Fighting Floods, Drugs in Central, South America

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NEARLY a quarter of the 1,100 individuals employed in the American section of Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, are Soldiers. And like the foreign nationals, American contractors, Sailors, Marines and Airmen stationed there, they support the mission of Joint Task Force-Bravo.

The work Joint Task Force-Bravo performs is one part of U.S. Southern Command's mission in Central and South America. The task force conducts joint, combined and interagency operations in the region, enhancing both security and the development of democracy. Additionally, the task force supports humanitarian efforts in the USSOUTHCOM area of responsibility, and participates in counter-narcotics operations there.

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"We are really USSOUTHCOM's forward presence in Central and South America," said Col. Richard A. Juergens, JTF-B commander. "Most of our work is partnership-type work, where we're building relationships. And in a lot of cases, we're maintaining relationships that we have had for many years here. But we're also here to quickly respond to humanitarian situations and disasters."

Out of Soto Cano, the members of JTF-B--through 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment; JTF-B Medical Element; the Army Forces Battalion and other components--are involved in several missions, including providing humanitarian relief, aiding in the fight against narcotics trafficking, and providing medical and dental treatment to civilians.

In November 2008, for instance, flooding ravaged both Costa Rica and Panama. Members of JTF-B were there to provide assistance to the victims of that natural disaster, said Lt. Col. Will Cristy, commander of the 1-228th.

"With Panama, we started off with a couple of Black Hawks. Then it grew, we ended up sending a couple of Chinooks to Panama City," he said. "It started with the Bocas del Toro region of Panama with the Black Hawks. It expanded to Panama City, because that's where most of the relief supplies were. When Costa Rica requested assistance, we sent still more people. When it was all said and done, we had seven helicopters, and the 1-228th had upwards of 50 people--and JTF-B brought in 20 to 25."

Cristy said the 1-228th provided airlift of some 300,000 pounds of supplies in the affected region and helped rescue civilians stranded by floodwaters as well.

"The big thing at first was life, limb or eyesight situations," he said. "They extracted I think four people in the first few days--some injured children and a pregnant woman--things like that. Then it shifted into transporting relief supplies: food, medicine and blankets."

Lieutenant Col. Richard Somers serves as commander of the Army Forces Battalion, part of JTFB. The battalion provides, among other things, communications and refueling support to JTF-B. During the flooding in Panama and Costa Rica, Somers was the ground commander for U.S. forces performing relief operations in the area. He said the U.S. wasn't in charge of the relief operations, but was instead a partner.

"It wasn't a U.S.-led mission, it was a pan-American-led mission," he said. "We had people there from Colombia and from international organizations bringing supplies as well. It was a great opportunity to work with all these different agencies and people."

Working with Panamanians and Costa Ricans to provide disaster relief support yields results that Somers said he sees when he talks to citizens of the Central and South American countries.

"One of the Panamanians told me, no matter how much trouble the world gives the U. …