramos asked if she had someone he could contact. He called her daughter in Maryland on his phone to let her talk to her mother. It was the first time they spoke since the hurricane. After an emotionally charged conversation, Ramos left, asking his sister-in-law to look after the woman.

Ramos spent several more days in Puerto Rico helping neighbors, connecting people with their loved ones by phone, and offering words of encouragement before heading back to Florida.

“I spoke with Gerry daily while he was there and by the third day I could tell he was witnessing things that were heavy on his mind,” Sosko said. “His frustration was that he couldn’t do more, and he had no more to give. He is a caring and thoughtful person. I am very proud of him.”

Ramos said that while it was a tough week in Puerto Rico, he is grateful for the opportunity.

“It was physically and emotionally draining to see people that you love and care about suffering,” he said. “But I am so thankful I was able to go and help at least in some small way. I just wish I could do more.”
Ramos said he plans to visit again in the coming weeks.