US military’s oldest joint task force toils in the land of coffee and caravans
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(Stars & Stripes)  SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras — For the frequently rotating cadre of U.S. soldiers and airmen with Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras, success can be a tricky thing to measure.

Their assignments last six months to a year, with some as short as 90 days – little chance to see the fruit of one’s labor.

But Lt. Col. Patrick Blankenship, commander of the task force’s Army Forces, had an aha-moment late last year when the unit’s medical element was on a mission in northern Honduras, which 20 years earlier had been devasted by Hurricane Mitch.

Mitch was the kind of cataclysmic event that leaves survivors forever dividing their lives into the before and after. It killed more than 11,000 people when it hit Central America in October 1998. Honduras took the brunt of the storm, with more than 7,000 killed, mostly due to flooding.

During last year’s mission to the region hit hardest, a local television reporter told Blankenship of his experience in the 1998 storm when he was just 14 years old.

The boy had stood with his mother on a building rooftop in the town of Saba, surrounded by water with only the tops of banana trees poking above the surface.

“He remembered seeing endless streams of helicopters from JTF-Bravo picking people up off their rooftops,” Blankenship said. “He wanted to say thanks for that. That was one of those moments like, ‘Yes! This is great. You don’t get that all of the time, but people here have a deep-seated memory of the good things they’ve experienced from the United States and JTF-Bravo specifically.”

As the U.S. Defense Department’s longest-standing joint task force, Bravo has been the face of America’s military presence in Central America since it was established in 1983.

For the past two decades, the task force has focused on enhancing security and stability in Central America, particularly by providing disaster assistance to a region whose major exports are coffee, cacao and bananas.

It conducts that mission with a relatively small number of people. Roughly 1,200 Americans — almost 600 of whom are servicemembers — work out of Soto Cano Air Base, which also houses the Honduran Air Force Academy.

Joint Task Force-Bravo’s 612th Air Base Squadron oversees America’s sole military airfield in Central America, the only one in the region capable of handling the Air Force’s largest plane, the C-5 Galaxy.

The 228th Aviation Regiment operates a fleet of helicopters used for medical evacuations, counter-narcotics missions, search-and-rescue and disaster relief throughout Central America. The regiment shuttles Army Special Forces teams throughout the region on numerous joint training and counter-narcotics missions.

The medical element, staffed by rotating deployments of Army Reservists, is the only expeditionary medical unit capable of performing surgery in Central and South America.

Harsh spotlight

America’s role in Central America has been thrust into the spotlight in recent months as President Donald Trump amped up criticism of Central Americans seeking amnesty at the U.S. southern border.

A medical helicopter with the 228th Aviation Regiment lands as the sun sets behind the mountains overlooking Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, March 7, 2019.

In the weeks before the November midterm elections, Trump issued alarmist tweets and statements about “caravans” of migrants moving north through Central America in a quest for amnesty immigration in the United States. He threatened at that time to cut off aid to the region, and in late March, the U.S. State Department said it planned to end all aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Anti-immigration rhetoric labeling Central American immigrants — trying to escape poverty, violence and corruption — as “invaders” and “animals” has not bolstered neighborly ties.

“It angers people in Central America, as it would in any country,” said Mark Schneider, a senior adviser with the Americas Program and the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

“Obviously that hurts the relationship,” he said. “But I don’t see that directly transformed into the public being angry at other U.S. institutions.”

Neither does Col. Kevin Russell, commander of Joint Task Force-Bravo.

“In this region of the world, relationships matter, and they matter deeply,” Russell recently told Stars and Stripes at his office on Soto Cano Air Base. “When you have an enduring relationship over 36 years — almost 37 years — that means a lot ... to our partners here in Honduras, our host nation, but then also in the region.

“So, when there’s a bit of rhetoric out there that says, ‘Hey, the U.S. is changing their stance and we don’t care as much about Central and South America as we did in the past,’ this place stands as a strong, very strong message — in my opinion — that no, nothing could be further from the truth.

“That hasn’t changed, and by all accounts I don’t think it will change.”

Evolving U.S. role

U.S. military involvement in Central America, however, has morphed over the past four decades.

In the 1980s, efforts were focused on rolling back Soviet Union-backed communist influence — a goal that at times led to America supporting militaries of harsh regimes.

Under President Ronald Reagan’s administration, right-wing Nicaraguan Contra rebels were trained in Honduras to overthrow the socialist Sandinista government in nearby Nicaragua. By 1987, more than 1,000 personnel were assigned to Joint Task Force-Bravo.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Bravo’s emphasis shifted to countering the flow of illegal narcotics and providing humanitarian assistance, and it has responded to numerous regional disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and flooding.

Under Trump, the State Department’s updated strategy for engagement in Central America is “addressing the security, governance and economic drivers of illegal immigration and illicit trafficking.”

Blankenship said that at a tactical level, the task force’s medical training and humanitarian assistance missions dovetail with that updated strategy.

“I think what we have done in the past and what we currently do nests well within that, and we haven’t been given any direction to do something different as a result,” he said.