By Spc. Sean Harding (Army Reserve)April 23, 2017
SEATTLE -- Earlier this month, U.S. Army Reserve soldiers assigned to the 672nd Engineer Company, 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, arrived in Belize where they began work on three different construction projects that were intended to benefit several different communities in the region.
The projects are part of an annual multinational exercise, Beyond the Horizon, which brings together soldiers, airmen, and marines from the reserve and active components of the U.S. military, as well as personnel from foreign military organizations.
The 672nd Engineer Company "Renegades" worked with soldiers from across the 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, as well as soldiers from the 1st Mission Support Command, Army National Guard, Belize Defense Force and Trinidad and Tobago to begin new construction at two small clinics, and an elementary school there.
Beyond the Horizon is U.S. Army South and U.S. Southern Command's annual multinational humanitarian and civic assistance program.
Ladyville Health Clinic
The Ladyville Health Clinic is a small clinic in one of the largest villages in Belize, and didn't have enough space for its patients, or room for all of the medical equipment that the village desired. The Renegades began construction on a new building at the clinic, significantly expanding the clinic's capacity, and ability to help those in need.
"We're helping [the Belizeans] build a clinic," said Sgt. Jennifer Black, a carpentry and masonry specialist from Missoula. "The old clinic was small, with an outdoor waiting area. There were people standing outside just to get treatment."
While they began working on the new building, interested citizens from around the village approached the Renegades and asked about what they, and the U.S. military, were doing in Belize.
"When we told them that we were constructing a new building for their clinic, and they seemed pretty upbeat and excited about it," Black said.
The Belizeans also answered any questions about local culture and customs that the Americans had for them.
Double Head Cabbage Clinic
At the Double Head Cabbage construction site, the Renegades added another new building to a tiny clinic that was heavily in need of repair and improvement.
It was by far the most remote construction project that the 672nd worked on, but the clinic was also able to expand its capacity and ability to help those in need because of the services that the Renegades and Beyond the Horizon provided.
"We're providing the Belizeans with resources that they can use to better support their village," said Sgt. Roman Firestone, a Renegade from Charlo, Montana.
Once complete, the improved clinic will provide 13 rooms where staff can provide medical services to the over 2,000 local residents that it will support.
St. Matthews Government School
At the St. Matthews Government School, the 672nd began construction on three new classrooms, which will make room for an additional 90 students to attend classes there.
While the Renegades went on with the construction, they were greeted by their highly curious clientele. Students from the elementary school were running around in awe, fascinated with the construction that was going on there.
"They had a construction site just 100 feet from their school, so of course, just like any other kids, they're going to be highly curious," said Capt. Caitlin A. Lynch, commander of the 672nd Engineer Company.
Although the Renegades were hard at work throughout the entirety of their time in Belize, they were able to spend a fair amount of time interacting with, and learning from, their southern neighbors.
"The Belizeans were extremely friendly, and hardworking," said Sgt. Matthew Brady, from Butte, Montana. "They were on point."
Firestone said that he had learned a lot about work ethic from the Belizeans, and how to "work smarter, not harder."
"They're super kind people," he added.
Firestone had become good friends with several of the Belizeans, and said he has already been keeping up with how they're doing since he's been back home.
The friendly vibrations, and spirit of collaboration, seemed to be present almost everywhere in Belize.
"It was an incredible experience," said Spc. Douglas Phalp, an indoor electrician, of his time in the country. "There was always smiles and laughter while we were down there."
"We talked about some of the holidays that we celebrated, and what we do during our free time," he added. "I made some really good friends and connections there."
The Renegades knew that they would have a lasting impact in Belize. The hurricane-resistant buildings that they literally laid the foundations for, and the services the buildings would provide, will positively improve the lives of thousands of Belizean families for decades to come.
But it wasn't only what was physically left behind that would change life in Belize. As much as the 672nd changed Belize with the fruits of their labor, and the knowledge that they shared, Belize also changed them.
"We're so used to looking at a problem the way that we've been trained to," said Phalp. "The Belizeans brought with them an outside way of thinking, out-of-the-box options, where if you step back and consider every single possibility, you can find a way."
"I learned to evaluate a given task before executing it," said Firestone. "And to consider all of the different ways to perform that task."
Some Renegades wished to bring the same collaborative spirit with them to their next mission.
"If we can keep that integration going with partner nations the same way we did with the Belizeans, that would be the best!" said Spc. Hayley Goodin, a student at the University of Montana.
Still, just being able to help those in need was a huge morale boost for some Renegades.
"We're so fortunate here in America, and being able to help out in other countries, or anywhere we can, is awesome," said Brady.
One thing that was universal with the Renegades, however, was the idea that they had contributed to something greater than themselves.
"It's really awesome to be part of such a meaningful project," said Spc. Angela Medina, a carpentry and masonry specialist from Missoula. "What we did is going to be helping people there for a long time, long after we're gone."
While the Renegades were in Belize, Lynch was invited to the U.S. Embassy where she met with acting ambassador Adrienne Galanek, and participated in a Women Embassy Leaders Summit.
At the summit, Lynch spoke to Belizean children and teenagers about the importance of staying in school, and overcoming obstacles to unlock all of the possibilities in life that they have available to them.
Always modest, Lynch said "I almost felt like I didn't deserve to be there telling my story, because some of the Belizean diplomats there overcame a lot more than I did." Still, "it was a pretty amazing opportunity."
Lynch, along with Maj. Samantha Madsen of the Utah Army National Guard, were also interviewed for a short feature by a local television station titled "Woman Power," about the important roles that women play in today's military.
Of all the things that happened to the 672nd down in Belize, for two Renegades there was a clear highlight.
Goodin and Medina were chosen to fly aboard and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter as part of the opening ceremonies for Beyond the Horizon.
"They didn't tell us what we were doing until we left," said Medina. "We had no idea what to expect."
"We landed there, and then got to stand in a formation with Air Force and Marines, in front of generals and ambassadors" Goodin reminisced.
"Riding in the Blackhawk was the highlight, but just being a part of everything that was going on was really cool, she added."
"It was the coolest thing that I've done in the military," gushed Medina.
"I'd do it again, in a heartbeat!"
Montana is generally known for its cowboy hats, big skies and harsh winters, so flying nearly 3,000 miles south to a tropical climate was a bit of an adjustment for the Renegades.
Not only did the temperature and humidity frequently reach heat category five, which put the command team and leadership on constant high alert for any signs of heat injuries, they had to deal with scorpions, tarantulas, spiders, howler monkeys, and even giant lizards.
"I got to see a huge iguana while I was there," said Medina. "At some of the other sites, they saw howler monkeys, tarantulas and all kinds of other wildlife."
"I saw a big lizard," exclaimed Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Bierfreund, an operations noncommissioned officer with the 672nd. "It was about the size of a small cat!"
One of the medics assigned to the 672nd even had to treat a Belizean soldier for injuries that he sustained, when he received a scorpion sting to his foot.
The culture shock went both ways. Not only were the Americans constantly learning about Belize, Belize got to learn about the United States.
"For some of them, we were the first Americans that they ever met," said Firestone.
In addition to environmental differences, such as those between climates and ecosystems, both groups found out that there were differences in way that they accomplished certain tasks, and even how they spent their free time.
One such example: many Belizeans don't have access to Netflix or the internet like there is in the United States, so many spend most of their free time socializing with friends and family members instead.
Despite the difference between the Americans and Belizeans however, both cultures shared a vigorous work ethic, and a common desire to improve the conditions for those who needed it most.
Twice the Citizen!
While most engineer companies in the U.S. Army consist of active duty soldiers, most soldiers in the 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade are part time soldiers, and have to balance military commitments with their civilian jobs, volunteer work, hobbies as well as taking care of their families.
A result of the incredible multitasking that the Army Reserve's warrior citizens undertake, "Twice the Citizen!" couldn't be a more fitting motto for the command.
"Being in the military is training for every aspect of life," said Brady. "It affects my family life in a positive way, and enhances my two civilian jobs."
"It's really given me a confidence boost, and the power to overcome things that I probably wouldn't be able to otherwise," said Goodin.
The discipline and leadership skills that you pick up in the military are one small perk of being in the Army Reserve.
"The Army has helped me achieve what I've achieved in life because of the leadership skills it's equipped me with," said Black. "It's made me realize that there's a lot more things out there."
Besides the leadership skills that U.S. Army provides, some just wanted to see the world.
"This is the 'see the world and travel' that I was promised when I joined," added Lynch.
"This is something that I never would have been able to do if it wasn't for the Army Reserve," said Phalp. "And I love that!"
The 672nd spent only two weeks in Belize, but the mark that they made there will remain long after they returned to Montana.
As any command team knows, having the right leadership in place is a key to having a successful mission.
"I am extremely proud to be in the 672nd," said Brady. "Our commander and first sergeant are amazing, and we definitely came home stronger."
"Capt. Lynch did a very good job at leading us, and keeping us safe," said Black.
However, having the best leadership in the Army only counts if the soldiers in the unit are willing, and driven, to succeed.
"Even though we're a fairly remote unit for the Army Reserve," said Lynch, "we can come together with soldiers from all over the 301st, the United States, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago, and create a great product."
"These soldiers have an amazing work ethic!" added Bierfreund. "This is an amazing unit, and everyone pulled their weight."
"We're always moving forward," Goodin said, in conclusion.