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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Puerto Rican Reservists Go To Great Lengths To Serve
By Matthew Hay Brown
April 20, 2003
FORT BUCHANAN, Puerto Rico -- It's usually a Thursday or Friday when George García leaves his day job, packs his gear, and, like tens of thousands of Americans, heads off to weekend drill with the Army Reserve.
Unlike most, he has to fly to get there.
García, a manager in leadership training at Spirit Airlines in Fort Lauderdale, is the public-affairs officer of the 65th Regional Support Command, a Reserve unit based in Puerto Rico. One weekend a month, and for a two-week stretch once a year, the lieutenant colonel leaves his home in Pembroke Pines to hop a two-hour flight to this U.S. commonwealth in the Caribbean, 1,000 miles from Florida, to fulfill his military obligation.
"It's something I do very proudly," said García, 44, who has served a total of 19 years in active and Reserve units. "It can get tiresome at times, but I connect with probably the same thing as many people in the Reserve. There's a strong sense of commitment, of pride in doing what we do as soldiers."
García is one of several members of the 65th who live on the mainland. Most live in Florida, but in recent years, the unit has boasted officers from Chicago; Washington, D.C.; New Jersey and Connecticut.
These long-distance commuters reflect a larger trend throughout the Reserves of members traveling farther to serve. Twenty-two percent of reservists now train with units more than 100 miles from where they live, and the number is growing.
"You'd be amazed at how many people do this," said Joe Hanley, a spokesman at U.S. Army Reserve Command at Fort McPherson in Georgia. "Not everyone is flying to an island; a lot of it is just driving over the state line. But we've had people cross the country."
He cited as an example the artificial-heart pioneer Col. William DeVries, a surgeon who lives and works in the Washington, D.C., area but serves at a combat-support hospital in Perrine, Fla.
Many of the commuters are senior officers who face narrowing opportunities as they climb in rank and so must travel to advance. Others are reservists who have been relocated by their employers but have decided to remain with what had been their local unit. Still others use service with a unit as a way to return to families and hometowns nearby.
Hanley says the phenomenon reflects the increasing mobility of American society in general.
"Guys used to spend 30 years with the same company," he said. "Now corporate America bounces people around, and people themselves are more likely to move from job to job."
Maj. Javier Capestany, a native of Guaynabo in Puerto Rico, had served in the 65th since graduating from the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Georgetown University in 1987. When Motorola transferred him to Florida five years ago, he looked at nearby units but decided to stay with his first assignment.
"I love living in South Florida, and I love serving in Puerto Rico," said Capestany, 37, who makes his home in Boca Raton. "I don't even think about it."
In addition to regular travel as a service controller for Motorola in Latin America, Capestany has been coming to Puerto Rico for two weekends a month -- one for regular training and the other for a course required for his next promotion.
On occasion, he has flown into Miami from a business trip only to catch a flight to the island for military service. He says the support of his family has been essential.
"My wife is behind me 200 percent," he said. "She supports my civilian career and my military duty."
"It's a little difficult because he has to leave every month, but I'm very, very, but very proud of him," Johanna Capestany said. "I am very proud that he serves the country and defends us. If he has to go to Iraq to help with the reconstruction, there will be no problem. He will be welcome."
Col. Ervin Ramos Moll, an island native who lives in Plantation and works for the Internal Revenue Service in Miami, has served in units in West Palm Beach and Orlando. He is now the chief of staff of the 65th.
"At my rank, you can only be three years in a position, and at my rank, there aren't that many positions," said Ramos, who has served for 34 years. "I don't mind. I love the military. I love the Reserve."
Hanley says the phenomenon of reservists traveling to serve has been good for the military.
"As an organization, you want to get the best, most motivated people for the job," he said. "From that standpoint, it's a positive. From a policy standpoint, it would be nice if we could cover their travel."
As an employee of Spirit, García can fly to Puerto Rico for free. The others have to pay their own way -- $200 to $650 for a round-trip ticket, depending on timing.
Congress is considering legislation that would allow reservists to deduct travel expenses from their taxes. For now, Capestany and Ramos say they are losing money to serve.
"It demonstrates the commitment people make to the military," Ramos said.
And to Puerto Rico. For many, service in the 65th is a way of maintaining ties to the island. Ramos, García and Capestany all have family in Puerto Rico. They are members of a unit that takes its number and insignia from a storied all-Puerto Rican infantry regiment still remembered for heroism during the Korean War.
With 4,600 members, the 65th Regional Support Command today is the only bilingual unit in the Army Reserve. In recent years, soldiers of the 65th have completed peacetime engineering projects and offered medical clinics in Latin America. Now the unit is in the midst of the largest activation in its history, with hundreds serving in the Persian Gulf.
The call-up has meant more work for the officers. Ramos has been coming down two weekends a month. García recently completed a 30-day activation.
Capestany has been on active duty since being called up in February. A veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he says he's glad of the chance to do his part.
"It's in the blood," said Capestany, whose father and five uncles served in the military. "It's our heritage. I'm proud of the opportunity to serve our country, to defend democracy."