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First Lady Thanks Honduras Relief Force

By Staff Sgt. Jeff Troth, USA, Cpl. Chet Decker, USMC
Special to American Forces Press Service

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras, Nov. 19, 1998 – U.S. first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton stopped here Nov. 16 to visit and thank U.S. service members who are helping repair the recent devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch.

"I came to thank you, the troops of Joint Task Force-Bravo, for the job that you have done and for the way that you have represented the United States," Clinton said to an audience of hundreds of service members crowded in front of a makeshift stage.

"This is a great effort of all reserve and active forces. I'm told you rescued more than 1,000 people in the first days following the hurricane," she said. "This is one of the worst [recorded] natural disasters in this part of the world. ... It's certainly the worst hurricane this country has had in 200 years.

"I want you to know that what you have done is heroic, important and significant not only for the people of this country that has been so devastated, but also back home in the United States as well. I want to thank you for a task well done."

Gunnery Sgt. Guy Sutula of Marine Forces Honduras beamed at Clinton's words, saying he felt the U.S. military should definitely be helping those in need. "We take for granted the celebration of such holidays as Thanksgiving, but for us to just make life a little more enjoyable for the Honduran people -- I can't think of a better place to spend my Thanksgiving," he said. His unit could be in Honduras for three months.

All the services are coordinating their relief efforts through Joint Task Force-Bravo. Clean water is being distributed, medicine is being delivered, roads are being cleared, and bridges are being rebuilt. Until U.S. service members arrived, the Hondurans had no way to get to many of their sick and injured, because many bridges were destroyed and mud and debris blocked the roads.

Starting this week, the Department of Defense began deploying a second package of military support that will cost an estimated $55 million for the first 30 days. The package includes 16 more helicopters, engineering and road- building units, bridges, medical detachments and supplies, a field hospital, and 11 water purification systems.

In addition to Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras, DoD established a second joint task force Nov. 16 in El Salvador to coordinate U.S. military relief efforts there and in Nicaragua and Guatemala. In coming weeks, DoD will more than quadruple relief personnel from 1,300 to over 5,600 and further expand its helicopter fleet from 39 to 55.

"This will give you more reinforcements as you help the people not only recover and rebuild their lives, but also their country," Clinton said. To help accomplish this, she said, the president has already approved $75 million in defense equipment and services to cover relief efforts -- and current estimates of total U.S. emergency assistance now top $250 million.

"Our presence here is very strong and we are committed to helping our neighbors do the right thing," said Army Secretary Louis Caldera, who escorted the Clinton party. "This region is very close to our country and important to the United States."

Even the recent Gulf crisis will not affect relief operations in Honduras, he said. "We still are bringing soldiers, helicopters and other resources into the area," Caldera said. "We are committed to this regardless of what else is going on in the world."

He said humanitarian missions help build good relationships with neighboring countries and their militaries. U.S. service personnel will increase to accomplish the rebuilding of this country, he noted, as more units have been alerted or are in some process of readying for deployment.

Clinton said she has visited American service members all over the world, including sailors and Marines at sea and soldiers in Bosnia, and she feels this is more than just a temporary humanitarian mission.

"The sheer extent of this tragedy and then the aftermath of it is something that defies human description -- something you, the members of Joint Task Force-Bravo, have seen since Day 1 helping the people of Honduras," the first lady said.

"I believe that when we leave this country, the people, particularly the Honduran children, will think of the U.S. military and remember we were here when it mattered the most," Clinton said. "They will think about all the faces that have helped them, and it is that way that we convey our ideas of what the United States stands for and what we are committed to -- to create a more peaceful hemisphere and, indeed, a world."

Delivery statistics for the Hurricane Mitch relief effort, as of Nov. 16:

78,500 pounds of medical supplies

2,202,600 pounds of food

542,200 pounds of clothes, mattresses, plastic tarps, diapers, and other supplies)

69,300 gallons of water distributed

1,711 people moved

2,016 people medically treated

155 fixed-wing missions

319 helicopter missions

[Compiled from dispatches by Army Staff Sgt. Jeff Troth, the 49th Public Affairs Detachment (Airborne), Fort Bragg, N.C.; Marine Cpl. Chet Decker, Marine Forces Honduras; and Army Spc. Luis Orengo, 113th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Puerto Rico National Guard. All three are part of the U.S. military relief effort.]

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageFirst lady Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to hundreds of American service members at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, thanking them for their humanitarian relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. Honduras was here first stop on a tour of Central American countries devastated by the storm. Cpl. Chet Decker, USMC  
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