As a rescue firefighter, she feels very proud to wear her uniform and represent the Guatemalan Army’s Humanitarian Rescue Battalion. She feels committed to giving her all and accomplishing her mission, since her greatest satisfaction as a rescuer is saving lives and mitigating the effects of disasters. This is Master Sergeant Berta Leonor Alemán Chajchic, a strong-willed woman who always works with a smile, even in the most complex situations, such as following the devastation caused by hurricanes Eta and Iota in various areas of Guatemala. Diálogo spoke with Master Sgt. Alemán to learn more about her history and her involvement in the relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Eta.
Diálogo: Despite the huge tragedy, how do you feel about your participation in the rescue efforts following Hurricane Eta?
Guatemalan Army Master Sergeant Berta Leonor Alemán Chajchic: The truth is that it was a very nice experience. Very gratifying, because these are moments in which one gives their all. In my position as a rescue worker, that’s my mission: to help the affected population, putting into practice everything I have learned to do a good job, [play] a good role, and for inhabitants to be at peace and trust us.
Diálogo: What do people do when you come to help?
Master Sgt. Alemán: When they see the Battalion or someone wearing an orange vest, or that we are representing the Army, or the Search and Rescue Battalion, it’s like they’re seeing their heroes and you can do anything, because many times we are the first to arrive and the last to leave. We never leave until we accomplish the mission. So it’s a very rewarding experience to be able to serve the population and lend them a hand. People trust the Army when it comes to a disaster. We are the first to see how to get somewhere in a storm situation, like Eta, where I was directly involved, on site.
Diálogo: What was the most shocking thing you saw in the restricted areas?
Master Sgt. Alemán: I was at ground zero, where there were many people buried. There were many houses, and you really couldn’t see anything; people were waiting, because no other institution could get there unless they arrived with the Army. We walked for hours to reach ground zero, and we were the first to respond.
Diálogo: What is the difference between working in a disaster and your daily work as a first responder?
Master Sgt. Alemán: Actually, we train every day. We have training schedules geared toward the disasters that occur here in Guatemala. For example, we have a few weeks of training in damage assessment; search and rescue; horizontal rescue; vertical rescue; water rescue; rescue in collapsed buildings, which is the battalion’s forte. If we are not training, we are in operations, or we are training others.
Diálogo: How many women are there in your battalion?
Master Sgt. Alemán: I am the only woman in the battalion that goes out on operations. After 20 years, I was transferred to administrative duty, but when something happens, I tell my boss, “Please, take me with you, because I know what I have to do.” That’s what I’ve trained for, and I’ve been in the Army for 25 years now. I’ve been coming here since 1999 during the Mitch storm, and I’ve been through many storms, and I’ve been helping people in all of them.
Diálogo: Are you uncomfortable being the only woman?
Master Sgt. Alemán: No; on the contrary, I’ve been in the area all my life, and that’s my job. That’s what I train for. So I have to go on the rescue missions. We have two women soldiers, but here we tell them they are newbies, so they have to get the skills of an old-timer. I have taken them with me to work in difficult situations. I know how far I can push myself, and it’s not as easy with them, but they are getting more and more involved in rescuing and saving lives.
Diálogo: But is there anything that you think you cannot do because you are a woman?
Master Sgt. Alemán: Absolutely nothing. I am as capable as any other rescue firefighter. I have even shown them that, because of my seniority — in other words, the experience that I have — I always take the lead. I’ve climbed volcanoes, I’ve crossed rivers, we can even say that I’ve done aerial rescues, aquatic rescues, because we keep up with our training and, thank God, we’ve indeed responded; because the greatest satisfaction is that the people believe in you, and that the people tell you, “Look, thank you very much”; or that someone comes, as in my case during the Eta storm, [when] a little old lady came to pray for me. I was in the field. I was waiting for the helicopter to come pick me up, because we had to evacuate someone, and the lady came out of nowhere and approached me, hugged me, and said, “God bless you.”