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Civil affairs key to success in El Salvador exercise David Vergun, Army News Service

July 10, 2018

LA PAZ DEPARTMENT, El Salvador — Four Soldiers and one Marine are working quietly behind the scenes in El Salvador to make the Beyond the Horizons exercise a success.

They are part of the 1,800 personnel from Combined Joint Task Force Hope, providing humanitarian assistance as part of their training May 12 through Aug. 4.

The scope of the training exercise includes the construction of two schools, as well as extensions to two existing schools and a clinic in the La Paz Department, a rural area in the southeastern part of the nation that is underdeveloped and in need of services, said Maj. Al Cavazos.

The task force is also providing medical and dental treatment at five locations within La Paz as well, said Cavazos, who is in charge of the civil affairs team, a public affairs team and an information operations team.

The mission of the civil affairs team is to coordinate exercise activities with community leaders and organizers, non-governmental organizations, the U.S. embassy and the Salvadoran army, he said. It’s a team effort with inter-service and inter-governmental cooperation.

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A visit to a medical readiness training exercise, or MEDRETE, June 28 in Centro Escolar Canton La Esperanza de Olocuilta illustrated the civil affairs effort.

Forty doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers from the U.S. Army worked alongside NGOs from El Salvador and the armies of El Salvador and Peru. They treated hundreds of people with a variety of ailments who were waiting in a long line stretching down the street. In five days, ending June 29, the total number of patients at this MEDRETE alone reached 4,496, Cavazos said.

Even before the MEDRETE began, the civil affairs team was reaching out to the community to advise them of the upcoming exercise so announcements could go out in newspapers, radio and TV, said Marine Corps Sgt. Michael Woodbury, 4th Civil Affairs Group, which is located in south Florida. The team also hung up signs outside the makeshift clinic to advertise the MEDRETE.

Student translators from two El Salvador universities were also contacted by the civil affairs team, he said.

The civil affairs team coordinated with the Ministry of Health and NGOs who were bringing medical supplies, tents, chairs, water and protein powder, so that their contributions were not redundant and were actually needed by the MEDRETE medical personnel.

Rafael Alejandro, a nurse with the Ministry of Health near the site of the MEDRETE, said the U.S. and Salvadoran-led collaboration resulted in a strengthening of alliances and personal friendships.

The local people who were treated are eternally grateful, he added.

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In El Salvador, doctors earn an average of $600 a month, nurses half that and the average worker earns about $250, he said. Clinics have acute shortages of medical supplies, including essentials like pain medication, anesthetics and even gauze.

It is common practice for doctors to use their own salary to purchase medical equipment like blood pressure pumps, he said.

Alejandro’s own clinic serves about 30,000 in the city of Olocuilta. It has just one ambulance, and the clinic can only afford to pay a driver who works Monday through Friday. The sick must walk, transport themselves or use public transportation on weekends, he said.

“So you can imagine that when people receive medical care and there is functioning equipment and an adequate supply of pharmaceuticals, that they are happy,” said Alejandro, whose clinic donated some specialty tables to the MEDRETE that were used for gynecology exams.

1st Lt. Karla Trigueros, a Salvadoran doctor at the MEDRETE, said she loves her work, despite the long hours. She also expressed appreciation for the humanitarian assistance from America.

Two weeks ago, Trigueros said she was in Guatemala, assisting survivors of a volcanic eruption. Although people in El Salvador are in need, they always respond when the call for help is given, she said. Whether in Guatemala or when the coalition needed help in Iraq and Afghanistan, El Salvador was there.

1st Lt. Miguel Melendez, the only Salvadoran army civil affairs soldier in La Paz Department, took a truck to the capital of San Salvador June 29, for a visit with NGOs and to pick up a load of shoes that one of the organizations donated.

He coordinated his efforts with the U.S. civil affairs team throughout the Beyond the Horizon exercise.

The American civil affairs team members were surprised that only one person was doing civil affairs work for La Paz Department, Melendez said.

One of the reasons for that is the nation is strapped for cash, he said. Soldiers are routinely sent on patrols with local police to villages two hours away. However, enlisted soldiers earn just $7 a day, so they cannot afford a car or motorcycle. They hitchhike to their patrol areas.

Officers earn more, but since they do, they are expected to purchase their own handguns and ammunition, even for official use like annual qualification, he said.

However, one of the intangible benefits of being a soldier is that the people love their army. It is second only to the Catholic church in garnering respect and admiration, he said, noting that whenever there’s an earthquake, flood or volcano eruption, the army has been designated as the first response force.

The army is also tasked with halting transnational narcotics traffic making its way north through El Salvador toward Guatemala, Mexico and the U.S. In fact, his first assignment was on the border with Honduras doing this task and stopping illegal logging in the nature reserves along the border.

Staff Sgt. Monica DeLeon, a Reservist with the 413th Civil Affairs Battalion out of Lubbock, Texas, said she felt the love of the people of El Salvador.

DeLeon is fluent in Spanish, so she spent a lot of time talking to children and parents waiting in line at the MEDRETEs.

She did two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan during her 10 years on active duty. Then her father became sick and she joined the Army Reserve in order to care for him. He died just seven months later.

In El Salvador, it’s nice to do humanitarian training and not get shot at, she said.

Kurt Ackerman, an American businessman, sold all of his possessions and moved to El Salvador about two decades ago with his family, Cavazos said during a visit to the Ackerman’s American-themed restaurant in San Salvador. The major had previously visited Ackerman to coordinate his NGO’s contributions to the exercise.

Ackerman’s diner employs orphans who are transitioning from high school to their own careers. The restaurant offers them a chance to gain job experience for their resume.

The income from the restaurant is used to supplement Ackerman’s NGO, Cavazos said. That organization has donated clothing and supplies to the Beyond the Horizon exercise and to areas in need in El Salvador outside the scope of the exercise.

Cavazos said he was inspired by the example set by Ackerman and it’s one of many memories he will cherish when he returns to Texas, where he works in the Texas Army National Guard.

In addition to the MEDRETEs, the U.S./Salvadoran civil affairs team coordinated similar awareness efforts at a soccer match and at the clinic and schools construction sites.