By Donna Miles, American Forces Press ServiceJune 12, 2013
MEDETE, Panama, June 12, 2013 -- As soldiers and airmen wrap up the final weeks of humanitarian assistance projects in isolated regions of Panama during Beyond the Horizon 2013, they're leaving behind a long-term impact, the commander of Joint Task Force Panama told American Forces Press Service.
The results of the four-month mission will be felt on multiple levels, from the structures built to the medical care provided to the relationships formed between the participating militaries and with the people they are supporting, said Army Lt. Col. Malcolm Walker.
But Walker said his troops are benefiting as well, reaping the benefits of superb training and the gratification of applying their skills to provide tangible support for needy communities.
Walking around a construction site in the tiny village of Achiote in eastern Panama, Walker, an Army reservist from Denver, said the new clinic and five-stall latrine his troops are building for the nearby schoolhouse will go a long way in improving the community members' quality of life.
Army and Air Force engineers also are expanding a medical clinic in Escobol and building a new health promotion center and dormitory for it during the mission, which concludes later this month.
Walker said the benefit of the larger, sturdier facilities and the impressions left from their construction will extend for generations.
"We are leaving a lasting impact here," he said. "In the next 30 or 40 years, there may be a parent who is going to that school right now who will remember when the United States came here and built that school.
"They will remember the things the [soldiers and airmen] did -- the helicopter landing, the baseballs they gave out," he continued. "They will come away with a positive portrayal of Americans, so the next time they meet an American, whether in their town or if they visit the United States, they will have a better first impression."
Meanwhile, thousands of Panamanian citizens and their families will benefit from the medical care U.S. soldiers and airmen provided during medical readiness training exercises conducted during the past months, Walker said.
The U.S. troops worked hand in hand with medical professionals from Panama's Health Ministry, delivering specialized care to about 13,000 people in some of the country's poorest, most underserved regions.
This medical care goes far beyond the treatments provided, Walker said. It is helping the Panamanian government extend its outreach to isolated communities, supporting a national campaign to provide more consistent services nationwide within the next two years.
Throughout Beyond the Horizon, Walker said his service members gained as much as the Panamanian people they served. From a military standpoint, that included unparalleled experience in deploying to and operating in unfamiliar, austere environments.
The challenges of a construction or medical mission get magnified thousands of miles from home, in another country where the people speak another language, Walker said. One can't run to the nearest big-box store to pick up a missing widget and can't easily jump onto the Internet to research a difficulty that pops up.
Problem-solving skills become critical to completing the mission, Walker said. "We have got to have people who can adapt to different situations, and you have to adapt quickly," he said. "They have to work through the issues, work through the language barrier, and do what's required to get the job done."
That makes Beyond the Horizon one of the best training opportunities possible outside a combat zone, he said.
"This training could not be duplicated anywhere in the United States on any base or fort," Walker said. "I cannot replicate being in a foreign country, doing what we are doing here. There is no training scenario where that can happen in the United States."
As his soldiers and airmen finish out their final two-week rotation of Beyond the Horizon, Walker said, he's hopeful they've broadened their view of the world. Particularly for those who have never been outside the United States before, "this is opening up a whole new world for them," he said.
But Walker said he also hopes they take home an appreciation of their role as military members supporting a humanitarian mission.
"They are taking away that they can truly make a difference in a community," he said. "We are here to help people, and they see that there is so much positive good they can do by being in the Army and the Air Force. … They are seeing that they can have a positive impact on these people's lives."