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Fighting floods, drugs in Central, South America

By C. Todd Lopez

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras (Oct. 01, 2009) -- Nearly a quarter of the 1,100 individuals employed in the American section of Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, are Soldiers. And like the foreign nationals, American contractors, Sailors, Marines and Airmen stationed there, they support the mission of Joint Task Force-Bravo.

The work Joint Task Force-Bravo performs is one part of U.S. Southern Command's mission in Central and South America. The task force conducts joint, combined and interagency operations in the region, enhancing both security and the development of democracy. Additionally, the task force supports humanitarian efforts in the USSOUTHCOM area of responsibility, and participates in counter-narcotics operations there.

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"We are really USSOUTHCOM's forward presence in Central and South America," said Col. Richard A. Juergens, JTF-B commander. "Most of our work is partnership-type work, where we're building relationships. And in a lot of cases, we're maintaining relationships that we have had for many years here. But we're also here to quickly respond to humanitarian situations and disasters."

Out of Soto Cano, the members of JTF-B-through 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment; JTF-B Medical Element; the Army Forces Battalion and other components-are involved in several missions, including providing humanitarian relief, aiding in the fight against narcotics trafficking, and providing medical and dental treatment to civilians.

In November 2008, for instance, flooding ravaged both Costa Rica and Panama. Members of JTF-B were there to provide assistance to the victims of that natural disaster, said Lt. Col. Will Cristy, commander of the 1-228th.

"With Panama, we started off with a couple of Black Hawks. Then it grew, we ended up sending a couple of Chinooks to Panama City," he said. "It started with the Bocas del Toro region of Panama with the Black Hawks. It expanded to Panama City, because that's where most of the relief supplies were. When Costa Rica requested assistance, we sent still more people. When it was all said and done, we had seven helicopters, and the 1-228th had upwards of 50 people-and JTF-B brought in 20 to 25."

Cristy said the 1-228th provided airlift of some 300,000 pounds of supplies in the affected region and helped rescue civilians stranded by floodwaters as well.

"The big thing at first was life, limb or eyesight situations," he said. "They extracted I think four people in the first few days-some injured children and a pregnant woman-things like that. Then it shifted into transporting relief supplies: food, medicine and blankets."

Lieutenant Col. Richard Somers serves as commander of the Army Forces Battalion, part of JTF-B. The battalion provides, among other things, communications and refueling support to JTF-B. During the flooding in Panama and Costa Rica, Somers was the ground commander for U.S. forces performing relief operations in the area. He said the U.S. wasn't in charge of the relief operations, but was instead a partner.

"It wasn't a U.S.-led mission, it was a pan-American-led mission," he said. "We had people there from Colombia and from international organizations bringing supplies as well. It was a great opportunity to work with all these different agencies and people."

Working with Panamanians and Costa Ricans to provide disaster relief support yields results that Somers said he sees when he talks to citizens of the Central and South American countries.

"One of the Panamanians told me, no matter how much trouble the world gives the U.S., every time something happens, it was always the U.S. that was there in Panama helping out," Somers said. "So the people were very appreciative of everything we did."

As part of its USSOUTHCOM mission, members of JTF-B also participate in counter-narcotics operations-helping to stem the movement of illegal drugs throughout the region. Just as JTF-B works in concert with other countries on humanitarian assistance efforts, it also partners with host countries and other governmental organizations on its counter-narcotics mission.

"Counter-narcotics is one of the combined, joint, interagency missions that is so much a part of Joint Task Force Bravo's daily activity," Juergens said. The ground teams that participate in the counter-narcotic missions include a mix of interagency partners and host-nation police or military, for instance.

When JTF-B discovers aircraft in the region that may be involved in the drug trade, they respond in a variety of ways in conjunction with interagency partners.

Juergens said the counter-narcotics missions call for experienced personnel, due to the challenges involved.

"This mission set is one of the more complicated that we execute in Central America," he said. "Because of this we pick our most experienced crews while executing a vigorous training program to prepare newly assigned aviators to meet the demanding mission requirements."

Working at Soto Cano Air Base as part of JTF-B means working in partnership with the host nations, not doing things for them, said Cristy.

"It's important when talking to the Soldiers that they understand that this is a partnership here," he said. "We're not here in spite of these people, we are here to work with these people. There are very smart people down here, and they are very capable. But we have a lot of resources-that's one of our advantages. If they had the money we had, they'd be flying helicopters all over this place-and they'd be good at it too. They are smart guys, and they are fit."

Juergens said that the joint, combined and interagency nature of the JTF-B mission is a boon to young Soldiers who work as part of the task force. Soto Cano is one of the few places in the Army where junior enlisted can get such experiences early in their careers.

"Our young Soldiers are getting to interface with the other services at a very young age here, and it's just great to watch," he said. "Above and beyond that, one of the unique things about JTF-B is the interagency component of the mission. When you get involved in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, you are going to be working with folks from the State Department, the country team, the embassy, and from the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. Young Soldiers don't especially have that interface at an early stage in their career with other entities of government-but they certainly get it here."

On top of that, Cristy said, working as part of JTF-B provides the opportunity for Soldiers to demonstrate the professionalism expected from them.

"The Soldiers that come here and work for us are just amazing," he said. "We work some pretty good hours here: five-and-half to six days a week. And we just do amazing things. I saw it when I went to the desert and I see it here too. Every generation talks about the next generation and how soft they are. We talk about the 'video game kids'-but they are amazing. When it comes time to do the job, they are amazing. There are great young Americans down here representing their nation."

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