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Wednesday, November 18, 2020

When I was first assigned to Honduras after being stationed in Asia, I was determined to expand my knowledge of the language, the culture and the land. What struck me in that quest, which I am still on today, was the meaning of the country’s name. “Honduras” in Spanish, I learned, means “depths.” As I reflect on this year and the challenges it has presented to the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that phrase has stuck with me.

As the civil-military operations director at Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, I have come to know and appreciate that the task force’s sustained presence and ability to respond to crises in Latin America exemplifies the depth of the United States’ commitment to our partners in the Western Hemisphere.

As the longest-standing task force in the U.S. military, Joint Task Force-Bravo’s strategic role in the Western Hemisphere has evolved since its inception nearly 40 years ago. What started out in the early 1980s as a joint service effort aimed at countering Soviet and communist influence in Central America transformed after the Cold War into the expeditionary, agile and adaptable organization it is today. The task force serves as a power projection platform and strategic gateway for the U.S. in Latin America.

However, the task force’s true strength comes not from displays of weaponry and military might, but rather from its regional partnerships and enduring friendships. These partnerships, based on shared values, are vital to the security and prosperity of the Western Hemisphere and our collective ability to meet complex global challenges. Over the past few decades, these challenges have ranged from natural disasters, to poverty, to gang violence and drug trafficking, to the influence of malign state actors.

Joint Task Force-Bravo has taken on these challenges through means including community engagements, humanitarian and disaster relief operations, and promotion of global health initiatives in underserved areas within the region. The service members assigned to the task force work in fields like aviation, logistics, civil affairs, engineering, physical security and medical. Each of these reflects the unique capability the task force possesses to respond quickly to crises. Yet today, Joint Task Force-Bravo faces a challenge unlike any in its history—a pandemic.

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Col. John Litchfield, left, Joint Task Force-Bravo commander, unboxes medical supplies along with Francisco Mendez, mayor of Lejamani, Honduras.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Maria Pinel)

Overcoming Challenges

COVID-19 rapidly spread across the globe in the early months of 2020 and even at the end of the year, continues to create radical change in the world. The U.S. military is not immune. While the virus has fundamentally changed how people and nations interact with each other, we have had to find ways to adapt and overcome the challenges it presents.

Preservation of the force and the need to maintain readiness in order to ensure the defense of the nation has led to a “new normal” that would have seemed too bizarre and simply unfathomable just over a year ago. Restrictions of movement, closed barbershops, canceled formations, suspended physical fitness tests and working from home are just some of the new challenges the military faces.

The task force is no stranger to austere environments and responding to humanitarian crises. In fact, the organization is centrally located in one of the most affected areas of the planet, with Latin America making up one-third of the world’s coronavirus cases and deaths as of September. This proximity to the epicenter presents a huge risk to the health and safety of its members, but happily, provides an opportunity to demonstrate Joint Task Force-Bravo’s—and the American people’s—true commitment to the region.

Personnel Recall

During the onset of the pandemic, Joint Task Force-Bravo recalled all service members who were operating “outside the wire,” including those conducting humanitarian operations in communities throughout the Northern Triangle region of Central America: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. This meant canceling much-needed medical and dental initiatives within the region. Despite these setbacks, the number of humanitarian assistance programs executed by the task force increased, rather than decreased, dramatically in comparison with previous years’ efforts.

Despite being restricted to base and cut off from physical interactions with host-nation partners, the task force executed over 110 humanitarian assistance projects from March through September throughout Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, for an investment of just under $2 million. The majority of these projects, with an average cost of about $15,000 each, provided direct support to the ministries of health in each respective country, typically through donations of personal protective equipment, cleaning and sterilization supplies, tents to set up triage centers, medicine and specialized medical equipment.

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A container of COVID-19 medical supplies is offloaded at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras.
(Credit: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Jonathon Carnell)

Responding to Change

Through creativity and perseverance, the task force was able to team with partner nongovernmental organizations using virtual meeting software to nominate, fund and execute projects quickly as needs within the region increased exponentially. These projects helped slow the spread of the disease and, more importantly, provided lifesaving materials to the region’s most vulnerable populations.

Joint Task Force-Bravo also found other ways to support our partners in the region, including relooking at the U.S. government’s excess property catalogues to find equipment Latin American health providers could use in the fight against COVID-19. Additionally, the task force facilitated major cargo movements that allowed U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations to ship humanitarian supplies free of charge to Latin American countries on military aircraft through the Denton Program. One such shipment included a mobile medical clinic built by students at Texas A&M University in memory of Army Lt. Jonathan Rozier, who was killed in Iraq in 2003.

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Col. John Litchfield, second from left, Joint Task Force-Bravo commander, stands with staff from Roberto Suazo Cordova Hospital, Honduras, after delivering medical supplies.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Maria Pinel)

Shared Commitment

The U.S. has not been alone in offering assistance to our neighbors in Central and South America; other countries have also extended financial and physical support to the fight. But if the saga of the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that our military and the generous American public has more than influence peddling in mind when donating supplies, time, money and talent throughout the region. We have the long-term interest of our neighbors in mind, and a tested and true friendship of many decades to back it up.

The American people should be proud that our country’s support to the people of Latin America during this harrowing time has us reaching for creative and lasting solutions to save lives and promote prosperity. I know I am, and that the men and women of Joint Task Force-Bravo represent the best of this commitment: one that truly transcends crisis.