Veterans Join Forces to Serve One of Their Own in Puerto Rico

Connie McNamara

Volunteers from Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues step in to make a home a home wracked by Hurricane Maria and multiple earthquakes livable again.

Rosa María Vázquez has had a series of bad years. Her Mayagüez, Puerto Rico home was flooded by Hurricane Irma in 2017, then hit again two weeks later when Hurricane Maria barreled across Puerto Rico. In 2019 and again in 2020, earthquakes caused further damage to her home. As she struggled to recover, she received money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She hired a contractor to repair her home but ended up being scammed by an unlicensed contractor who didn’t follow Puerto Rican construction codes. Vázquez, a retired Veterans Administration nurse, was left with few options.

That is, until earlier this year when a team of volunteers, including Team Rubicon Greyshirts, set out to make things right.

José Cruz, Team Rubicon’s deputy planner for Puerto Rico and platoon leader in The Mission Continues, an organization that empowers veterans as they adjust to being back home, learned about Vázquez’ plight when members of Puerto Rico Engineers and Professionals Volunteer Service contacted him. That organization was established to help with infrastructure projects after the earthquakes and had seen Vázquez’ home. Cruz then contacted Juan Carlos (JC) Ortiz-Giró, Team Rubicon’s Puerto Rico administrator, and the two constructed a plan to help make things right for Vázquez.

Homeowner and retired Veterans Administration nurse Rosa María Vázquez outside her Puerto Rico home.

“The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon work hand-in-hand in Puerto Rico,” Ortiz-Giró said. “We are more than friends. We are a big family and every time that we work together, it brings us closer.” While The Mission Continues has many volunteers on the island, Team Rubicon Greyshirts have specialized skills and so the two groups complement each other.

Last month, 16 volunteers representing Team Rubicon, The Mission Continues, Puerto Rico Engineers and Professionals Volunteer Service and the Citizen Aid Office of the Municipality of Mayagüez descended upon Vázquez’s home. Their goal: restore the damaged building into a safe and healthy home.

When Ortiz-Giró arrived at the house, he quickly realized the contractor who made the repairs didn’t know the fundamentals of construction. One wall was built only partially toward the ceiling, constructed with skylight blocks that would fall over if pushed. Another wall, in the front of the house, was detaching from the rest of the structure. Construction materials were left around the house, and the roof was still littered with debris from the hurricanes. It was clear to Ortiz-Giró that Vázquez had been scammed.

While volunteers labored inside to solidify the structure, Ortiz-Giró grabbed his chainsaw and removed five trees from around the home that were weakening the infrastructure and in danger of falling. He teamed up with U.S. Army veteran Jorge L. Cruz, who served as his spotter. Cruz has since become a Greyshirt.

“I can’t stay still knowing that I have the strength and the skills to help others…Whether I wear a blue shirt or any other color for that matter, I am a Greyshirt at heart and in my core, I am built to serve,” Ortiz-Giró said. He was also glad that the veteran community that Vázquez had served so long could give something back to her.

“Once we left, the home looked like someone lived there again,” Ortiz-Giró said, noting that neighbors stopped by during the effort to express their gratitude. “By impacting the life of one person, the ripples of that action positively affected others in the surrounding community as well. 

Juan Carlos (JC) Ortiz-Giró removing debris outside the Vázquez home.
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