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Building blocks: Texas engineers construct school in Guatemala.

What started out as an empty, dusty, weed-infested plot of land ended up being the pride of a small village in the mountains of Guatemala, thanks to the efforts of a group of about 90 Air Force Reserve engineers.



The engineers, members of the 556th Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers, built a three-room schoolhouse on the land in Santa Teresa. The structure is capable of withstanding a Category 4 hurricane and, more importantly, able to accommodate up to 180 students.

The Reservists traveled from their home at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, to Santa Teresa as part of New Horizons Guatemala '07. They went in four, two-week rotations to complete the task.

In addition to the Reserve project. Army National Guard units built two other schools and a medical clinic.

New Horizons is a Joint Chiefs of Staff-approved, U.S. Southern Command-sponsored engineer and medical humanitarian and civic assistance exercise conducted annually in Central and South America. The exercise often involves Reservists and National Guardsmen from the Army, Navy and Air Force.

The purpose of the exercise is to provide joint readiness training for U.S. engineer and medical units while improving the infrastructure of the visited country. This year's exercise in Guatemala focused on constructing schools, clinics and water wells, as well as conducting medical readiness training.

For many RED HORSE members, the opportunity to leave a lasting impression on the people of Guatemala and, more importantly, the youth made the mission worthwhile.

"I'm just happy. It's so satisfying because it's for the kids," said Staff Sgt. Joey Rimkus, 556th RHS structures superintendent. "I see how downtrodden the community is, and then you have this beautiful building there for the kids to go to school and hopefully give them a better chance to get out of that situation and make a better life for themselves."

Despite serious delays in getting concrete from local suppliers and overseas deployments within the unit, the team was able to finish a little ahead of schedule thanks to the members' level of expertise and multiple skills.

"Each rotation was geared toward what the job required at that specific time. That's the way our leadership planned it," said Senior Master Sgt. Russell Brashars, 556th RHS utilities superintendent. "In addition, the people we send on these deployments are capable of handling everything on the mission."

RED HORSE units provide the Air Force with a highly mobile civil engineer response force to support contingency and special operations worldwide. They provide heavy repair capability and construction support when requirements exceed normal base civil engineer capabilities and where Army engineer support is not readily available.

The primary RED HORSE tasking in peacetime is to train for contingency and wartime operations. Members participate regularly in Joint Chief of Staff and major command exercises, military operations other than war, and humanitarian civic action programs. They perform training projects that assist base construction efforts while at the same time honing their wartime skills.

In addition to supply issues, the Reservists encountered other delays as they had to make due with fewer people than planned because of overseas deployments as well as add-ons to the project.

"Even though we had some people (about 40) who had to go to Iraq, we were able to produce a quality product,'' Sergeant Brashars said.

"During the mission, add-ons were given to the project, such as a drop ceiling," said Senior Master Sgt. Ganzalo Acosta. 556th RHS project manager. "Keeping up with these changes was a challenge. We adapted and overcame."

Although the Reservists had built countless structures before. New Horizons provided them with their first opportunity to work with a prefabrication building system. The walls of the school were formed with plastic vinyl and rebar, and concrete was poured in to create a strong structure.

"We got a lot of good experience with a new method of construction," said Capt. David Losleben, 556th RHS engineering officer.

"It was easy to assemble, but the concrete was a challenge to pour," Sergeant Acosta said. "The building ended up with a beautiful finish and is very sturdy. It can be used as a storm shelter as well as a school."

Joining the RED HORSE team on the project was a small group of Guatemalan engineers.

"The Guatemalan engineers were extremely helpful and were hard workers," Sergeant Brashars said. "They fit right in with our style."

An advantage the group from Lackland had over other teams working in the region was bilingual language skills.

"About half of our people speak Spanish." Sergeant Acosta said. "Other sites need interpreters. We don't. When we send people out to the community to get supplies, they're able to establish communication and relationships because they speak the language."

While most members of the RED HORSE team are seasoned veterans, missions like New Horizons still provide valuable training, particularly to younger, less experienced Reservists.

"It was an outstanding training opportunity," Sergeant Brashars said. "This will build their confidence and skills so when they deploy for a real-world scenario they will be ready."

For some, like Senior Airman Michael Garrison, 556th RHS structures apprentice, this was the first time they had deployed with the unit.

"It's definitely different than tech school." Airman Garrison said. "You have to adapt more and figure things out as you go."

Airman Garrison credited his more senior co-workers with setting him straight during the deployment.

"They criticize you and correct you," he said, "to make sure you are doing it right. That's the best way to learn."

Edwin Ozorio, director of the new school, talked about how helpful the facility will be for the community. He said there's one school in the area for 11 communities in Santa Teresa, and this new school will allow the children and teachers more space to expand. He said he was happy to have the RED HORSE team there helping and that the Reservists' efforts will improve the quality of education for all students.

"It was a great opportunity to give back," said Army Capt. Bryan Taylor, quality assurance officer liaison for Joint Force Bravo. Soto Cano Air Base. Honduras. "When you get right down to it, projects like these help the people they directly affect.''

While the engineers left the Guatemalans with a building that will last, they received lasting impressions from the people of the community, especially the children.

"The biggest part is knowing we are helping the kids, and they know it." Sergeant Acosta said. "They came out to the job site to watch us. We actually had to back them up because they were too dose. The people of the community helped us with water, food and hospitality."

While the daily ride out to the work site only covered a distance of about 30 miles, it took around an hour and a half to get there due to the mountainous conditions and the sub-standard roads. However, one constant was the daily welcome the Reservists received.

"The children came out to greet us along the route every day like clockwork," Sergeant Brashars said.

"I think it's wonderful that the military can perform humanitarian projects in developing countries." said Captain Losleben. "It's very rewarding to be able to improve their circumstances with this new school."

(Sergeant Babin is assigned to the 920th Rescue Wing at Fatrick Air Force Base, Fla.)

Story and photos by Master Sgt. Chance C. Babin
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Author:Babin, Chance C.
Publication:Citizen Airman
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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