U.S. Task Force Leads Honduran Relief From Day 1
By Staff Sgt. Jeff Troth, USA
National Guard Bureau
SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras, Dec. 1, 1998 The rebuilding of anything must start at the ground and go up. Citizens of Central America, who had their lives wrecked by Hurricane Mitch, know all too well the steps: first, survival; second, sustenance; third, rebuilding.
A C-5 Galaxy comes in for a landing at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras. Since Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, planes from all over the world have delivered relief supplies and equipment at the base. Spc. Jeremy Ausburn, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
U.S. service members have been there to take every step with the Hondurans, from the U.S. Navy SEALs who rescued more than 700 Hondurans in the aftermath of Mitch to the hundreds of engineers now rebuilding roads and bridges.
Active duty and reserve personnel have been key in distributing more than 16 million pounds of supplies and equipment, including 4 million pounds of food, 130,000 pounds of medical supplies and 800,000 pounds of items such as plastic tarps, generators, clothes and diapers. In addition, two barges delivered more than 250 Navy and Marine engineer vehicles last week at the port of Puerto Cortes. The equipment will be used for bridge and road repairs.
A Navy Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team deployed originally to help U.S. service members deal with Mitch's swath of death and destruction. Once there, however, the team realized the Hondurans needed the help, not the Americans. With the estimated death toll topping 11,000, many Central Americans have been touched by the deaths of friends and loved ones.
At the request of its command and the Honduran Ministry of Health, the psychiatric teams assumed a new mission: Teach Honduran doctors, teachers, ministers and social workers ways to deal with traumatic stress and emotional situations. The 120 leaders trained so far then use what they've learned to help others in need of support.
Joint Task Force-Bravo's medical element has made daily forays into the countryside. "We go to villages to take care of illnesses that can be dealt with by using medicine and preventative health care," said Army 1st Lt. Dwight Berry, the mission organizer. "If patients are found with advanced medical or dental conditions, the Honduran Ministry of Health is notified so they can take appropriate action."
The medical teams spent the past two weeks traveling in Humvees to remote Honduran villages and evaluating 150 to 200 people a day. In order to have more time on the ground, the teams recently used UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopter airlifts to get to the treatment sites.
"Because of our air asset, we have more time in the villages," said Berry. "We have four to five hours on the ground if we go by Humvee and six to eight hours if we go by helicopter. That means treating more people and making more people happy."
Natividad Velasquez, the village leader of Tres Pinos, northeast of Comayagua, said he's thankful that help has arrived, since the nearest clinic is otherwise a four-hour walk away. "The whole world is one big community and I'm glad our neighbors are here to help."
"Our medical element has done an outstanding job in support of the relief effort. They have made it their mission to seek out the victims of this disaster and make sure that they are in good health," said Col. Charles H. Jacoby, Joint Task Force-Bravo commander. "Our preventive medicine specialists are making sure that disease does not spread and we even have surgeons who are performing operations to help those with serious problems."
Army Capt. Gail Glushko, a medical element doctor, said she's seen a lot of illnesses, but the two most common are diarrhea and respiratory infections. This is primarily due to residents getting their water from unclean creeks and streams in the mountains, she said.
To help combat diseases caused by contaminated water, soldiers from Army Forces Headquarters and Support Company here have been providing the residents of Comayagua and surrounding communities with clean, safe drinkable water.
"After Mitch came through, many of these people went without clean water for several days," said Sgt. 1st Class Luis Fontanez, noncommissioned-officer-in-charge of the water delivery. "The water system in Comayagua was severely damaged by flooding during the hurricane."
Citizens, young and old flock to the distribution sites with a myriad of containers to carry the water back to their homes. By providing clean water, soldiers are helping the townspeople fight off potential waterborne diseases.
"Because of the contaminated water, sickness can become a very big problem in our town. The water the soldiers are providing helps us prevent illness," said Cesar Augusto Andino Ortega, the mayor of La Libertad. "Everybody benefits from this clean water."
To ensure everyone has an opportunity to get water, the soldiers rotate distribution points. They also take "dirty water" from nearby streams and rivers and process it through their water purifying equipment. The teams have transported more than 120,000 gallons of potable water to villages around the air base -- the drive is expected to increase dramatically when another 11 U.S. water purification systems arrive soon.
Although they have not left the base, the airmen of Soto Cano have done their part in rebuilding Central America. Since the storm, they have handled all aspects of the 8,000- ton airlift. Flight line crews have worked 12-hour shifts to accommodate the 20 to 25 arrivals they handle each day. To ensure the mission gets accomplished, the crews must rely on each other and work together.
"When you have four different airplanes at one time, it's all about teamwork," said Airman 1st Class Jonathan Grimes, an air transport specialist with the 640th Air Mobility Support Squadron, Howard Air Force Base, Panama. "You've got to have the coordination to work together and get the job done."
Once the supplies have been off-loaded, the job is only half done -- it must now get to the people who need it. Part of that task falls to trucks, but smaller airplanes and helicopters distribute most of the load to the remote areas around Honduras.
Besides taking care of Hondurans' personal needs, Joint Task Force-Bravo is also helping with the country's roadways. Marines and sailors of the task force are working on opening major routes that Mitch destroyed.
"Now that we are entering the rehabilitation phase of the relief effort, our focus is shifting to the engineers," Jacoby said. "By rebuilding major bridges and roads, we can begin to deliver more supplies and rebuild more of the infrastructure that was destroyed by Hurricane Mitch."
Marine units will be operating near La Ceiba and supporting the Seabees of Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 7 in the vicinity of San Pedro Sula. Marine Forces Honduras, which has all the U.S. bridging assets in Honduras, is also responsible for engineering missions along the route between Tegucigalpa and Danli.
The Seabees' main focus is to repair roads and bridges so supplies and medicine can get to the people in outlying areas. Besides working on repairing roads, the Seabees are building shelters for arriving U.S. troops. They've built tent cities that house 500 people each here and in San Pedro Sula.
"This mission gets more service members into the area of operations," said Seabee shift leader Petty Officer 1st Class Eric W. Hass. "The more manpower we have, the easier it is for us to help those devastated by the storm."
Part of that help is on the road to Yoro, where the Seabees are clearing the one main road leading to the city. They're fixing broken culverts, rebuilding bridges and clearing mudslides.
"This entire operation has been a very cooperative effort between all nations involved. The effort is peaking right now with the amount of [task force] members reaching 2,000," Jacoby said. "Every one of them -- soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines -- is here to do a job that will help the relief effort. There has never been a more joint task force."
[Staff Sgt. Jeff Troth is assigned to the Army's 49th Public Affairs Detachment (Airborne), Fort Bragg, N.C., and is a member of the U.S. military relief mission in Honduras.]