SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The legacy of the Puerto Rico National Guard is one of resilience, and investments in the organization are important to its future, the Guard’s top general said.
Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, joined territory representatives, local officials and Puerto Rico Guard leaders Feb. 4 for a groundbreaking ceremony to signify the beginning of a major reconstruction project at the Camp Santiago Joint Training Center.
“The facilities we break ground on today symbolize the future,” Hokanson said. “A future of greater readiness and more-advanced training. A future of camaraderie and even greater professionalism.
“This is an investment in the future of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rico National Guard,” he said.
In 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated islands in the northeast Caribbean — especially Puerto Rico. The hurricane made landfall on the island Sept. 20, taking more than 3,000 lives and leaving almost $90 billion in damage in its wake.
Camp Santiago, the Puerto Rico Guard’s primary training center near the island’s southern coast, bore irreparable damage to 60% of its facilities. The military contract to rebuild Camp Santiago was years in the making, and construction is to be completed later this decade.
This project includes demolishing 40 inoperative structures, revitalizing the electrical and water use and management systems, and constructing and expanding parking areas. Transient barracks, dining facilities and administrative buildings — 29 in all — will be built to withstand winds up to 200 mph, according to a Puerto Rico National Guard press release.
This will better equip the site to host military training operations to support state and federal missions, the Puerto Rico Guard’s acting adjutant general said.
“These reconstruction works will be of great benefit not only to the military community but also to the municipalities of Salinas and Coamo and surrounding communities,” Army Brig. Gen. Miguel A. Méndez said. “The infrastructure improvement will result in better training for our Guard.”
The camp’s namesake, Army Spc. 4 Héctor Santiago-Colón, hailed from this area. Congress posthumously awarded him the Medal of Honor for demonstrating selfless courage, sacrificing his life to save others in a Vietnamese jungle in 1968.
Hokanson said this spirit is embodied in the Puerto Rico Guardsmen of today.
As part of a larger itinerary on the island, Hokanson held an “all-call” with drilling Airmen of the Puerto Rico Guard’s 156th Wing at Muñiz Air National Guard Base Feb. 5.
“Your island has a diverse, complex and extraordinary history,” he told them. “It is a history of resilience, determination and strength, matched only by the people who call Puerto Rico home.”
He told them of the importance of Puerto Rico to the nation’s defense strategy as the island replicates the conditions and terrain of islands in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s area of operations.
Though the Puerto Rico National Guard was officially established in 1916, it traces its roots to the 16th century. Its Soldiers and Airmen have served in contingency, global support and domestic operations.
Puerto Rico Guardsmen are among the first to respond when island communities are battered by regularly occurring hurricanes. They were at the front lines to support the 2021 Presidential Inauguration in Washington and COVID response missions at home.
The Puerto Rico Guard also has close relationships with the Dominican Republic and Honduras through the Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program. Most Puerto Rico Guardsmen are bilingual in English and Spanish. Hokanson said this gives them a strategic edge in strengthening alliances and partnerships in Central and South America.
The CNGB emphasized that Puerto Rico Guardsmen must remain Siempre Presente, or Always Ready, Always There, to face an unknown future enemy – be it another hurricane at home or a near-peer threat abroad.
“Here is where readiness begins,” he said. “It is that readiness the Joint Force relies on to turn the National Defense Strategy into national defense actions. It is that readiness the nation’s governors turn to when communities are in crisis. It is that readiness that inspires our allies and partners, ensuring we prepare for combat with trusted friends at our side.
“And it is that readiness that allows us to fight and win America’s wars,” he added, “when all options for peace have been exhausted.”