FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (Feb. 17, 2009) - The Initial Planning Conference (IPC) for "Fuerzas Aliadas PANAMAX 2009" was held last week in Panama City, Panama, bringing together some 300 officials from 19 countries in the western hemisphere to launch the complex exercise planning process.

PANAMAX, as it's commonly called, now in its seventh year, is an annual multinational, interagency exercise sponsored by U.S. Southern Command. It is scheduled to take place this year at the U.S. Army South headquarters, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and locations in Honduras and Panama. The exercise scenario centers on defending the Panama Canal from attacks by an organized terrorist group as well as responding to natural disasters and pandemic outbreaks in various locations.

During the weeklong IPC, planners from the partner nations huddled together in working groups armed with lessons learned from previous exercises, and laid out the framework for what amounts to the largest multinational exercise of its type.

"We don't expect to get specific resolutions to all the myriad of issues and moving parts that go into planning an exercise of this magnitude," said Lt. Col. Chet Hill, U.S. Army South's Chief of Plans. "This forum establishes the framework for the exercise and gets the ball rolling in the right direction."

The Army has designated this year the "Year of the Non-Commissioned Officer," as a special tribute to recognize the leadership, commitment, and courage of the NCO Corps. While NCOs have always played key rolls in exercise planning, this year they have been given a greater responsibility to shape the planning in order to satisfy critical training objectives.

"Every year is the year of the NCO and every year we become more relevant and more diverse," said Sgt. Maj. Charles Room, the senior enlisted operations chief for U.S. Army South. "We definitely are value added, particularly during the initial planning process, because we bring a unique enlisted perspective to the table."

NCOs were well represented among the 300 plus conference attendees and were heralded for their contribution in what was termed a "tremendously successful event."

The IPC concluded Feb. 12 with all the planners congregating for a final conference summary and finalizing arrangements for meeting again in March for the Mid-Planning Conference (MPC) in Miami.