BARAHONA, Dominican Republic – For Sgt. Richard Mercedes of the Puerto Rico Army National Guard, annual training in the Dominican Republic means a little something more this spring.
He's come back "home."
Mercedes, a civil engineer with the 190th Forward Support Company, spent his first 18 years of life in the Dominican Republic before moving to Puerto Rico with his family.
"There's a lot of emotion," said Mercedes, who talks in a thick Caribbean Spanish accent. "To be working with the people and be part of the team that is helping them feels good."
Mercedes stepped out of his traditional job in the to serve as a translator for his annual training, which consists of various construction projects being built by Army and Air Force engineers. Escorting his fellow soldiers and airmen to job sites surrounding the Air National Guard, Army Reserve and National Guard base of operations here, Mercedes is a vital link in bridging the language barrier and serving as a guide and subject-matter expert on the surrounding countryside.
"I'm sure I'll be very busy over these next few weeks – lots of translating and going here and there," he said. "Whatever they need, I'm just here to help and make things less difficult."
On his first full day of training, Mercedes found himself in La Guazara, a small village about 20 minutes north of here. Airmen of the Air National Guard's 200th and 210th Red Horse Civil Engineering Squadron were building an addition to a small elementary school, with Mercedes translating between them and the local people.
"This is fun work," he said. "It's not even really work for me. It's just talking to my people, getting out into the community and showing everyone that we're here to help them."
Air Force Master Sgt. Nathan Sobieck of the 200th CES said the aid of an interpreter is an invaluable resource on these types of missions.
"It wouldn't happen without them [interpreters]," he said. "A couple of our guys know some Spanish, but to get a local [native] who is one of us is a win-win situation."
Mercedes, 37, grew up in Barahona, the country's 15th-largest city with an estimated population of 75,000. His childhood was spent with his two younger brothers enjoying the beach, playing in the area's rivers and running, he said. He moved with his family to Puerto Rico after he graduated from high school to gain better economic prosperity. He married shortly thereafter and started a family, and he joined the Army National Guard in 2008.
He now works full-time on military orders at Puerto Rico Joint Force Headquarters in San Juan, and is working toward his bachelor's degree in business administration.
Mercedes still has relatives in the Dominican Republic: a grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins. In fact, one of his uncles lives just two blocks from his temporary post here. He also still has friends in the country.
He said he hopes he gets to see at least one of his family members or friends, but that he understands his days will be busy and the opportunity might not present itself. With Puerto Rico only a 45-minute flight to the west, he added, he always can return if need be.
But whether or not he gets to see his family this time around, Mercedes said, he always is happy to be back in his original country, especially on an Army humanitarian mission.
"My people here are proud of me," he said. "It feels good. I am a liaison between the U.S. military and them. I tell them that I'm from here [and] I was raised here, and they're impressed that I'm helping out here."