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Rebuilding strength: Chaplain assists in relief efforts

Hurricane Maria relief efforts

Capt. Paul Harris, 5th Bomb Wing chaplain, hands water to locals during Hurricane Maria relief efforts in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, October 20, 2017. Harris helped deliver about 8 million bottles of water and 5.5 million boxes of food to the people affected by the Hurricane. (Courtesy photo)

Hurricane Maria relief efforts

Capt. Paul Harris, 5th Bomb Wing chaplain, hands water to locals during Hurricane Maria relief efforts in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, October 20, 2017. Harris helped deliver about 8 million bottles of water and 5.5 million boxes of food to the people affected by the Hurricane. (Courtesy photo)

Hurricane Maria relief efforts

Capt. Paul Harris, 5th Bomb Wing chaplain, speaks to service members before a convoy mission during Hurricane Maria relief efforts in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, October 23, 2017. Harris helped deliver about 8 million bottles of water and 5.5 million boxes of food to the people affected by the Hurricane. (Courtesy photo)

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- In a matter of hours things would never be the same, the unwanted visitor’s mission was to destroy anything in its path. The destruction would be something the people would never forget, after all it ripped most from their family members, homes and normalcy.

Miles away from this devastation in the Atlantic Ocean, Capt. Paul Harris, 5th Bomb Wing chaplain, received the short deployment-notice in Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. He was one of several Airmen asked to provide relief efforts for the U.S. territory.

Since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, service members from the Department of Defense, like Harris, were prepared to with recovery operations and those in need.

“They told us we would be living in austere conditions,” said Harris. “My initial thought was what are we getting ourselves into? No one knew what it was going to be like in the middle of nowhere, we were probably going to sleep under the stars.”

Harris, with the help of Staff Sgt. Shantwiauna Williams, 78th Air Base Wing chaplain assistant, provided religious support for Airmen with the Expeditionary Medical Team and Soldiers, Marines, Guardsmen and other DOD members on convoy missions.

“We were there to help the EMED team but I wanted to do more,” said Harris. “The people on the convoys were seeing people suffer and struggle I wanted to reach them as well. Staff Sgt. Williams and I jumped at the opportunity to help with the convoys and ended up doing over 20 convoys. It was a blessing to be able to pass out water and food to the needy people.”

During the month-long deployment, Harris helped deliver water and food daily to people in the western part of the island. The convoy team he was assigned to, helped deliver about 8 million bottles of water and 5.5 million boxes of food.

“This was a fantastic mission, every day we went to different areas,” said Harris. “I bought a map to check off all the areas we were helping.”

The convoy teams started their 14-hour day loading trucks with food and water. Each truck carried about 20-50 pallets of supplies to deliver in remote areas. Their distribution routine consisted of two rounds in the same location. One to alert the local people convoy teams where there to deliver items and the second to actually deliver food.

During one of the deliveries, Harris remembered an elderly lady, breaking down and crying with excitement. She introduced herself as Alba, and thanked them for stopping in their neighborhood.

“I was honored and blessed,” said Alba. “I was a little emotional because after more than 30 days this was the first time we received any supplies in our neighborhood. I appreciate the generosity of visiting each home.”

Harris continued this routine for a month, meeting and helping the people of Puerto Rico.

“One thing I learned from the experience is that people’s true determination and the sheer will to live is beyond our wildest imagination,” said Harris. “It was amazing to see little kids struggling to carry water for their elderly grandparents, everyone came together. Soldiers would jump off the [convoy] trucks, walk a mile or two to help older people.”

With mixed emotions, Harris described his experience to be phenomenal. He was grateful for the call to assist with the relief efforts.

“I wish it was long but I am glad to be home,” said Harris. “I have mixed emotions because there I felt completely useful, not that I don’t feel useful at Minot, but these people literally need us in Puerto Rico. They still need help and I just want to make sure they get help and that it gets done right.”
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