We wrapped up an incredible week in Puerto Rico for our two-day long service project, Operation El Morro: Independence Restoration on July 2nd-3rd.

The week started with a partnership gathering co-hosted with the National Parks Conservation Association. We wanted to bring together all current partners and our veteran leaders in Puerto Rico to celebrate our collective impact and discuss future projects. 

The dinner was attended by over 30 guests, including the new Superintendent of Parks for Puerto Rico, Chief of Staff and national veteran advocate from the VA, the CEO of Panamericano Hospital, Red Cross, WWP, Team Rubicon and leadership from Fort Buchanan Army Base.

Puerto Rican native and US military veteran Frankie Perez is one of the platoon leaders for the Puerto Rico 1st Service Platoon. He said the collaboration between so many different parties is very heartening. “It’s about the impact, it’s about community service, it’s about empathy, it’s about saying ‘I’m not different than you.’” The project, he said, “couldn’t be any more perfect.”

Operation El Morro was a two-day service project focused on deferred maintenance and hurricane recovery work inside of the historic fort (the structure dates back to 1539). This was the first time in the fort’s 500-year history that volunteers were allowed to work on recovery maintenance. 

Currently, El Morro is in the care of the National Park Service as El Morro National Monument. Frankie said, “It’s an icon in the Caribbean. We have so much history here, and we have to rescue that.”

The impact of the two days amounted to:

  • 113 volunteers (67 veterans)
  • 26 youth volunteers
  • 834 combined hours of service
  • Appx. 68,000 sq. ft. of El Morro painted

Park staff estimated it would have taken them 5 years to do what we accomplished in 2 days.

We witnessed an outpour of support from our mainland veterans. We’d like to thank these awesome folks for coming to help:

  • Platoon leaders from Puerto Rico, Miami, Broward County and Orlando
  • Service Leadership Corps alumni: Lesley Crawford (TX), Nitza Rivera (FL), Jose Cruz (PR), Karen Quiles (FL)
  • TMC veterans who have participated in the last three of our Mass Deployments, Women Veterans Leadership Summit, Summer Service Slam and our old Fellowship Program

Angel Gual, a platoon leader in Broward County, has Puerto Rican roots. While he lives in Florida, he still maintains a connection to its people and culture. “This is my parents’ birthplace,” he said, and it meant so much to him to be able “to show them what we did and see their faces light up with pride and admiration…”

“The reactions of the park staff, visitors and community locals as they entered and saw the amount of work we accomplished during and after was priceless. Seeing their smiles and some walking up to us and thanking us gave us pride in knowing we did what the local community really wanted.”

Also heartening was the volunteer support from tourists visiting the site. Angel recalled how two parents and their four teenage children took part in the project. He said, “When they saw our table near the entrance they came and asked what we were doing and who we were. They listened then chose right there to sign up and put on TMC shirts. This family stayed in that section and did not stop until they finished.” 

The spirit of service is truly contagious. “It touched my heart greatly to see this family choose to help and work while on vacation at the spur of the moment.”

Our team used a generous coupon from Airbnb to house all of our off-island veteran volunteers. This is the second time Airbnb has provided housing for hurricane recovery efforts, and for that we are very thankful.

This was an incredible team effort across multiple groups including the National Park Service, National Parks Conservation Association, and more. The Bob Woodruff Foundation has contributed to making our volunteer operations in Puerto Rico possible. Their belief in our work put The Mission Continues in a position to deepen our impact and attract more attention locally.

Further projects aim to cut a path to the first tower built by Spain, La Garrita del Diablo, which is currently can only be appreciated from afar. Stay tuned for what’s to come!

This program is made possible in part by an NFL-BWF partnership to provide a “Healthy Lifestyles and Creating Community” grant.