Soldiers from the 81st Civil Affairs Battalion, from Fort Hood, Texas, participated in a one-week pre-mission training event, Operation Coqui, which focused on Civil Affairs Operations at several municipalities throughout Puerto Rico, Mar. 7-11. They were sent on missions to conduct local assessments on the disaster response since the island faces major hurricane threats. The Soldiers were immersed in simulated real-life scenarios that allowed them to engage with the local populace, media, law enforcement and officials.
Civil affairs helps military commanders by working with civil authorities and civilian populations in the commander's area of operations to lessen the impact of military operations on them during peace, contingency operations and declared war
With upcoming deployments to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras on the horizon, Lt. Col. Dennis Nutt, commander of the 81st, wanted to ensure his Soldiers were properly trained in both their military occupational specialty and their basic Soldier skills before assuming the Civil Affairs Engagement Program (CAEP) mission in support of USSOUTHCOM.
"We are preparing two of our companies to deploy in support of U.S. Southern Command in Central America," Nutt said. "We have coordinated to work with over 15 municipalities throughout the island and will be working with the 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion."
"During this training, we will be looking at disaster response, emergency systems and adding scenarios of what we can expect at the Joint Training Center (JTC). With this training, we will identify real-world solutions and ideas and how we can connect with other agencies throughout the island," he concluded.
The 81st Soldiers will be helping local governments build a more stable environment and ensure their disaster response plans are effective. Along with basic Soldier skills, civil affairs Soldiers learned how to engage the media and communicate their messages in Spanish, communicate through interpreters, how to interact with key leaders, how to assess resources available and how to work as a team to accomplish the mission.
The 81st is an active duty battalion responsible for the United States Southern Command area of responsibility, encompassing Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. The United States Army Civil Affairs forces are specifically trained and educated to shape foreign political-military environments by working through and with host nations, regional partners and indigenous populations.
These culturally-oriented, linguistically-capable Soldiers also coordinate military resources to support government operations, emergency actions and humanitarian assistance from natural, man-made or war-related causes.
Capt. John Cappiello, team leader for the 81st mentioned that working with the different municipalities has been fantastic. "After seeing their disaster plans, they are so much better prepared than some of the towns or cities within the United States," said Cappiello. "I think that since disasters are a lot more prevalent here, they have to be prepared, so for us to see what they already have in preparation is pretty cool."
Working with the 402nd Civil Affairs Battalion, a U.S. Army Reserve unit in Puerto Rico, has proved to be value added. "Working with someone that is from Puerto Rico that has a lot of knowledge of certain municipalities and the overall concept of what is going on in Puerto Rico, is very beneficial. They are able to provide us with additional information that we didn't have before."
Nutt commented on how the 81st will be inactivating in 2017 and their missions in Central America will likely be handed off to the 402nd. Working in conjunction with the Army Reserve unit not only helps prepare the 402nd for what could be a future mission but also allows both units to work in a multi-component environment much like their deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries.
"We couldn't do this exercise without the reserve unit's participation, the personnel from Camp Santiago and Ramey Base, as well as the municipalities that have allowed us to work with them," expressed Nutt. "With few resources, we were able to put together a great exercise for multi-echelons; a battalion, two companies and about 13 teams."
Cpt. Bryan Smith, B Company commander with the 402nd CA BN located on Fort Buchanan, stated his main objective of working with the 81st is to learn from them. "This is a great opportunity to work with our active duty counterparts and learn from the higher scale of work that we can't replicate as a Reserve unit," said Smith. "I hope that this will give us a preview of what a deployment to Central America would be like. These guys do this 24/7 and we only do it one weekend a month and two weeks out of the year." Smith also said that the 402nd can learn from the 81st's experience and knowledge and apply it on a lower scale.
The 81st teams consist of four individuals, Team leader, Team Sergeant, CA NCO and Medic. As these teams prepare to be fully mission capable for their deployments, it is essential that they are able to identify the needs of certain cities or towns so they can provide assistance or know what type of assistance to request.
During their training, the medics got the opportunity to work with the veterinarian and learn some of the basics. "We showed them how to administer vaccines to animals," said Maj. Jeremiah Nelson, 81st veterinarian. "Since we are part of the special functions team and don't head out with the country teams, we try to teach the medics enough so that when they do go into a country, they can help identify projects."
Nelson explained that special functions teams included veterinarians, engineers and environmental science officers and are the support element. "When the teams go out, hopefully they would see a situation and where they might need certain expertise, then they would call up and request engineers, for example, and then we can get them out there," said Nelson. "These team medics will be providing good medical care, not harm, and just being there is a huge support for some of the more remote areas in these countries."
During Operation Coqui, Nelson and Cpt. Brian Shiozawa, 81st flight surgeon, both worked with the team medics to teach them some basic skills they could use while out in their country teams. "We had contact with the medics, showing them what we can do," said Shiozawa. "At the same time, I was talking to them about how they could incorporate this to training down the line."
Even though the special functions teams are not a part of the country teams, Nelson stated Operation Coqui was a great way to exercise movement as a whole unit. "In terms of can we move, can we get there, can we communicate, and can we set up operations, this was a great exercise." said Nelson.