Last Thursday, Senior Airman Jocelyn Tapia-Puma was ending her typical workday at the New York Air National Guard base in Westhampton as an aviator resource manager when her commander asked her if she spoke Spanish.
The 22-year-old on the 102nd Rescue Squadron replied that she did. Being a first-generation American of Colombian and Ecuadorian descent, it was her first language.
With that, Ms. Tapia-Puma was recruited for her first rescue mission.
The following day, the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing provided medical aid to a 23-year-old Colombian woman aboard the Namah, a French-flagged sailboat traveling from Panama to St. Jean de Luz, France.
The patient, named Andrea, suffered second- and third-degree burns from boiling water on her legs and abdomen. She was one of three crew members aboard the 32-foot sailboat on its trans-Atlantic journey.
None of the crew members spoke English.
Ms. Tapia-Puma, originally from Queens, served as the translator on the Namah rescue mission. She communicated with Andrea and the other men on board, helping drop two 20-pound emergency medical kits to them about 1,200 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, due east from Long Island.
Speaking in the same Colombian dialect, the young women were able to understand each other on both a vernacular and personal level.
“I was able to kind of build a relationship with her and tell her my name, our name, and be like, ‘hey, we’re representing New York,’ ” she said. “I think it alleviated a lot of stress in her and knew that there was someone out there who understood her.”
When she said Ms. Tapia-Puma’s name, Andrea began to cry.
“Something we learned in survival school is you can go three weeks without food, three days without water, three hours without shelter …” Lt. Col. Sean Garrell, aircraft commander, said. “For humans, you can go three seconds without hope. Airman Tapia-Puma was able to provide that hope.”
The Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center in Boston was notified of the patient’s injuries last Thursday. After making contact with the 106th Rescue Wing, a plan to deliver medical supplies to the patient was put in place, and the 11 airmen crew took off at 7:55 the next morning from the Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach in the middle of a thunderstorm.
As the weather improved, the HC-130J Combat King-II aircraft made visual contact of the sailboat around 11:30 a.m., identifying the vessel quickly in order to preserve the plane’s 10 to 11 hours’ worth of fuel.
“When we do this, it’s like bar napkin math of, ‘I have this many pounds of fuel in my airplane, I’m this far from home, how long do I have to stay atop the people that are having the worst day of their lives?’ ” said Capt. William Hall, a rescue squadron pilot on the mission.
Not only constricted by time, the aircraft crew had to be precise when dropping medical packages. Using their extensive training for missions such as these, the aircraft crew landed the parachuted packages within 25 to 50 yards from the boat.
One of the other crew members managed to retrieve each package using a rowboat within minutes.
The aircraft waited to hear from the crew that the packages were received and began the flight back to base shortly after noon. The mission took about nine hours to complete, landing back at the Westhampton base at around 4:30 p.m.
The Namah is now en route to Santa Maria Island off the coast of Portugal and is expected to arrive on Friday, June 3, based on their current three-knot speed.
The vessel’s crew has been providing updates on Andrea to the rescue coordinators every six to eight hours via email. She was last reported to have been improving with only a few remaining blisters.
Ms. Tapia-Puma said she never thought she would be a part of a rescue mission such as this, especially one so validating of the 106th Rescue Wing’s purpose.
“What we represent as a wing is to help those in need, make sure that they’re all good and safe and in the right hands,” she said. “I’m super proud to be part of this team. I’m very thankful to be a part of it and very thankful for my guys behind me.”