Chris Agron never deployed to a war zone during his stint in the Army. After four years in South Korea and a year with the 5th Ranger Training Battalion at Fort Benning, Georgia, the 24-year-old combat medic specialist separated in 2017 to take up a “really sweet gig” as a youth minister at a parish in Antelope, California. “My contract literally just ended this August,” Agron told Task & Purpose. “I never saw combat.”
That was until Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. Local officials described the resulting damage as “apocalyptic,” and conditions on the ground have changed little in the intervening months: roughly 77 percent of the island still doesn’t have electricity, and estimates suggest that nearly 1 in 3 residents lack access to clean water, leaving desperate Puerto Ricans turning to contaminated sources like Superfund hazardous waste sites.
The federal government, critics claim, isn’t moving fast enough in its emergency response. The $36.5 billion emergency aid package that passed the House on Oct. 12 is currently under consideration in the Senate. President Donald Trump asserted that the U.S. military “shouldn’t have to be” distributing food and water to ravaged American territory — but that’s what it’s doing, and the Department of Defense is having trouble marshalling resources like clean water and purification equipment for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, despite a rapid and effective response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma on the U.S. mainland in the weeks before Maria hit.
Agron, also an Army brat, grew up in Puerto Rico before his family PCSed to California; he still has blood relations on the island, including cousins with young children. And after reading news reports describing the meager water supplies trickling in from large aid organizations, he came up with his own mission: to bring reliable, reusable filtration systems to the parched communities on the west side of Puerto Rico.
“It just feels like common sense: Bottled water is finite, hard to deliver, and expendable,” Agron told Task & Purpose. “For one family, an efficient filter will give them 100,000 gallons. It rains every single day in Puerto Rico. I’ve lived there long enough to know that — and you can have enough water to filter just by catching the rain.”
Agron reached out to water filtration company Sawyer, which offered him their reusable mini filters and 170-gallon-a-day bucket adaptor systems at wholesale prices to ensure he could purchase the supplies he needed. Agron set up a GoFundMe to raise $10,000, enough for at least 300 of Sawyer filters. In the last two weeks, he’s raised 67 percent of his target; he plans on landing in San Juan on Oct. 26 and getting to work immediately.
“I’m 5th RTB, all you do is pretty much ruck through the woods, especially if you’re a medic,” he told Task & Purpose. “I want to bring aid to those who aren’t receiving any because of the road conditions or corruption. I know that anyone who’s been in the military is not afraid to ruck to bring aid to people.”
Agron’s not alone. As emergency relief legislation works its way through Congress, veterans aren’t waiting around. A group of veteran first responders, Iraq and Afghanistan vets operating under the moniker Warfighter Disaster Response Team, set up a pop-up headquarters at a derelict airport in Mayaguez to coordinate aid to more-remote towns — even offering up some advice to the Pentagon in terms of Maria response.
“There is a lot of stuff getting done, but it could’ve been done so much better if they just brought the National Guard,” WDRT organizer, vet Eric Carlson, told CNN. “All you guys are getting on planes in rotations and going down to Puerto Rico, 15,000 at a time. Water purification units, construction units, engineers, you guys are all coming down every two weeks.”
Eric Carlson and a few volunteer vets have fed 35,000 in borrowed trucks. If I was POTUS, I’d put him in charge. pic.twitter.com/uMEJCd3H0T
— Bill Weir (@BillWeirCNN) October 19, 2017
Another contingent of vets, led by former Army cavalry scout Jason Maddy, is using its own cash to purchase supplies, holding things together in neighborhoods until other aid organizations get their bearings.
“We learned through Hurricane Harvey that we were able to move a bit faster than FEMA and other government organizations because we became a ‘smaller task force,’ in a sense,” Maddy told Task & Purpose on Oct. 11. “We haven’t seen a lot of outside aid.”
Agron hopes that removing water scarcity from Puerto Rico’s post-disaster equation will help alleviate other problems cropping up across the island: namely, violence and theft amid the absence over the usual organizations tasked with emergency management.
According to Agron’s family members on the island, conditions “are so much worse than the news let on,” he told Task & Purpose. “The east side of the island is fine, but on the west side, it’s complete anarchy because there’s no supplies and no real law enforcement. People are just stealing things … it’s post-apocalyptic over there.”
Agron plans on linking up with the other vets who have already “self-deployed” to Puerto Rico to bring supplies and make inroads with communities overlooked by the likes of the Red Cross. And it’s there where Agron finally expects to put his military training to good use.
“We’re going to link up with the vets out there because they’re willing to go to where FEMA and the Red Cross are not,” he told Task & Purpose. “Veterans have the skills inherently to serve, and if you have what it takes, there’s no reason not to.”