JCOC Experience ‘Invaluable,’ Participants Say
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
MIAMI, April 26, 2008 The cost of a pound of coffee in Colombia: $8. A hand-carved souvenir iguana from Cuba: $10. A cold beer in Honduras: $1.
Traveling throughout Central and South America talking to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and seeing firsthand the U.S. military’s role in the region: priceless.
“You can’t put a price on that,” said Dan Simons, president of The World Company in Lawrence, Kan. “It’s off the charts.”
Simons and about 50 other participants in the 75th Joint Civilian Orientation Conference wrapped up their week-long journey to parts of the U.S. Southern Command area of operations here last night with a dinner and an opportunity to chat with the command’s top officer, Navy Adm. James Stavridis. Miami serves as the headquarters for the command.
The JCOC is the Defense Department’s oldest outreach program. In this trip, participants traveled to Brazil, Cuba, Honduras, Colombia and here. The U.S. Southern Command area encompasses more than 30 countries and covers about 15.6 million square miles.
During the conference, participants stood on the deck of the USS George Washington and witnessed hair-raising night landings on the nuclear aircraft carrier up-close. They fired machine guns in Cuba, rode in helicopters in Honduras, and rappelled off towers in Colombia.
The civic and business leaders toured maximum-security detainee facilities in Guantanamo Bay, sped across the Keys in super-fast U.S. Coast Guard drug interdiction boats and saw what a jungle cocaine lab looks like.
And while all are quick to say those experiences were exhilarating, stimulating, and sometimes frightening, being able to talk with U.S. servicemembers was the highlight of the trip, they said. SouthCom is home to more than 1,200 military and civilian personnel from all services. During the trip, the group dined in a Navy’s ship’s galley and chatted with sailors. They shared field rations with soldiers and airmen and talked about military life with Marines.
“I leave with a real sense of pride, and am just in awe of the men and women who serve,” said Saul Kaplan, executive director of Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, Providence, R.I.
This is the first time a JCOC has toured Southern Command since the program began in 1948. And it is the first JCOC to see more of the U.S. military’s “soft power,” or humanitarian assistance and other aid-oriented missions. This group got to talk about drug eradication efforts with Colombian police who risk their lives spraying the coca plants across the country. They delivered school supplies and soccer balls to children in Honduras. They talked with the doctors who provide the medical care for the detainees at Guantanamo.
Many of the participants said that they’re returning from the trip with a deeper understanding of the importance of the region to U.S. national security interests.
“We tend to think of the military as arms and defense. We saw the human heart of the military and the focus and concern for all people,” said Rebecca Upham, head of the Buckingham Brown and Nichols School in Cambridge, Mass.
And as the event wrapped up, the business leaders and educators talked about how they could spread the word of what they saw in their travels. Entrepreneurs penciled thoughts on paper for upcoming speeches, and authors sketched out ideas for upcoming seminars. No one is leaving without a sense of urgency to tell their story on some scale within their communities.
Simons said the trip gave him new appreciation for the efforts of U.S. servicemembers. He admitted he had become somewhat apathetic regarding their service, because it did not have a direct, personal impact. Now he is going to work with United Service Organizations on an upcoming project, and is also teaming with a nonprofit organization to sponsor races to be held across the country on Sept. 11.
“I could have been working on this for a couple of years,” he said.
Michael Roberts, the chairman and chief executive officer of The Roberts Companies in St. Louis, said his experiences on the trip will be part of his regular speeches. As an entrepreneur and author, Roberts regularly speaks to businesses and on college campuses such as Harvard.
“In those environments, I can say to them what the military is about from a humanistic perspective, as opposed to a strict warring and defense operation,” Roberts said.
Roberts used a sports analogy to sum up his impressions of the military’s use of soft power: “The best defense is a good offense.” He said the humanitarian missions of the military, such as building schools, countering narco-terrorism and providing health care to impoverished countries, is a side of the military most people do not know about.
In the end, the trip was a call to action for him and the others, Roberts said.
“We need to do what we can to spread the word about the humanitarian mission of the U.S. military,” he said. “We do have a ‘good neighbor’ policy. And the world is our neighbor.”