With two major hurricanes hitting the Central and South American region less than two weeks apart from each other, the nation found itself dealing with the devastation of a humanitarian crisis. U.S. Southern Command immediately coordinated disaster relief efforts, pushing elements from U.S. Army South to support Joint Task Force-Bravo in responding to the emergency in the aftermath of Hurricanes Eta and Iota.
On Dec. 2, 15 Soldiers assigned to Army South returned from a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief deployment in Honduras after nearly a month on the ground. The element deployed to Honduras Nov. 9, soon after the U.S. government declared a disaster in Honduras, and JTF-Bravo began life-saving search and rescue operations and the delivery of aid at the request of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
“Supporting disaster response efforts in foreign countries led by USAID is one of the missions we train for to assist partners in need,” said Maj. Gen. Daniel R. Walrath, Army South commander. “The Army South element was key in carrying out this important mission in support of U.S. Southern Command’s JTF-Bravo joint team.”
Upon arrival in Honduras, Army South Soldiers quickly integrated within the JTF-Bravo staff and began processing and coordinating aerial humanitarian missions throughout Guatemala, Honduras and Panama.
“One of the most important responsibilities was that the missions were coordinated to account for maximum helicopter time,” said Capt. Joaquin Matias, U.S. Army South Headquarters and Headquarters Company commander. “There was also a safety aspect involved with the pilots and with the maintenance of the aircraft. Time wasted in between missions is time that cuts into the pilots’ time away from the missions because of maintenance. You can’t deliver humanitarian aid if you do not have helicopters. So it’s a balance that you do between the humanitarian aid and the pilots’ flight hours and the maintenance of the helicopters.”
A week after the Army South element arrived to Honduras, a second hurricane, Hurricane Iota, passed over Central America, with Category 4 winds.
“We got there to do a job, we did the job, and then we knew the second hurricane was coming; so we toughed it out and were at a tactical pause,” said Master Sgt. Arnulfo Nino, noncommissioned officer in charge of the Army South augmentation element during the deployment. “We then reconsolidated, reorganized, and we got back to doing what we were doing with humanitarian assistance missions.”
The military support provided by JTF-Bravo was critical to deliver relief supplies to hard-to-reach areas until local authorities, the United Nations, and non-governmental organizations were able to reach the isolated communities.
“We mostly worked to provide humanitarian aid by coordinating missions, but we also did assist in a few medical evacuation missions,” said Matias. “For example, a pregnant female needed to get to a hospital to give birth. There was a female who was Type-I diabetic and she had a laceration on one of her legs – with her medication running low, and with diabetes, there could have been complications … so through whatever means possible, that rescue operation was coordinated.”
Within the Army South augmentation element two engineers also worked to assess airfields to ensure helicopters could land safely in areas with severe flooding since the roads were severely eroded and impassable. In addition, the engineers conducted an assessment to the SOUTHCOM commander to determine if the roads were able to support a Forward Arming and Refueling Point, or FARP in Gracias a Dios, the eastern side of Honduras.
“The first time the engineers conducted the reconnaissance and drove the routes, they determined the roads were not safe, so they notified the local Honduran government to repair the roads,” explained Maj. Paola Benson, officer-in-charge of the Army South augmentation element during the disaster response mission. “This assessment was key to operations because it extended our operational reach, our aviation legs. Prior to that, we were only doing one mission a day because it takes a long time, and a lot of fuel, to fly from Soto Cano to Gracias a Dios. With the FARP we were doing two-to-eight missions a day.”
In addition, U.S. Army South Soldiers from the 56th Signal Battalion established tactical communications to the JTF-Bravo Joint Operations Center and for several missions. As the on the ground communications technical experts, the team traveled across the area of operations reinforcing five communication sites and bringing them to full mission capability. The 28 days of continuous communications enabled JTF-Bravo and SOUTHCOM to plan and execute 322 rescue missions and deliver 257 metric tons of food and supplies to the region.
During the course of JTF-Bravo’s authorities to conduct foreign humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, the command supported 295 missions, providing medical and casualty evacuations for people in need of urgent care. JTF-Bravo rescued 810 citizens, transported 163 rescue and aid workers, and delivered nearly 350,000 pounds of food, water, hygiene kits, and other life-saving aid. Additionally, JTF-Bravo transported nearly 564,000 pounds of relief supplies in support of the USAID-led humanitarian response to the region.
“It definitely strengthened our relationships with our Honduran and Guatemalan partners in their mind because they are more confident of our commitment and capabilities to the area,” said Benson. “As the chief of operations, I talked to the Honduran military partners daily in Spanish and told them where we were dropping of the supplies, and the Honduran Army would make coordination’s for the security and distribution of supplies.”