‘He’s the Hero of Our Family’: Local Teacher Has Ties to Relief Effort in Puerto Rico

By Jessica Steger, Editor in Chief

For one West Bend teacher, Hurricane Maria meant immediate separation from her husband.

Jo Passet, an English instructor at East High School, is married to Colonel John Passet, a member of the U.S. Army Reserve currently stationed in Puerto Rico to assist the relief efforts there. His job is to help the people and property of Puerto Rico as the territory recovers from the hurricane.

Colonel Passet is assigned to the U.S. Army North, and his unit is the Defense Coordinating Element of the Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 5. His team is responsible for the mission assignments of Department of Defense Assets, which are needed to support operations in Puerto Rico.

He was deployed two days before Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, so the Passet family is looking forward to this weekend’s visit.

“We’ve had a trip planned to Washington to visit our grandson,” Jo Passet said. “We’ve actually had it planned as soon as we found out he was going to be born.”

Hurricane Maria clearly was not part of their plans. Passet became aware of her husband’s deployment only the night before he left.

Jo Passet

“I’m kind of a little nervous, hoping that he’ll be able to get out of there okay,” Passet said. “He has a flight booked so hopefully everything goes okay and he makes it home, because we leave early Friday morning for Washington State. I feel like we’re cutting it close.”

Passet is especially anxious because she learned Tuesday that Puerto Rico’s power grid went down, which will ground flights unless generators are able to revive operations.

If all goes according to plan, Colonel Passet’s visit will be a brief one. He intends to fly home Thursday, with a return flight to Puerto Rico scheduled for Monday or Tuesday.

Colonel Passet’s absence, which is expected to continue until February, has not been an easy transition for Jo.

“It never fails that something breaks when he leaves, it always happens,” she said. “My dishwasher broke last week. The funny thing is that my son and I had installed the dishwasher when he was gone for Hurricane Katrina. It must be a hurricane dishwasher thing, some kind of allegory going on.”

Such malfunctions have proved difficult to take care of in a one-person household.

“I still haven’t gotten it fixed, so I need to get a repairman in, but I can’t do that because I am at school all day,” Passet said. “So I don’t know what I’m going to do. And I don’t like washing dishes, but then again I don’t eat that much when he’s gone,” Passet said.

This is not Passet’s first time experiencing her husband leaving for duty. He has served in the Army for 32 years, and has spent time away for such instances as Hurricane Katrina and service in Afghanistan.

“My children didn’t even get to talk to their dad for the entire year because he wasn’t on a military post, he was embedded with the Afghani police department,” Passet said. “So he didn’t have internet and he didn’t have phone service.”

Despite the stress his job brings, Passet is proud of her husband. When he’s not deployed, he serves as a patrol sergeant for the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Department.

“He definitely is the hero of our family,” Passet said. “His normal job is law enforcement, and he’s been doing that for almost 25 years. And he’s been doing this for almost 32 years, and that’s a big commitment and a lot of stress. He’s an officer, too, so when he went to Afghanistan he took a team there. He was responsible for 16 people, one who didn’t come back. So that’s a big undertaking and a lot of responsibility. That in and of itself is a very big thing for our family, because he is very dedicated and a good leader.”

Passet thinks often of her husband and his team, and how he is handling his current assignment. When Hurricane Maria came, Colonel Passet was stationed at a naval base in New Jersey, preparing a hospital ship to be sent to Puerto Rico. Colonel Passet’s team was already in place when Maria hit.

“They actually went through the hurricane,” Passet said. “They were in a bunker, but it didn’t hold out. They didn’t get hurt or anything, but it was very bad, there really wasn’t a safe place.”

“They actually went through the hurricane. They were in a bunker, but it didn’t hold out. There really wasn’t a safe place.”
– Jo Passet

Even though the hurricane has ended, Passet is still concerned about her husband’s well-being.

“I worry about him,” she said. “He’s not eating, he’s not sleeping, and now he’s getting sick because they’re all working together and they aren’t getting enough breaks.”

Tiffany Gitter, an English teacher who works across the hall from Passet, has noticed the effect the colonel’s absence has had on his wife.

“She’s been stressed about it,” Gitter said. “But I think anyone with a significant other in that situation would be.”

“I feel for her, and I feel for everyone in the country, too,” said English teacher Eric Pendowski. “I know her husband’s doing his duty, and that he’s a good man. As a department, we’re trying to help her as best we can.”

Passet appreciates the support of her colleagues. She also recognizes the importance of community support to families with a member who is away for service.

“Military families now of National Guardsmen and the Reserve service don’t live by military installations,” Passet said. “They don’t have those resources and those support systems available, so we are kind of on our own. A lot people don’t understand, and they try to. But when you have a family member who is that far away and their family is on their own, it is a very difficult time.”

Small gestures, such as mowing a neighbor’s yard, are great ways to show support for families with active service members. Even acknowledging an individual’s service can go a long way.

“The media has kind of upset me a little, because we hear so many things that we are not helping Puerto Rico, and I know firsthand we have been helping Puerto Rico since before the hurricane,” Passet said. “I have a personal experience that my husband has been gone, so we have been helping them. He’s been working very, very hard, as with all the other hundreds of thousands of people who are working to help them rebuild.”

Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, to the point where their own National Guard was greatly impacted.

“The National Guard people who would generally jump in and help the country to rebuild, they can’t,” Passet said. “Their homes are destroyed and they need to take care of their families, too. Which means we need to bring the National Guard from the States to come to Puerto Rico and help the people who are supposed to be helping the country. So it really is a mess.”

To follow the progress in Puerto Rico, visit the U.S. Army North’s Facebook page.

(Top photo of Colonel John Passet courtesy of the Passet family. Other photos by Jessica Steger, Editor in Chief.)

English teacher Jo Passet leads her sixth period AP English Literature class today.

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