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Eagle Force's Simple Choice: Move It or Lose It

By Sgt. 1st Class Don M. Thomas, USAR
Special to American Forces Press Service

COMALAPA AIR BASE, El Salvador, Feb. 4, 1999 – More than 100 members of Joint Task Force-Aguila took part in a recent joint-service mission, transporting more than 728 tons of food for victims of Hurricane Mitch in El Salvador.

The Marines, soldiers and sailors worked as drivers and interpreters in the massive food transport. About 7,000 tons of donated food has been delivered to the Salvadoran seaport of Acajutla. The food, the bulk donated by the United States, consists of rice, dried milk, corn and beans. Other donors include Spain, Japan, Panama and Mexico.

"We met with the Salvadoran government and embassy. They told us they had trouble getting it to the national distribution centers, so they asked us to help get it here," said Army Maj. Jorge A. Milla of the joint task force civil affairs section.

The request was exactly up the U.S. military's alley, convoy officials said.

"It's only because of the efficiency of the military and the cooperation between services that we are able to do it this fast. No single service had the assets here to move this much food," said Marine 1st Lt. Derek P. Schultz, port liaison officer. "If we didn't move our part of the load now, it probably wouldn't get moved for about two months."

From Acajutla, military convoys of 25 trucks took the staples to the town of Zapotitan, a distribution center about 45 miles to the northeast. The Salvadorans unloaded the cargo and took charge of further distribution.

When the people in villages like Chilanguera, Ahuachapan, San Jose de la Montana and El Espino eventually receive the food, it will have special meaning for the task force members who helped with both the food drive and with water purification missions.

"When I was driving along with my load of food, I was thinking we were really helping, like we got a chance to do what we came to do: Help people rebuild homes, get food and clean water," said Army Spc. Cedric L. Jackson of Headquarters Company, 46th Combat Support Group. "It's sort of hurtful to see people live in houses of tree branches. I can sleep better at night knowing they had food to eat.

"I think there's need pretty much all over because of the way the children, and even some grownups, run up to the vehicles for food. It has to be because of hunger," said Jackson, who hauled 28 tons of milk and rice along the slow, 90-minute route from the port to the distribution center.

The National Society of Families, El Salvador's national relief organization, oversees the whole project. It receives the personal attention of Salvadorian First Lady, Elizabeth Sol, and supplied volunteers for the Zapotitan distribution center.

"No matter how long it takes, me and my workers are willing to work," said warehouse supervisor Ricardo A. Monroy, an NSF employee. "Normally, the work day in El Salvador is eight hours, but because there are people in the country who need help, we will work as many hours as necessary." Since the military started delivering the food to Zapotitan, 12-hour workdays have become the norm.

For temporary workers hired to unload and stack food, the operation brings bittersweet news. Jose Solazar-Rodriguez, 36, said he was recruited along with several other men from an area surrounding the capitol city of San Salvador to work for 15 days.

"We don't know much about the operation itself except that food is here and it needs to be unloaded. But thank God you're here and at least we have a job and a couple of colones to feed our families and give food to our babies," Solazar Rodriguez said. The Salvadoran currency, the colon, is worth approximately 12 U.S. cents.

"When you get a job here in El Salvador you work hard to keep it and try to do that job as well as you can. And especially on this job, because we're working to help others, we don't worry as much about the money as about the job going well," said Monroy.

"I'd stay another week," said Marine Capt. Richard K. Halsted, officer in charge of the Zapotitan warehouse. "I'd like to see the people who really need this stuff receive it, but it's good to start the process."

[Sgt. 1st Class Don M. Thomas is a member of the Army Reserve 203rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment of Wichita, Kan., and is assigned to the U.S. military relief mission in Central America.]

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