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Clinton Thanks U.S. Troops in Central America Relief Effort

By Spc. Larry Lang, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras, March 11, 1999 – President Bill Clinton thanked base personnel March 9 for their service during Hurricane Mitch disaster relief operations in Central America and announced the awards of the Humanitarian Service Medal and Joint Meritorious Unit Award to Joint Task Force-Bravo members.

During the two-hour stopover on his four-nation swing in the region, Clinton also met with Honduran President Carlos Flores, U.S. Marine Gen. Charles Wilhelm, commander of U.S. Southern Command, and U.S. Army Col. Elliot Rosner, commander of Joint Task Force-Bravo. He received a 30-minute briefing from Wilhelm on the task force's relief operations and on upcoming reserve component exercises that will further reconstruction efforts in Central America.

"This disaster has taught us that what happens to one of the Americas, happens to all of us," Clinton told the hangar audience. "As our military leaders know, at this Honduran air base, our armed forces trained together for this sort of disaster just a few months before the storm. When the real test came, they passed with flying colors."

He praised the U.S. relief effort, dubbed Operation Fuerte Apoyo, which translates into English as "Strong Support." He called Fuerte Apoyo one of the largest humanitarian missions performed by the U.S. military since the Berlin Airlift in 1948.

"This long runway turned into a lifeline, connected to countries all over the world. More than 47 million pounds of supplies came through here," Clinton said. "Helicopters performed daring rescues and delivered food; engineers repaired roads; medical teams gave treatment and comfort; relief workers provided clean water, built schools and shelters, and restored faith in the future that nearly washed away.

"To all who were a part of [Fuerte Apoyo], I thank you for your courage, confidence and your compassion."

The president used the occasion to announce an expansion of U.S. military efforts in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua and that he had asked Congress for $956 million to support Central American reconstruction. He said $56 million in additional funds would be given the U.S. New Horizons program, which will bring reserve component units and members to the region for two weeks of training and relief work.

"I know the Hondurans are determined not just to rebuild, but actually to create something better out of this tragedy," Clinton said. "To build a reconstruction so that people are not exposed to unnecessary risks in the next storm, that ensures those who suffered the most participate fully and benefit equally, and that consolidates democracy … .

"I would like to especially thank the members of our armed forces for their hard work, enthusiasm and cooperation between the services and between U.S. personnel and our Honduran hosts," the president said. "You have shown the people of Central America the true colors of our men and women in uniform."

Following his comments, President and Mrs. Clinton visited the 73- meter-long Juan Molina Bridge in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. It's the second of four bridges built since mid- November by Marines of the 8th Engineer Support Battalion and 2nd Force Service Support Group, Camp Lejeune, N.C., as members of Marine Forces Honduras.

"It (Juan Molina Bridge) was built jointly with U.S. assistance and Honduran efforts," Clinton said. "I can't think of a better symbol of Joint Task Force-Bravo's efforts or our cooperation, building bridges between people and nations in Central America, with Central America itself the bridge between North and South America."

The president's trip includes visits to Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

(Spc. Larry Lang is assigned to the Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs Office at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras. Marine Cpl. Chet Decker of Marine Forces Honduras contributed to this report.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imagePresident Bill Clinton mixes with U.S. forces and Hondurans following his speech to about 1,000 people in a U.S. Army aviation hangar at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras. Spc. Larry Lang, USA   
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