Two McAllen ISD alumni who attended rival high schools and were athletics competitors decades ago find themselves on the same side this week as part of Task Force Honduras, which is organizing search and rescue operations in Honduras in response to hurricanes Eta and Iota.
U.S. Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer Carlos V. Cruz is a Memorial High School grad, while Lt. Col. Jesus Salazar is a graduate of McAllen High School and the University of Texas-Pan American.
“He and I played sports against each other in high school. He was two years senior to me, and we actually had never seen each other, never met each other; we just happened to end up on the same mission,” Cruz said Tuesday.
Cruz and Salazar have been working with Task Force Honduras under the command of a fellow Texan, Army Lt. Col Raul M. Medrano in San Pedro Sula, embedded with the 105th Army Brigade and Honduran Air Force liaison officer for 12 days after hurricane Eta struck the country.
Cruz says he and Salazar have become friends with each other during the deployment.
“Talking to each other we figured out that, Hey, you went to McHi, I went to Memorial, we played sports against each other, never even realizing that, and here we are in arms trying to help the Honduran people in the aftermath,” he said.
Both men have been helping to coordinate and execute search and rescue missions and supply distribution efforts, Cruz as an air linguist liaison officer in charge of coordinating and executing air operations in the area and Salazar as the situational assessment team deputy commander.
According to the Associated Press, Eta left tens of thousands of Hondurans homeless and the country has reported 74 deaths related to the hurricane.
Cruz, who arrived in Central America in August and expects to stay through mid-January, called the situation in Honduras “heartbreaking.”
“You see a lot of these families, poor families or farmers that work out here for the most part in these areas, and everything’s just been wiped out for them,” he said. “Most of the rescues came from either rooftops, because the water rose that high or because the levees broke on the rivers.”
One rescue stood out to Cruz in particular: an older woman with Parkinson’s disease who was rescued after being stranded on a rooftop for four days without food or water. The woman’s daughter managed to call for help just before her cellphone died, and Cruz translated and coordinated the rescue.
“We were able to take her out of there and rescue her and bring her back to the Brigada, where we provided medical support,” he said. “She was very dehydrated; I think if she’d probably gone another day — I know the doctors were saying as well — she probably would have perished under those circumstances.”
McAllen schools Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez complimented the alumni in a statement Wednesday.
“We teach students about empathy and helping others and so it is great to see people exemplifying those qualities. When our students graduate from McAllen ISD, we want them to have, not only the confidence, but the foundation to go out and accomplish their dreams,” he wrote. “It is immensely gratifying to see gentlemen like Mr. Salazar and Mr. Cruz, not only doing that, but making a positive impact on the world as well.”
Cruz found a three-day rest period cut short Wednesday, and was once again contending with dangerous conditions, adverse elements and mosquitos the “size of a small dragonfly” as the forces in Honduras began working to aid more people affected by Hurricane Iota.
“It’s a rewarding experience,” he said. “It’s hard work out here for all of the soldiers and airmen and the one marine that’s out here doing this, but it’s definitely a life experience. I’d never served or been able to help in a disaster area of this sort. I’ve done other types of missions but this one’s probably one of the most rewarding of my career I would say, of 29 years in the Marine Corps.”