MATA DE PLATANO, Honduras –
What started as a small group of friends wanting to explore the Comayagua mountain valley quickly grew to a large group of servicemembers on a hike for a "higher power."
A group of approximately 55 military volunteers delivered 450 pounds of donated dry goods, consisting of items such as rice and canned vegetables, to a village in need. The group departed Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, and drove to a nearby town to begin the two-and-a-half-mile trek to the village of Mata De Platano, which literally translates to "banana bush."
"The whole idea started with three or four of us wanting to go on a hike, see nature and deliver some goods," said Air Force Chaplain (Capt.) Chad Bellamy, the Joint Task Force-Bravo chaplain, who is deployed here from Schriever Air Force Base, Colo. "I think people want to serve others, want to give and want to be selfless," the chaplain said. "I think that's why there have been so many people respond to this trip."
Being on the newest Air Expeditionary Force rotation deployed here for four months, Chaplain Bellamy said he was excited about this new venture and felt the base populace was looking for an opportunity to help their fellow men. This hike is the first of five scheduled to help villages in need.
"They just survive the best they can," said Chaplain Bellamy of the people living in Mata De Platano. "We may be the only visitors they've had in years. The idea is that we'll make a trip to each village during this current AEF rotation, and each hike will offer different skill levels (and terrain) for the hikers."
There are approximately 400 to 500 people living in the village, which is difficult to access by vehicle. Typically, villagers have to walk five miles to the closest market for supplies and carry their groceries home in a basket balanced on their heads. To help carry the load, the military members carried the supplies in their military-style ruck sacks. Mata De Platano has an elevation of approximately 3,100 feet above sea level, which presented a challenge to some of the hikers who were not accustomed to the thinner air.
"I was a little bit eager about loading my backpack, but we made it," joked Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Gerald Johnson, the fire chief for the Joint Task Force-Bravo fire department. "Our mission in the fire department is to save lives and help one another (and) it's important to help the community. Watching the little kids and smiles on the parents' faces - it relieves some of the pressure on them."
The supplies were delivered to some of the houses along the way, with the bulk of the food being dropped off at the village school for storage, where the school's sole faculty member thanked the group for their efforts.
"They are eternally grateful for what you have done," said Jose Adonay Bonilla Valladares, a teacher from the nearby town of Comayagua, Honduras, who makes the trip each day on a bicycle and teaches 40 students in first through sixth grade. "You can see the hardship the students go through to get an education. God bless you all for helping those less fortunate."
At the school, the team stopped for lunch and fellowship and reflected on the day's events.
"The hike was pretty good," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Gabriel Castro, from the JTF-Bravo J-2 office. "Things like this show folks in different countries that the U.S. cares ... this is the most basic way of doing it."
Because he is a native of Colombia, and English is his second language, the Navy officer also served as a translator for the group.
"The mission of the chapel is in line with the mission of Soto Cano," Chaplain Bellamy said. "We look outside of ourselves and see the needs of other people. We can touch the world, but I think first we can start by touching our communities and our neighbors."
In addition to this new hiking program, Soto Cano units have supported more than 500 children at five different orphanages in the Comayagua Valley since 1997. Volunteers spend time interacting with the children, donating much-needed supplies, and doing construction work on the buildings in which the children live.