SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
At 7:30 on Saturday morning, April 18, 2015, a caravan of 164 U.S. service members and 58 of their counterparts from the Honduran Air Force Academy departed Soto Cano Air Base for what would prove to be a challenging, 6.4-mile hike, round trip, to the mountain village of El Misterio. Their mission: to deliver a combined 3,000 pounds of rice and other household goods to families of this remote village, carrying it on their backs.
What would cause these service members to take on this challenge, climbing steep roads on a hot and cloudless day?
Certainly physical exercise had something to do with it. So, too, did the camaraderie. But beneath these aims lay a deeper desire, one at the heart of Joint Task Force-Bravo itself.
"There is a theme that my predecessor coined, and he called it 'Noble people, noble deeds,'" said U.S. Army Col. Kirk Dorr, JTF-B commander. Dorr noted the humanitarian and disaster relief missions JTF-B conducts in its official capacity throughout Central America, then remarked how the practice of "noble deeds" spills over into service members' personal time as well.
"People could be doing other things here," he said. "They had a hard week of work. Some of them were traversing all over Central America--some of the same people we're walking with now. But yet they take their personal time and they commit it to the local people. It binds us with the people of Central America--it certainly binds us with Honduras--and that's why JTF-Bravo has so much good will built up in this country."
Long before the Task Force hikers reached El Misterio, villagers began gathering in a line to receive the donated goods. The arrival of each hiker brought a wave of applause from those in line. Then, once all 222 hikers had reached the summit, a pastor from El Misterio gave a blessing and a community leader commenced the gift-giving ceremony with formal words.
Following the ceremony, JTF-B members interacted with the village's many children through soccer, balloon making, and a game of piñatas, before beginning the long hike home.
The inspiration for the JTF-B chapel hike program emerged from a friendship between Herberth Gaekel, JTF-B fire inspector, and a lieutenant colonel from JTF-B's Medical Element, who spotted Gaekel delivering goods to the poor during a hike together in 1998 and asked to contribute his own. These hikes gained momentum in 2004, and the Chapel began its formal program three years later, in 2007. April's hike marked the 60th iteration and brought the grand total of donated goods to more than 217,000 pounds.
"I count it a privilege every time we put together one of these chapel hikes," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Samuel McClellan, JTF-B command chaplain, "and it also gives me a good sense of how people just love to come together to help."
A veteran leader of the chapel hike program, McClellan's hike to El Misterio was his forth event since arriving at Soto Cano.
"The bags get dropped off and the food is going to last five days, but hopefully the impact is going to last a lifetime," he said.
Speaking to the factors involved in planning each chapel hike, Dorr had this to say:
"We go to the areas of the greatest need in the region. These are deliberately planned, in synchronization with the Honduran villagers, and we try to rotate it around geographically," he said.
So far, the response has been positive.
"It is incredibly well received," Dorr said. "We get a lot of feedback from the governors and even the senior Honduran officials about our volunteer efforts."
Col. Hedbreth Caballero, Honduran Armed Forces' Liaison to JTF-B and a 35-year veteran of the Honduran Army, seconded Dorr's assessment of the chapel hike program.
"All the locals really appreciate what we do for them, and it comes from the bottom of my heart," he said, speaking through a translator while descending from El Misterio. "I would like to continue to do this with more communities. The community feels real happy about it, they enjoy it, and it brings many blessings to all of us."
For Caballero, this was his fourth chapel hike.
In addition to giving back and building good will among their Honduran neighbors, Dorr cited further benefits of JTF-B programs like the chapel hike. The key ingredient in these benefits: trust.
"The Honduran military and the government are the best partners I've ever worked with in my 26 years of service, and I think a lot of it is due to layers of these type of activities--building that trust--which leads to cohesion, which leads to positive movement. When you don't have that trust, it will never work; it's like swimming upstream."
It is trust then, Dorr said, that connects activities like the chapel hike program with JTF-B's and U.S. Southern Command's ultimate goals of fostering security, ensuring stability and promoting prosperity in the region, in cooperation with domestic and international partners.
"We been here for over thirty years, and this is kind of the 'icing on the cake,'" Dorr said. "You feel good about what you're doing on the Task Force, and then you contribute your volunteer time through things like this."
Planning for the next chapel hike is already underway and slated for June.