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Exercise Mercury prepares Panamanian and U.S. forces for disaster response

By Maria Pinel | Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs | Dec. 12, 2019

Panama City, Panama —

When a disaster strikes, many factors can come into play as different agencies and organizations try to respond. From emergency first responders to non-governmental organizations, to military and public forces – everyone wants to lend a helping hand. Sometimes, however, those components may not have the right capabilities or simply may not have the right information to know what capabilities to employ, which is why training scenarios are so important. They enhance interoperability and facilitate communication between multiple responders, all with the goal of making participants ready for potential future contingency scenarios.

Joint Task Force-Bravo service members and Panamanian forces joined for an emergency response and humanitarian assistance exercise in the Darien Province, Panama, December 3-10 to hone expeditionary and readiness capabilities during a combined, joint exercise called Mercury. Amid dense jungle and remote field conditions, more than 100 U.S. participants worked alongside their Panamanian hosts to respond to a simulated flooding disaster following a hurricane – a wholly believable scenario for the region.

The goal of the low-cost exercise was simple: allow participants to grow together as they practiced the exercise deployment and operation of SOUTHCOM’s Situational Assessment Team – the eyes and ears for the U.S. Southern Command and is the first team on the ground to reach a country that has been affected by a disaster. The S-SAT is a multi-capacity machine that can rapidly move to an affected area to determine the situation on-the-ground during a disaster or crisis.

“We have the capacity to arrive in an affected area rapidly, and we can gather information to assess damages by land or through satellite images to develop a course of action that can help mitigate what has happened,” said U.S. Army Capt. Juan Ariel Torres, JTF-Bravo engineer and exercise participant. “We coordinate with other U.S. Army and partner nation engineers to bring the necessary capabilities to respond efficiently.”

The S-SAT’s ranks include engineers, logisticians, communications specialists, intelligence analysts, medical personnel and other components who all analyze and assess the situation in an affected area to advise senior leadership and decision makers on the correct response to a crisis. They say what is needed and what is not by working with the host nation, determining what capabilities are readily available.

For Exercise Mercury, the S-SAT worked alongside various Panamanian agencies, just as they would in a real-world event. One of these agencies – SINAPROC – is the Panamanian equivalent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The exercise has been very successful,” said Ariel Martinez, provincial director of SINAPROC in Darien. “The most important thing we have seen is that a real delivery of aid has been accomplished and seeing how quickly they have been able to get to distant communities that are difficult for us to reach because of lack of equipment to mobilize to these remote areas. We have worked with [other agencies such as] SENAFRONT, SENAN and JTF-Bravo to see how resources are channeled to bring the right response to the people in need. If we work together it is easier to be able to respond.”

The training scenario involved a flood in the Darien, affecting several adjacent communities where personnel and necessary supplies can only be carried rapidly by air, based on historical data of what a disaster might look like in the region. The remote communities included Punusa, Nazareth, La Olla, Alto Limon, La Union, Jacque, La Palma, El Real, Tres Bocas, Meteti and Nicanor, where the S-SAT team deployed to assess and enhance Panamanian capabilities. At the same time, the 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment transported humanitarian assistance cargo in conjunction with the exercise scenario being executed. This exercise built on work the 1-228th had done with the National Border Service (SENAFRONT) earlier this year.

The 1-228th played an integral and crucial role in the success of the exercise by coordinating flight movements throughout the mission, working with the Panamanian Aeronaval Service (SENAN) and facilitating transportation of cargo to SENAFRONT outposts, as they would be called upon to do in a real world event where Panama would request assistance from USSOUTHCOM.

“There has been a lot of integration between us, SENAN and SENAFRONT,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Aaron Elliott, 1-228th commander. “We have a number of folks that are key integrators in our operations cell that work with our forces on a daily basis to ensure the right cargo gets on the right flight to the right location. It´s keeping us ready to respond to any humanitarian assistance or real-world disaster relief event.”

The unit’s assets included UH-60 Balckhawk helicopters assigned to Alpha Company, CH-47 Chinooks assigned to Bravo Company, and HH-60s MEDEVAC helicopters assigned to Charlie Company, which transported more than 250,000 pounds of cargo during the exercise, resulting in over 220 flight hours that ultimately befitted the people of Panama and the readiness of aircrews. The cargo included construction material to be used for schools, solar panels, radio antennas, rice and food for the communities and remote outposts.

“For the majority of the crew members in my company, it’s the best flying they’ve done in their careers,” said U.S. Army Capt. Steven Broker, Apha Co. commander. “It was an honor and a privilege to work with both SENAN and SENAFRONT and to interact with the people who live in the Darien region.”

Panama is a highly valued regional security partner to the U.S. and the only country in the Americas with a humanitarian assistance hub due to its proximity to disaster prone areas, making it a perfect location for the execution of Mercury.

“The types of crisis span a wide range, and our key elements are to be responsive, adaptive and scalable,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Laura Miller, exercise director. “We have a strong friendship with the Panamanian people, and the S-SAT has been able to use the distribution of humanitarian aid and apply it to a scenario to work with real materials, reaching a real population, which is so much more important than just a simulation.”

Having leadership at the highest levels, both on a Panamanian side and from JTF-Bravo, played an important role in highlighting the value of this training and the expeditionary capabilities of the task force, with the JTF-Bravo commander and senior enlisted leader arriving as a forward support element and actively engaging with local enablers, coordinating support and overseeing operations out in the field.

During Mercury, participants gained critical skills necessary by learning together, reflecting SOUTHCOM´s enduring commitment to increasing partner capacity and strengthening relationships that will have lasting effects on readiness and stability in the region.