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NEWS | Feb. 13, 2018

Army Combat Camera learns from Hurricane Maria mission

By U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Pablo N. Piedra 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera)

The U.S. Army’s 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), based at Fort Meade, Maryland, strives to maintain mission readiness by training Soldiers for all possible contingencies. In most cases, we have weeks to prepare for a deployment.

Occasionally, however, we receive an immediate tasking with no lead time. That was the case Sept. 24, 2017, when a five-Soldier Combat Camera team was sent to Puerto Rico to cover U.S. military relief efforts after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
I was the noncommissioned officer in charge, with Sgt. Nelson Rodriguez as team leader. Both of us had just returned from another mission just the night before. We were assigned three Soldiers, Spc. Blue Maldonado, Pfc. Kyara Aguilar and Pfc. Caitlyn Cassidy, who were pulled from a field exercise. 

The team was given five hours to create a packing list, prepare equipment and assess the mission. Four of our team members speak Spanish, which proved to be a huge asset in the coming weeks.
Without knowing the conditions on the island, the location where we would operate, or even power or communications capabilities, we had to prepare for any environment. We had to pack enough uniforms, batteries, memory cards, supplies and equipment to operate in austere conditions for as long as possible.

The team was attached to the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB), based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Our presence meant the 101st CAB had less room for their own supplies. Going in, we knew we would have to prove our worth to the host unit, not only in documenting the recovery efforts, but by actively assisting the 101st CAB’s efforts. 
This included loading and unloading aircraft, setting up camp, moving equipment and other tasks associated with humanitarian operations.

By the end of the fourth day with the 101st CAB, our group was regarded as part of the larger 101st team, and we were given unrestricted latitude to complete our Combat Camera missions.

As is typical of contingency missions such as this, our orders changed on the sixth day of the mission.

The team was moved to San Juan to support the U.S. Army North Public Affairs team, which had been put in charge of documenting all recovery efforts. The five of us quickly established ourselves as the go-to resource for completing the numerous documentation missions.
As the overall mission continued, it became clear there was one aspect we couldn’t adequately prepare for: the emotional toll. In the aftermath of Maria, Puerto Rico suffered a lot: widespread homelessness, lack of food and potable water, injuries, illness and a lack of medical assistance.
The suffering was indiscriminate, and people of all ages were subject to it.

We quickly learned to lean on each other in order to express our personal feelings about what we witnessed, and it helped us cope and continue the mission.

Once the team returned to Fort Meade in late October, an after-action review (AAR) served as a reminder Combat Camera needs to be ready to go at all times. Among the salient points from the AAR:

  • Ensure all Soldiers’ field   
    equipment is packed and ready to 
    go at all times. 
  • Check camera equipment – in    
    cluding adequate memory cards 
    and charged batteries – weekly. 
  • Ensure Soldiers can live in austere 
    conditions for an indefinite time. 
  • Always be prepared to share the 
    burdens of the host unit. 
  • Always be prepared for a change 
    in mission or specific event. 
  • Provide team members with 
    emotional support and down-time 
    to maintain morale. 

Hurricane Maria created havoc on the Island of Puerto Rico, and the opportunity to document the relief efforts, to help the people of the island, to work as translators and render aid in any way possible was a huge honor to our team, and it’s an experience each one of us will always cherish. Eyes of the Army, Combat Focus.

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