LAS MESAS, Honduras, –
Consider it creative math: Three units + two nations = One purpose.
The three units are the 672nd, 756th, and 1430th Engineer Companies, groups of National Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers from Missoula, Montana; Ceiba, Puerto Rico; and Marquette, Michigan, respectively. The ranks of these citizen-Soldiers include master electricians, welders, logisticians, surveyors, plumbers, mechanics, and carpenters.
The two nations are the United States and Honduras, frequent partners in training exercises that benefit North, Central, and South America.
The one purpose that united them in early April? Securing a better future for the children of Las Mesas, Honduras. Las Mesas is a small, rural village set back from major highways by a single-lane gravel road that winds past cornfields up a hillside most frequently traveled by cowboys riding burros and horses, directing small herds of cattle.
Here, feral pigs wander in and out of houses, only to be shooed away by homeowners or chased off by dogs and chickens. Cicadas fill the air with their mating song. The punishing heat of summer is only broken when breezes sweep dust off the ground, sending clouds past the neighborhood's colorfully painted homes and against the local gradeschool, La Escuela Profesor Julio Cesar Lopez Siles.
That school is the focus for these engineers during their two weeks of annual training. Soldiers working on the three-room building will replace dilapidated doors and windows, repair the sheet-metal roof and repaint the entire structure, in addition to improving a soccer field on which the students play.
This project is one of several occurring in Honduras this year during the joint forces event Beyond the Horizon. Beyond the Horizon provides infrastructure renovation, as well as basic medical and dental care, to areas across this Central American country.
Spec. Darryl J. Niemi of the 1430th said he enjoys this overseas assignment because it's an opportunity to "help the population of a different country."
"We're building something permanent for the locals that need it. I love it. I would take this over annual training in the states any day," he said.
Soldiers from the Honduran Army also participated, sometimes learning new skills from their counterparts from the United States. Whatever language barriers that may exist were overcome through patient camaraderie, and the occasional hand signal.
Private Daniel E. Piche of the 1430th said, "We started talking with the Honduran Soldiers. It's really nice to break that barrier, to get to know somebody else and their culture. They're trying to teach us Spanish, we're trying to teach them English, but they comprehend a lot. As far as I can tell, everybody's good with each other."
As can be expected, the project fascinated the children on Las Mesas, who ultimately will benefit from the labors of all involved. Honduran and U.S. military policemen stood watch, ensuring that none of the kids wandered dangerously close to the many bulldozers, trucks, and forklifts zipping around the site.
Sgt. Alicia R. Root, an electrician with the 672nd, said, "The MPs are doing awesome at keeping everybody away from us. They just watch us in the distance, working for them. There's tons of curiosity: 'What are they doing?' I'm going for elementary education, so this is really good for me. I'm glad to be out here, helping them."
"It's a great experience," agreed Pvt. Tabitha R. Lamb of the 672nd. "It's great hands-on training for the Soldiers."
A recent workday at Las Mesas began with U.S. and Honduran Soldiers surveying a small plot of land next to the school where an extension will be built by a later rotation of Soldiers - there's more to be accomplished than can be finished during this initial two-week period. Old planks removed from the building were gratefully carried off by local residents, who'll find new uses for the wood.
Inside the schoolhouse, Sgt. 1st Class Roy Spain of the 672nd, who in his civilian career is a journeyman electrician, showed a group of enlisted Soldiers how to attach overhead lighting.
In another room, Sgt Juan M. Ozuna, a welder with the 672nd, hunched over a steel beam. The torch in his hand slowly worked through the metal, which he'll fashion into burglar bars that will eventually be fitted over the windows. Sparks cast an eerie glow on the walls behind him, which boasted paintings of Winnie the Pooh, Pinocchio, and Jiminy Cricket.
A strange contrast? Maybe. But - like everything else happening in Las Mesas - the combination will result in a brighter future for its children.