‘Beyond the Horizons’ Strengthens Bonds in Guatemala, Honduras
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
EL RANCHO, Guatemala, Jun. 27, 2012 Celebration filled this tiny mountain town yesterday, as hundreds of residents pulled out all the stops to mark the opening of a new medical clinic and to thank the U.S. service members who built it as part of U.S. Southern Command’s Beyond the Horizons 2012 mission.
Navy Lt. Jeff Dong, officer in charge of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 23, left, and Army Lt. Col. John Findley, commander of the Partnership of the Americas Cooperation and Collaboration Element in Guatemala during Over the Horizon, celebrate the opening of a medical clinic in El Rancho, Guatemala, June 26, 2012. DOD photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Women and young children dressed in a rainbow of colors began gathering long before the ceremony, with the local men looking on proudly as they awaited a musical procession toward the balloon- and ribbon-decked clinic. Schoolchildren waved Guatemalan and U.S. flags as they led members of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 23 up a steep hill toward the gleaming blue-and-white structure the Seabees spent the last two and a half months building.
The Seabees -- Navy reservists based at Fort Belvoir, Va. -- are among almost 1,300 soldiers, airmen and sailors who have brought engineering, construction and health care services to Guatemala and Honduras since Beyond the Horizon kicked off in April.
In Guatemala alone, they collectively built a school and two new medical clinics, including the one here. They also renovated two other schools and a medical clinic.
The troops also sponsored three medical readiness exercises, providing free medical care in three local communities.
Army Maj. Orlando Ortega, Southcom’s lead planner for Beyond the Horizons and its New Horizons sister mission in Peru, called the comprehensive humanitarian civic assistance exercises an opportunity for U.S. service members to receive valuable engineering and medical training while fostering stronger partnerships in the region.
The 90-day exercises are Southcom’s largest involving ground troops in its area of responsibility, which includes Central and South America and the Caribbean. Many of the participants have been National Guard soldiers and airmen who served two- to four-week rotations in Guatemala or Honduras.
“These are joint ventures, with all services in the United States and within the host nation participating together and learning from each other,” Ortega said.
U.S. Army South is leading the Beyond the Horizons exercises in Honduras and Guatemala, and U.S. Air Forces Southern is leading New Horizons.
With each concrete block laid and each patient treated, the missions help build closer relationships between the United States and its regional partners while demonstrating long-term U.S. commitment, Ortega said.
“This is a win-win situation for everyone. Our troops get training. The host nation forces get training. And in doing so, they leave something very tangible behind,” he said. “And the local people appreciate that. You can see it on their faces, the fact that they know this is going to improve their communities.”
Army Lt. Col. John Findley, a Missouri National Guardsman who served as commander of the Partnership of the Americas Cooperation and Collaboration Element overseeing the exercise in Guatemala, said the biggest reward was watching relationships unfold between the U.S. forces and the Guatemalans.
“The thing I really liked was the exchanging of experiences,” he said. Guatemalan and U.S. doctors shared expertise as they treated cases that most medical staffs simply don’t see in the United States. National Guard engineers, many of whom had focused predominantly on route-clearance operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, got a chance to return to basic engineering skills.
“Our biggest goal is to ensure that the soldiers, airmen and Seabees got valuable training in their job specialties,” Findley said. “But there’s also been another huge takeaway: that sense of accomplishment that comes from doing something good for a community and seeing the real benefit of that work.”
Findley said he enjoyed watching the Guatemalan children grow attached to him and his troops. “At first, the kids were scared of us, but now it’s all big smiles, high-fives and knuckle bumps,” he said.
Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 23 experienced that growing acceptance as they put their skills to work on the 23-by-60-foot, concrete-block medical clinic here. It includes offices and a kitchen, and will serve 30,000 to 40,000 people in six communities.
The Seabees got so excited about the project that they took it the extra mile, also redoing the water and septic system that serves the facility and building a three-stall latrine, benches from scrap wood and a cooking pit, explained Navy Lt. Jeff Dong, the officer in charge.
“You know that you are making a sacrifice of your own time, but when you see how much it will do, it gives you a good, warm feeling,” he said. “To be able to do something like this that will make such a difference for so many people is really rewarding.”
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Al Baldassarre, participating in his first humanitarian assistance mission, said he enjoyed watching the growing anticipation among the local residents as the clinic took shape.
While knowing he and his fellow Seabees were making a valuable contribution to the community, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Jeff Ambrose, lead petty officer for the project, said the experience also underscored his unit’s full range of capabilities. “It reinforced that we actually are a mobile battalion, and that we can pick up and go anywhere and have the capability of doing our job,” he said.
As Guatemalan community leaders expressed thanks to the United States and its military during yesterday’s ceremony, Findley said everyone ultimately benefited through the Beyond the Horizons experience.
“By participating in this project, our soldiers have gained valuable experiences and opportunities that will be a lasting legacy of our partnership together,” he told the group.
That sentiment is captured on a plaque affixed outside the front door of the new medical clinic: “This project was possible, thanks to the cooperation of the governments of Guatemala and the United States of America as a symbol of friendship between our countries.”
“Beyond the Horizons is just part of the progress we can achieve together” as partners, Findley told yesterday’s gathering. “I am confident that, working together, there is nothing we cannot achieve.”