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Central American Allies Aiding in Iraqi Peacekeeping

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, Aug. 14, 2003 – Want to see why military-to-military contacts are important? Go to Central America.

Or better yet, go the area around Najaf, Iraq, some time after Sept. 1 and see the results of decades of U.S. military-to-military contacts with Central American nations. These contacts are paying off as formerly unstable countries now export stability to a desperate portion of the world.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers just completed visits to the four Central American countries providing troops to Operation Iraqi Freedom: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

El Salvador is a case in point. Throughout the 1980s, the country was in the midst of a bloody civil war. Tens of thousands died or disappeared. El Salvador, a place named for the Prince of Peace, was a living hell for those trapped in the country.

American aid helped stabilize the country and American training transformed the military from a non-professional gang, to a dedicated and motivated and professional force, subservient to civilian control. U.S. Special Forces teams worked with units even as they were engaged in battle against rebel forces.

International military education and training opportunities placed Salvadoran soldiers, sailors and airmen at U.S. military schools such as the academies and the various war colleges.

Finally, U.S. military trainers worked with Salvadoran military leaders to stop abuses that the non-professional force often visited upon the people it was sworn to protect. Human rights training became an important and integral part of all professional military education in El Salvador. It remains so today.

One of Myers' visits on the Central American trip took him to the Salvadoran special forces training base at Ilopango Air Base outside the capital city of San Salvador.

Soldiers stood wearing battle-dress uniforms and topped by green berets. The patches are different, but the weapons are the same and so is the training.

The formation was ready for inspection by Myers. "Growl like a tiger," the commander said, and the soldiers gave their version of the U.S. Army's "Hooah" call. "Ai-ya!" the Salvadorans yell.

The training the new soldiers receive is right out of a U.S. Army field- training manual with subtle differences for the Salvadorans. The rappelling tower the Salvadoran special operators use is an exact copy of towers that dot U.S. military bases.

Jump training is exactly the same, only in Spanish. Soldiers jump from a practice tower count and check canopy the same way as troops at Fort Benning, Ga.

"The Salvadorans have not forgotten that we stood by them in some very tough times," said an embassy official. "After (Sept. 11), Salvador was one of the first countries to offer to help. And when the United States began asking for international forces to help in Iraq, Salvador was again one of the first to step forward."

Salvadoran participation in such a peacekeeping operation so soon after emerging from its civil war is an incredible feat, officials said. "The mere fact that Salvador is going to Iraq as a peaceful democratic nation should be a sign of hope to the Iraqis as to what can be accomplished," the embassy official said.

The Salvadoran group, along with service members from Nicaragua, Honduras and Colombia, will come under command of the Spanish brigade, which is part of the Polish-led division.

And these countries will be able to work together because each has benefited from military-to-military contacts with the United States. The units will be able to work together because they have a common background provided by working with the U.S. military.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSalvadoran special forces personnel rappel down a tower that could have come from Fort Benning, Ga., during a demonstration for Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers Aug. 13. Photo by Jim Garamone  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageJoint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers answers questions during an Aug. 13 press conference at El Salvador's Special Forces headquarters. El Salvador is sending 360 special operations troops to help in peacekeeping operations in Iraq. Photo by Jim Garamone  
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