COMALAPA AIR BASE, El Salvador- Laughter erupted throughout a hotel conference room near Comalapa Air Base, El Salvador as U.S. and Salvadoran Army officials, meeting with local religious leaders for a conference, enjoyed a light moment.

The laughter was at the expense of the conference coordinator, U.S. Army South Command Chaplain (Col.) James Boelens, whose ambitious attempt at the Spanish language was flavored with an appreciable dose of self-deprecating humor. With a gentle demeanor and a smile big enough to match his six-foot-seven stature, Boelens' reverent approach lent a quiet calm to the edgy business of defending a nation.

He, along with some 7,000 participants from 20 nations, was taking part in PANAMAX 2008, an annual multinational exercise sponsored by U.S. Southern Command and hosted this year by El Salvador, Honduras and Panama.

The scenario centered around defending the Panama Canal and locations in Honduras from a terrorist group, as well as responding to a devastating hurricane in Honduras. Boelens' initiative focused on the responsibilities of faith-based organizations during such crises. "Religious institutions are an often forgotten demographic with a quietly significant strategic strength," said Boelens.

"They are uniquely postured to assist in times of crises as they are not encumbered by many of the restrictions binding nation-states. They have a significant capacity that should be integrated into the planning process in providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief."

Boelens underscored that any dialogue between the military and faith-based institutions must honor the separate and independent character of each religious organization. "When issues of mutual concern arise, however, we need to know how to interact with each other in order to provide humanitarian care."

Following a disaster Boelens indicated that access to basic health care, clean water, proper nutrition, and adequate shelter are subjects that require collaboration.

"Religious institutions represent the people and it doesn't matter what faith you belong to; during times of crises we're all in the same boat," said Boelens. "We can all benefit from each other's help. As denominational leaders, we have a responsibility to discuss means and ways to improve conditions in our communities."

During the conference, Boelens and Col. Ricardo Palona, Salvadoran Army Chief of Civil and Military Affairs, gave an overview of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief programs and outlined the challenges and limitations of alerting citizens during crises. They recognized the vast influence that religious leaders have in impacting their communities and highlighted the value of faith-based organizations joining together to form a multinational collaborative partnership to respond to natural disasters.

"During such times of disasters, we take help from anyone who is willing to give it," said Palona. "In hurricanes past, the first responder was Southern Command who provided helicopters and humanitarian aid. We always listen to what they have to say in these matters."

The initiative was received with great enthusiasm as one by one, the religious leaders expressed thanks, offered advice and pledged their willingness to do their part.

"Many times [in the aftermath of a disaster] it's not simply a physical catastrophe, it's also a spiritual condition," said Boelens.

"We are here to provide spiritual assistance. Years ago when your country was ravaged by war, we were there for you. Now, you are there for us. That's what a partnership is all about-all of us caring for each other during times of need."