By Sean KimmonsJune 28, 2017
LAREDO, Texas -- A few weeks after civil affairs Soldiers surveyed an economically distressed border town, a $275,000 federal grant was approved to fix one of the town's failing roads, based on data the Soldiers had collected.
Because of these Soldier-conducted surveys, more state and federal grants -- possibly worth millions -- are now expected in the future, according to local government officials. The Soldiers are collecting survey data from several "colonias," or unincorporated towns, that lack major infrastructures such as portable water, sewer systems, electricity, paved roads or storm drainage.
Around 25 Soldiers are going door-to-door and speaking with residents inside the colonias, as part of an Innovative Readiness Training mission along the Texas-Mexico border. The assessments, coupled with the ability to use an interpreter with Spanish-speaking residents, allow Soldiers to replicate what they may face when interacting with people during deployments.
"This is a great opportunity for us to train for the mere fact that what we're doing is not scripted," said 1st Sgt. Vernon Williams, assigned to the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion based in Miami. "We're dealing with real people with real issues."
Williams and his unit are part of a roughly 200-member Reserve Soldier force currently assisting the local communities with medical and infrastructure projects.
Nearly 125 Army medics have set up free health clinics at four community centers located near the city of Laredo.
Another 30 engineer Soldiers are making road improvements by repairing a 2.5-mile stretch of dirt road that was once plagued with deep ruts from semi-trucks and poor drainage. They are also laying and grading fresh dirt onto a baseball field and soccer field used by local youth.
Soldiers from the 277th Engineer Company only had to travel about 150 miles from their home station in San Antonio to support the mission. While the unit often heads to Fort Hood to train, this mission has been more special.
"It makes you feel a lot better doing a real-world mission other than just training at Fort Hood making some makeshift roads," said Sgt. 1st Class George Velez, the NCO in charge of both engineer projects. "Here at least we're helping the communities."
There are more than 60 colonias in the Laredo area, with many residents living below the poverty line.
At the area's two school districts -- Laredo and United Independent School Districts -- students are economically disadvantaged at rates of 97 and 89 percent, respectively, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Webb County, where Laredo is located, applied to have the IRT mission come to the area after being assisted by the Army North's Army Reserve Engagement Cell and Texas A&M University's colonias program.
"They're getting more bang for their dollar as far as training dollars are concerned," Oscar Muñoz, director of Texas A&M's colonias program, said of the local Reserve engineers. "These guys don't have to travel that far."
The plights of many colonias, Muñoz noted, began with "unscrupulous developers" taking advantage of low-income homebuyers.
"How many people would not like to own a house? How many would not like to own land? It's the American dream," he said.
But once they moved in, the promises of proper infrastructure were never carried out and developers charged homeowners up to 30 percent interest for home loans, according to Muñoz.
"We've always had colonias, but no one ever liked to talk about them," he said.
There are plans for more Army IRT missions, he added, to help other colonias in the county as well as in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley.
Webb County officials produce a comprehensive plan for the county's colonias, due to their large numbers of residents. Officials are currently using data compiled by civil affairs Soldiers to update the newest installment, which will last for a decade.
Armed with this recent accurate data, the county's grant writers can then apply for state and federal funds to help colonias in desperate need.
"Without them, this would not be possible, period," James Flores, the county's senior grant writer, said of the Reserve Soldiers. "Would we still apply for grants? Yes. But would we have a higher percentage of being funded? Absolutely not."
The previous comprehensive plan garnered around $200 million in grants, Flores said, adding the new data could lead to better chances of grant applications being funded in the future.
"If it's anything like the first one, it's going to generate millions for us," said Flores, who believes the Soldiers, along with help from 10 Texas A&M students, will be able to reach 2,000 to 2,500 households.
With their work already showing results, Williams said it has been a fulfilling experience for him and his Soldiers, even if they're out there in temperatures over 110 degrees.
"If we can do something two-fold where we're benefiting U.S. citizens and we're getting training at the same time, I think it's a win-win for everybody," Williams said.