The ranks and lack of combat patches shows the service members' time here will shadow a semblance of deployment while they gain training and personal experience.Pfc. Adam Wakeland, a nuclear biological specialist and unit photographer with the 961st Engineer Battalion, a Reserve unit out of Seagoville, Texas, looks forward to the experience and training."This is my first time out of the country," said Wakeland who hails from Waxahachie, Texas. "I think it's really cool to be here."Wakeland, along with 28 other Soldiers from the 961st, are in Panama to support Army South's Beyond the Horizon exercise.Beyond the Horizon is a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored, U.S. Army South-planned and led annual humanitarian and civic assistance exercise. The exercise provides construction and medical assistance to partner nations throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean.The exercise generally takes place in rural, underprivileged areas and is a major component of the U.S. military's regional engagement efforts and it affords a unique opportunity to train U.S. service members alongside partner nation personnel, while providing needed services to communities throughout the region."I was told to come here for annual training," said Wakeland.He added that he really has enjoyed himself so far. Pfc. Danielle Williams, also with the 961st, volunteered to come to Panama. Williams is originally from West Helena, Ark., but moved to Temple, Texas, four days after her high school graduation and enlisted in the Army as an air conditioning technician."Since they don't have A/C down here, I am supporting the mechanics as a mechanic's assistant," said Williams.Williams, along with many other young Soldiers, is experiencing her first deployment-like conditions in Panama."I love it down here; the scenery is beautiful, and I would definitely do it again," said Williams.
Even though BTH covers annual training requirements for Reservists and National Guardsmen, active duty Soldiers take part in the exercise as well.Active duty Soldier Spc. Rushton Wigley, a single switch operator and maintainer with Charlie Co., 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 35th Signal Brigade out of Fort Gordon, Ga., will be in Panama for four months as his unit provides communication support for the exercise."I joined to see the world," said Wigley. "We were excited to come."Wigley continued, "I enjoy working with the National Guard and Reserve Soldiers."
Wigley joined the military two years ago. Originally from Runnelstown, Miss., he said he is acclimated to the weather and that Panama is beautiful. "The jungle is amazing," he added.For Wakeland, Wigley and Williams, the majority of their annual training will be conducted on the site of the former Fort Sherman. However, some Soldiers are able to conduct their annual training in the nearby villages where the construction projects are occurring.Spc. Bradley Holland, from San Antonio, Texas, has had the opportunity to conduct training in both villages where the construction projects are occurring, in Achiote and Escobal.Holland, who has been in the Army Reserves for four years, is experiencing many firsts, much like Wakeland and Williams."This is the closest thing to deployment I've experienced," said Holland. "It was really neat walking through Escobal."Holland, like Williams, volunteered to come to Panama. He said when he arrived at his unit after AIT (advanced individual training), several members of his unit just arrived back from deployment.
Another first for several Soldiers is being able to ride in a UH-60 (Lima) Blackhawk helicopter.Spc. Jonathon Klepsch, a signal support systems specialist with the 244th Engineer Battalion, a Reserve unit from Denver, Colo., is in Panama for the duration of BTH, which is about six months.
He said riding in the helicopter was a great experience."I had a great time, and those guys are really nice," Klepsch said in reference to the aircrew.
When asked about his experience of being out of the country for the first time, he replied, "It's a good experience like a deployment, as in the living quarters."Holland also got his first ride in an Army helicopter. "It was really neat," he said.The 2/285th Aviation Helicopter Battalion, a National Guard unit based at Papago Army Airfield, Phoenix, Ariz., conducts the flights. These flights not only complete BTH essential missions, but the extra seats are used to provide Soldiers and Airmen an experience that they might not otherwise be able to have.