While Hurricane Maria was unleashing her fury on Puerto Rico Sept. 20, all island-native Staff Sgt. Jose Medina could do was standby helplessly watching news updates and live coverage from his Fort Leonard Wood home.
Medina is currently a drill sergeant for Company E, 2nd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment, and though his military duties have taken him out of Puerto Rico, he still has Family, to include a son, on the island.
Before the storm had ended, Medina had purchased airline tickets and started making a list of supplies he would need to take with him. Leaving Friday, Sept. 22, he wouldn't reach the island until the morning of Sept 24.
"On Friday I flew from St. Louis to Miami and Miami to San Juan, but about 30 to 40 minutes before we were supposed to land the captain came on and said they had lost signal with the tower in San Juan so we had to return to Miami," Medina said. "I was stuck in Miami for another 24 hours. During that time I got better prepared and kept on pushing for another flight. I finally made it through Sunday morning. I had lost communication (during the storm) so at this point I had gone four or five days knowing nothing about my son or Family."
Getting to the island was only the beginning for Medina. He picked up his rental car and started toward his hometown.
"The hardest thing while driving down from San Juan was seeing the devastation," Medina said. "Everything was just wiped down. It looked like a desert, all the vegetation was brown. It actually looked like a giant weed eater went across the island. Trees and light poles were all down. After an hour of driving I just didn't want to see any more. I just kept thinking, 'I want to see how my son is.'"
A trip that usually takes an hour and 40 minutes ended up taking three hours due to storm damage.
"I made it to my hometown, dodging between trees, power lines and poles in the middle of the road," he said. "The first thing I did was go to my son and checked to make sure that he was OK. Seeing my son, as I was talking to him, he was shaking. I know he went through a very bad thing," he said.
Next came a visit to his father and grandmother. This is when he saw the extent of the damage to his own home.
"I saw my house," Medina said. "It was just gone. The roof was gone and the winds had gone inside and tore through the house. At that point I didn't care that much about property, I just wanted to make sure my Family was OK."
During his extended layover in Miami, Medina had taken the time to buy a satellite phone adding to his list of supplies, which included cash, solar charging panels for his cell phone, military Meals Ready to Eat, flash lights and several straw-type water filters. Among his possessions was also a list he had made of neighbors he knew had Families in the states.
"There was no light, no power and no internet," Medina said. "I had a list of people whose sons, daughters, Families in the states were very worried about them and as soon as I checked and saw that my son was OK, my Family was OK; I left with my satellite phone to contact them."
Medina volunteered at the local police station assisting emergency response personnel in order to reach more people. Due to having one of the only satellite phones in the area, Medina ended up being their link to Gov. Ricardo Rossello's office until his office was able to bring supplies and a satellite phone for official use.
Fuel was scarce and the few gas stations that had fuel quickly became crowded and overwhelmed with what Medina called "mile-long lines for fuel." He then decided to take the initiative and pulled a security detail until law enforcement could arrive.
"There were no fuel trucks going down there because the roads were covered with trees and power lines, it was a disaster," he said. "I parked in a place where I could see the left side of the line and the right side of the line. I was making sure that the people there were safe. I made them aware that I was there and pulling security."
Compassion for his neighbors kept him going with very little sleep.
"I could see it in their faces -- the need. If you didn't have fuel you couldn't go get food," he said. "If you didn't have cash you had to drive to the bank, only to be able to get $100, to get food. It was pretty rough. You could see people were getting desperate for food, water and gas. Without gas they couldn't do anything."
After seeing firsthand how hard fuel was to come by, Medina said he feels traditional generators should be a thing of the past.
"Make an investment in solar (generators)," Medina advised. "It shouldn't be that much more expensive than a 10k gas generator and it will save them trips, lines and money because five gallons of fuel probably wouldn't even get you through one night."
Although he said it was hard for him to leave, he said he felt like he accomplished a lot.
"I did what I had to do. I feel like I accomplished a lot of things in a small amount of time," Medina said. "I think I communicated with over a hundred Families. I saw them cry, I heard them cry…"
According to Medina's chain of command, this type of selfless service is typical of his character.
"Drill sergeant Medina is never too busy to give up his personal time for the welfare of his Soldiers. He truly emulates what it means to be a Soldier in the United States Army," said 1st Lt. Chase Johnson, Co. E, 2nd Bn., 10th Inf. Reg. executive officer. "He made personal sacrifices to ensure he provided aid to his Family, neighbors, and his nation during a time of need. He answered a higher calling and if that is not true patriotism through selfless service then I don't know what is."
His company first sergeant agreed.
"He could have went to Puerto Rico and just focused on his Family, instead he balanced helping his Family and helping his country," said 1st Sgt. Tommy Hay. "He looks at everyone as if they were extended Family."
Medina added, "I've got all kinds of feelings, I feel sad because people are suffering and I lost my own house, but I feel happy because my Family is safe and I was able to help."