LA PAZ DEPARTMENT, El Salvador —
Some 1,800 soldiers from Combined Joint Task Force Hope are providing humanitarian assistance as part of their training during the Beyond the Horizon exercise in El Salvador.
The U.S. Army South-led mission runs through Aug. 4, and includes soldiers from all components, Air Force and Marine Corps service members, Salvadoran soldiers, and personnel from nongovernmental organizations.
The scope of training 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 Army Maj. Al Cavazos, CJTF Hope Information Operations Cell officer in charge. The task force also is providing medical and dental treatment at various locations.
Army Staff Sgt. Cristin Baughman is the noncommissioned officer in charge of a group of 30 soldiers from the 4th Engineer Battalion, Fort Carson, Colorado, who are building a three-classroom cinderblock structure for elementary and middle school children at Santa Rita.
The U.S. soldiers were working alongside Salvadoran soldiers June 25. Despite the language barrier, they were coordinating efforts very well, she said. The hardest part of the work, she noted, was getting the right supplies at the right time where they would be needed. For example, she didn’t want the roof beams to arrive before the concrete, which needed to be poured for the foundation.
Nevertheless, supplies didn’t always arrive at the right time or in the right sequence. Some items are not even available, as soldiers had to rely on the local economy for construction materials, she said.
Baughman said she has found the local people to be happy about having U.S. troops building a school. She said they bring coffee and food throughout the day, and one woman even offered to sew torn clothing for soldiers.
Army 1st Lt. Alexander Swafford said the construction project not only benefits the local community, but also serves as valuable training for the U.S. soldiers.
The U.S. soldiers are more accustomed to horizontal construction work, not vertical construction, he said, explaining that horizontal means projects such as road building or burying pipes for water or sewage. Vertical means building structures.
Meanwhile, other U.S. troops were building an entire school at El Amate, with 15 U.S. soldiers, 12 U.S. Marines and about a dozen Salvadoran soldiers engaged in the construction.
Army Cpl. Eric Lett, a reservist from Knoxville, Tennessee, said most of the U.S. soldiers had very little experience in vertical construction. However, Lett’s civilian job is vertical construction, which he does throughout Tennessee, so he gives tips on construction techniques to others.
Also, the U.S. soldiers and Marines are learning a lot from the Salvadorans about construction techniques at El Amate, he said. The Salvadorans are hard workers, he added, noting that back home, he encounters many construction workers who are Salvadoran and they all work very hard and do a great job.
Supervising all U.S. and Salvadoran soldiers at El Amate was 1st Lt. Yamilet Estefani Alabi, a Salvadoran soldier. Lett said he found that the U.S. soldiers and Marines have great respect for Alabi’s leadership and engineering ability.
Alabi said the U.S. soldiers and Marines are learning about vertical construction very quickly and are doing a great job. They are very respectful and are a joy to work with, she added.
Alabi graduated from Salvador’s military academy 11 years ago. The Salvadoran soldiers have a physical fitness test that is somewhat similar to what the U.S. soldiers do, she noted: a 2-mile run, pushups and situps. What’s different is the Salvadorans also swim laps in a 100-meter pool, she said.
The attrition rate was about 40 percent, she said. Of the 79 who graduated, Alabi was one of six female graduates. She graduated first in the academy, beating everyone in the physical fitness test and academics.
Although women get treated the same as men in the Salvadoran army, she said, she works extra hard to get respect.
During the construction work, Alabi took some time to visit a group of eighth-grade students who were studying math and English at a temporary school site. They will be going to the new school in Amato, which is expected to open around the end of July.
Alabi gathered a group of female students around her, telling them that she’s an engineer in the army and if they study hard, they too can succeed in life and get a good career. Two of the girls said they want to become engineers like Alabi. They had visited the construction site and had seen Alabi leading the engineers and they admired her achievements.
Grateful for Assistance
Gloria Estela Henriquez de Rivas, the school director at El Amate, said all of the residents are grateful for the American assistance. The soldiers and Marines said de Rivas visits the construction site nearly every day, bringing snacks and drinks for them.
De Rivas said she’s familiar with army life, as her husband is a retired Salvadoran army captain. He served with U.S. forces in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. The Salvadorans were part of the coalition in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lt. Col. Hernan Garindo-Lecca, a Peruvian soldier, visited several of the construction sites. He said he was there as an observer to take notes on the project, as his army would like to do similar projects in rural parts of Peru and possibly other nations. He provided the engineers with a checklist of maintenance items to keep the schools in proper working order once they open.
Besides school construction at Santa Rita and El Amate, the other two school construction sites are at Ulapa Arriba and San Marcos del la Cruz. The last two sites are being built by Salvadoran soldiers and U.S. Air Force Red Horse engineers.
Also, U.S. soldiers, Red Horse engineers and Salvadoran soldiers are building an addition to a clinic at Unidad de Salud de Zacatecoluca.