Reserve Chief Visits Hurricane Relief Workers
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 20, 1999 Four months after he first visited Central America in December 1998, Charles Cragin could see the changes taking place since Hurricanes Mitch and Georges obliterated homes, cities, mountainsides and, most of all, lives, last fall. By Easter weekend, American Guard and Reserve members were beginning to make a dent in the huge workload before them.
Arriving in Guatemala April 8, the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs toured the construction and medical readiness projects at Task Force San Marcos. He moved on to Honduras April 9 to visit Task Forces Sula and Aguan, attending a 6 a.m. Easter sunrise service "under a mango tree with three sergeants major," Cragin said.
The visits, he added, were inspiring. "It was 115 degrees one afternoon, and here were these American men and women busting their humps laying concrete blocks and pouring foundations," Cragin said. "They were getting great personal satisfaction out what they were doing. I was very impressed with their dedication and motivation."
Cragin and the Guard and Reserve units he represents have numerous reasons to be happy with the hurricane relief effort. Reservists traditionally train under a U.S. Southern Command- directed exercise called New Horizons. The training prepares them for their wartime missions, he said. But after witnessing the extent of the storm damage, defense and political leaders decided to triple participation for New Horizons '99. It would not only provide increased training opportunities but also help neighboring countries recover from the devastation.
In all, some 22,000 Guard and Reserve members will have traveled to Central America for their annual training by Sept. 30. This includes some full-time reservists operating at each of the task force headquarters for the duration of New Horizons. Another 2,000 active duty service members, mostly from engineering and medical units, will also participate.
New Horizons '99 will cost DoD $56 million. In turn, participants will hone old skills and learn new ones. One unit arrived at a site with only three of its members experienced in erecting cement block buildings, Cragin said.
Cragin's only major concern is getting the airlift needed to move units to and from Central America and ensuring they get back to their civilian jobs on schedule. "We have 22,000 Guard and Reserve members going there, and we need 22,000 happy employers," he said.
Units deploying to New Horizons '99 sites face challenges simply getting there with all their personnel, equipment and supplies, he said. "Then, they have the experience of functioning in a logistically challenging environment" -- high altitudes and sweltering heat, for example. The mountainous terrain demands steady nerves and superb navigational skills by the aircrews flying Guard MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and C-23 Sherpas, rugged two-engine, fixed-wing workhorses designed for short- field take-off and landing.
New Horizons '99 projects throughout Central America include building new roads, redirecting rivers, drilling wells, building clinics and schools and providing medical care. One medical readiness team reported 14,000 patient contacts in 10 days. "You just can't get this kind of training in a normal situation," Cragin said.
The extent of New Horizons '99 and numbers of reservists involved have given participants a new respect for their sister services, Cragin said. "There's a lot of appreciation for the 'jointness' of this training," he said. "This is phenomenally good training, and at the same time, we're leaving a benefit. The situation has created a great deal of training cohesiveness."
They also are leaving behind a legacy and the gratitude of tens of thousands of families uprooted by the hurricanes.