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Symphony of hope: Airmen team up with sister services, local emergency personnel to assist people of Central America.


Life in Central America can be tough. The region is blessed with amazing natural beauty and rich with cultural treasures, but the challenges are real, and constant. The people face rampant poverty, escalating violence, natural disasters and a lack of available medical care that is taken for granted by many in the United States.

For more than 275 Airmen assigned to Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base. Honduras, these challenges present an opportunity to roll up sleeves and make a real difference in people's lives.

JTF-Bravo is U.S. Southern Command's agile-response force in the Central American region. It is poised to respond alongside host nation emergency officials to natural disasters like flooding, earthquakes and hurricanes. The task force also partners with each nation's ministry of health to coordinate medical services in the form of medical readiness training exercises, which give local people access to medical treatment and allow providers to practice medicine in austere conditions. In addition, members of the JTF conduct subject matter expertise exchanges, where they train side-by-side with their counterparts in local government agencies.

The response capabilities and efforts to build true, lasting partnerships with Central American governments are all part of a larger effort to promote regional security, stability and prosperity, all of which can be threatened at any moment.


It was 8 p.m. on a cool, breezy Thursday evening at Soto Cano. Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors were unwinding in anticipation of the weekend to come. But just as the weekend's plans were being discussed, disaster struck some 330 miles to the south. A magnitude 0.1 earthquake rocked the nation of Costa Rica and the call for help came in to the joint operations center.

In short order, key players gathered together to plan the response package which would include medical workers, rescue workers, command and control, and the aviators of the Army's 1st Battalion. 228th Aviation Regiment who fly the JTF's HH-60 Black Hawk, UH-60 Black Hawk, and CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

After SOUTHCOM officials and the JTF-Bravo commander approved the operation, 34 JTF-Bravo members, four helicopters and vital supplies lifted off from the flightline here to help neighbors in need, only 24 hours after the initial quake.

Upon touching down at ground zero, the responders took in the devastating scene: roads and bridges completely gone, homes reduced to piles of rubble, gaping cracks in the earth's surface, and a car buried under a mountain of earth, an occupant's lifeless arm outstretched from the dirt. It looked like a scene out of a Hollywood disaster movie, only very real, and with real lives hanging in the balance.

Over the next several days, the JTF-Bravo crews worked with personnel from the Costa Rican National Emergency Commission, a government agency comprising 150 experts trained to respond to natural disasters. They evacuated 90 people, including some wounded, working to save life, limb and eyesight of those whose lives had literally been turned upside down.

"The response to the Costa Rican earthquake was a prime example of how the regional cooperation JTF-Bravo is here to promote pays dividends in times of emergency," said Army Lt. Col. Chad Reiman, director of operations for JTF-Bravo, pointing to the various government and non-government agencies that worked with United States forces to help.

The colonel's sentiments were echoed by CNE official Xenia Guerrero Garita.

"We appreciate the support of the U.S. military in this operation," said Ms. Garita. "The capability for helicopter airlift (that) Joint Task Force-Bravo is contributing allows us to better respond to help the people affected by the disaster. It's a very complex job, but a beautiful job," said Ms. Garita, who has worked for CNE for 17 years. "The beauty is so many agencies are integrated and working together to provide a quick, life-saving response."


In addition to the Costa Rica earthquake, other natural disaster responses in the recent past have included rescuing stranded people from widespread flooding in Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama.

The partnership and cooperation between U.S. and Central American officials exists daily, not just when disaster strikes. Through this partnership, the JTF-Bravo members work to promote regional stability to the United States' south.


The 38 Airmen assigned to the 612th Air Base Squadron's fire department are no strangers to the "bomberos"--Honduran firefighters--in the local town of Comayagua. That's because they regularly train together in what JTF-Bravo calls subject matter expertise exchanges. The U.S. firefighters, by working with their Honduran counterparts, are able to share techniques and practices that work for them, while learning from the bomberos about their experiences and equipment as well.

This familiarity can pay off at any moment, and it often does.

Early one April morning, traffic moved along as usual on the outskirts of Comayagua on CA-5, one of Honduras' main thoroughfares. Suddenly, a horse trotted into the road, right in front of an oncoming vehicle. With no time to react, the vehicle hit the animal at highway speeds, sending the carcass directly into the path of a tanker truck hauling more than 11,000 pounds of highly flammable butane gas. The truck jackknifed and flipped over onto its side, blocking the road and presenting the very real danger of a massive explosion at any moment.

Among the first on the scene were 10 Air Force firemen from the 612th ABS. They joined with Honduran emergency responders and other JTF-Bravo members from the medical element and security forces to secure the scene, establish a large cordon and spray water on the butane tanker to keep heat and pressure from building up to an explosion. Soon the Airmen and Hondurans determined a crane must be brought in to safely, and slowly right the tanker. But with traffic snarled for miles and no alternate route available, getting a crane to the scene was going to be a long and difficult undertaking.

Hours passed as the crane made its way to the scene from a faraway town. Honduran and Air Force firefighters took turns keeping the tanker cool, and those with down time compared firefighting tattoos and looked at each others' trucks and gear. There was no language barrier in a time like this; the fireman culture was a common bond.

Finally, the crane arrived. After many tense moments, while fearing the movement would spark a devastating explosion, the tanker righted and completely drained of butane to an empty tanker brought in for that purpose. The incident was resolved with no serious injuries, beyond the death of the horse.

"Our continuing partnership with our host nation allows us to respond to requests for help at a moment's notice," said Air Force Lt. Col. Chad Butts, 612th Air Base Squadron commander. "Since we regularly exercise with the local fire departments we are able to roll right in with our equipment and personnel to support their efforts at the incident scene.

"Our ability to host conferences for Central American bomberos has provided several benefits for all participants," Colonel Butts said. "These conferences provide us with a different perspective and appreciation for the way that they do their job. Hopefully they leave the conferences with a mutual feeling of respect for our firefighters."

Beyond paying off in times of emergency, this type of cooperation also results in improved quality of life for the local population.

Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors regularly team up with members of governmental agencies like the Honduran Ministry of Health, and volunteer organizations like the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need.

Almost monthly, volunteers from JTF-Bravo backpack to remote villages in the mountainous region around Soto Cano, each carrying 40 pounds or more of food and supplies to deliver to the people living there. For these people, dinner plans never include a trip to a fast food restaurant. And for them, a trip to the grocery store might entail an all-day hike through rugged terrain. The people do what they can for food: minor farming efforts, foraging for natural foods in the woods and making a little go a long way.

When the team of volunteers arrives, the excitement is electric. Children come running, hoping for not only food, but the toys and candy members are known to bring along with them. Mothers and fathers line up to receive their rations with faces lined by the weather and a lifetime of struggle, but gratitude and appreciation in their eyes.

By living in remote areas often without power, running water or proper sanitation, health issues are a constant concern for the people of Central America. Fortunately, Joint Task Force-Bravo members arrive in the region with the skills, equipment and desire to help improve the health of the people as well.


A Panamanian woman crossed the border into Costa Rica on a narrow strip of mountainous terrain, known as Punta Burica, which juts into the Pacific Ocean. She traversed a makeshift swing bridge, and after a nearly two-hour journey on foot, she changed out of her traveling clothes into her nicest outfit, a hand-sewn purple dress zigzagged with yellow and blue thread.

Here, it is important to look your best when you go to see a doctor. This day was a special occasion, as she and her family would receive medical care for the first time in nearly two years.

The woman arrived in the small indigenous "Ngobe" village, population 160, just as a UH-60 from Mint Task Force-Bravo, touched down between two wooden goal posts in the village's soccer field.

The doors of the helicopter opened and uniformed service-members from JTF-Bravo exited carrying medical supplies and equipment for the three-day medical readiness training exercise.

The visit of this JTF-Bravo Black Hawk and its passengers is what the village's leader, Kanaki Carrera, called "a dream come true."


Because there are no roads leading to the three remote villages in the area, receiving medical, dental and preventive medicine from JTF-Bravo and the Costa Rican Social Security Health Services here during this exercise is "truly a prize," Mr. Carrera said.

He explained many of the people in the area have not seen a doctor for several years and the journey to the nearest Costa Rican hospital is two days through treacherous terrain littered with poisonous snakes.

"Unfortunately, the conditions of the journey make it impossible for many people to see a doctor and they die trying," he said. "We are very thankful for the support of (JTF-Bravo) to this humble community. It is something very kind."

With the help of partner Costa Rican health professionals, 10 members from JTF-Bravo's medical element saw nearly 600 patients during three days at this site and at La Pena, another remote village about eight miles away.

For four local women, the benefits of the MEDRETE were immediate and once-in-a-lifetime because of the medical evacuation capability presented by the U.S. and Costa Rican helicopters.

The doctors present said one woman would have lost a finger without the transport of the Costa Rican police helicopter to the hospital in Golfito; three pregnant women in need of specialized care also were transported to the hospital via the U.S. military's Black Hawk.

For Jose Rodriguez, a 24-year-old father of two infants, the visit of JTF-Bravo medical personnel to his village is a blessing he has been praying for.

"I thank God for this help," Mr. Rodriquez said. "I hope these medicines and vitamins will help me feel better and my children will feel good and live a better life because of this."

By forging partnerships, practicing teamwork and helping those who need it most, the Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors of Joint Task Force-Bravo prove daily that an assignment to Soto Cano AB is more than a regular job. It's a chance to make a difference in the lives of the United States' neighbors and make it possible for people like Mr. Rodriquez and his children to hope for a brighter future.

Editor's Note: Capt. Candace Park and Tech. Sgt. Rebecca Danet contributed to this article.
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Author:Hammond, Mike
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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