Combined Joint Task Force Hope commander Col. Israel Romero (right), chats with 1st Lt. Yamilet Estefani Alabi, a Salvadoran soldier, who is in charge of U.S. Soldiers and Marines at a school construction site in El Amate. The Americans are in here in La Paz District as part of U.S. Army South-led Beyond the Horizon exercise lasting May 12 through Aug. 4, 2018. (Photo by David Vergun)
LA PAZ DEPARTMENT, El Salvador —
U.S. and Salvadoran military engineers learned a great deal from each other about construction techniques as well as about the cultural differences and similarities between their two nations, said Col. Israel Romero.
The shared experience has resulted in permanent bonds of friendship, said Romero, who is an engineer from the Puerto Rico Army National Guard.
He was meeting with top U.S. and Salvadoran soldiers and civic leaders from La Paz at the main Salvadoran military headquarters of Military Detachment No 9.
Romero is the commander of Combined Joint Task Force Hope, the American portion of the Beyond the Horizon training exercise, involving 1,800 personnel from the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps.
The training began May 12 and runs 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.
The task force is also providing medical and dental treatment at five locations within La Paz as well.
In August, well before the exercise started, Romero said he visited El Salvador to begin discussions with leaders to pave the way for the exercise. He also met with local school and medical personnel to ascertain their needs and what the U.S. could realistically provide in the way of humanitarian assistance.
The relationship building from the top-down paid off, he said. It prepared the region for the visit by the U.S. military and a group of Peruvian soldiers who were here as observers.
Regional and national leaders "expressed gratitude for our presence and we are honored to be here to train and to help," he said.
During a June 24 meeting, Romero and his task force engineers conversed with Doris Yanira Barahona Rico, the governor of La Paz District and the directors of education, water, power and health, and others.
Romero asked to hear any concerns they might have about the project. His chief engineer, Lt. Col. Blake Heidelberg, an engineer with the Florida Army National Guard, also provided a detailed briefing on the state of various engineering projects.
Heidelberg told the civilian leaders that within a couple of weeks he would need to hook the power, water and sewage to the local grid and would need to know where to locate the interfacing pipe stems so the work could be completed on schedule and the facilities turned over to the local communities in full working condition.
They then all went on a tour of the various construction sites throughout La Paz District.
During a visit to a clinic addition construction project in Zacatecoluca, Rico said she and people from the local communities were impressed by the high quality of construction work by the U.S. military engineers that they were seeing as work progressed.
"Their work gives the people hope and happiness," she said.
Within the last five years, the government of El Salvador has provided school children with free meals, including fortified milk, in an effort to boost nutrition and prevent hunger, she said. The U.S. effort at improving infrastructure complements the broader strategy of providing kids with a decent education and basic standard of living.
"In the past, people have seen education as a form of alms," she added. "Now they are viewing education not as a donation but as a right."
Rico said more needs to be done as there are still many who are illiterate, but the efforts are heading in the right direction.
The effort to stamp out illiteracy goes beyond the classroom to the whole of society, she said, providing an example of a 90-year-old woman she visited who was in an adult class for reading and writing.
Salvadoran Senator Rosie Romero, who represents La Paz District on the national level, said that before taking office two months ago, she was a volunteer social worker, living in a poor area. Because of her volunteer work and being poor herself, she said she knew the living conditions firsthand. As a senator, she said, she continues to live in the same community, to maintain a connection with those she represents.
Having U.S. Soldiers nearby helping to improve people's lives "touched a heartstring," she said. "It's a blessing from God."
Don Omar Cubias, mayor of San Pedro Masahuat, said his municipality offered the Americans an old military site, known as Forward Operating Base Miraflores, in which to stage their equipment and pitch their tents.
Although all of the construction work and MEDRETEs took place outside of his municipality, he said he was nevertheless grateful for the work being done by the U.S. military.
Cubias said he was informed that the U.S. Army would visit two schools in his city to conduct water treatment classes using materials that were available such as sand, charcoal and cotton.
Also, the Americans offered to assess the needs of San Pedro Masahuat schools and send a report of the conditions to the ministries of health and education, he added.
Salvadoran Col. Ricardo Gonzalez, Romero's counterpart, commanded a contingent of soldiers providing security for the Americans at FOB Miraflores, which is about seven square kilometers in total size.
Gonzalez said he and Romero had good and continuous communications on matters of security and other activities.
The Salvadoran commander said that when the Americans arrived at the FOB, conditions were not ideal. The Americans graded some roads and packed down gravel pads for their large tents, he noted. They also made some other improvements.
The end result is that when the Americans leave, the Salvadoran army will have a much improved training site.
Gonzales said this isn't the first time he's worked with Americans. He was in Iraq in 2008 and Afghanistan in 2012. The U.S. and Salvadorans are so closely bonded that his army copies American military doctrine, such as that produced by U.S. Training and Doctrine Command, he noted.
As for the Americans, Romero said that although he and his Soldiers put in many long hours of work, they all expressed feelings of gratitude to be training here.
Many years ago, Romero said he came to El Salvador as a captain on a peacekeeping exercise. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd return here as a colonel in charge of a combined joint task force."