PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Within minutes, an elite multinational security force team managed to close with and overwhelm armed groups hiding along Panama's Caribbean shores and remote jungle locations.
The team's mission success however, would depend on the next hundred or so split-second decisions made -- under fire and stress -- between team members that had only met weeks before.
Still, the team freed all simulated hostages, while successfully culminating a month-long training exchange between U.S. Special Operations Forces and Panamanian security counterparts held Jan. 5 - Feb. 6, 2018, throughout Panama.
"The Joint Combined Exchange Training improved the readiness of assigned quick reaction forces with Special Operations Command South by developing capabilities needed when responding to a crisis alongside partner nation security forces," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Marcus Hunter, Special Operations Liaison Officer with U.S. Special Operations Command, in Panama City, Panama.
Participating U.S. Special Operations Forces units improved their overall competencies in marksmanship, small unit tactics training, air and maritime operations, communications, and sustained interoperability with counterparts by exchanging techniques, tactics, and procedures -- while enhancing service members' language proficiency in Spanish.
Special Operations Command South integrated U.S. Special Operations Forces units from the Air Force, Army, and Navy to train alongside elite Panamanian counterterrorism units in coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Panama City and Panamanian security forces.
NOTHING LIKE BACK HOME
Although U.S. Special Operations Forces train regularly at their home station units in preparation for contingencies in the Americas, Joint Combined Exchange Trainings provide training opportunities not easily replicated stateside.
"Everyday was about learning something new, even if it was just a small interaction with our counterparts in Spanish," said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Gordon Boyer, a radio frequency transmission specialist with the 6th Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Florida.
For weeks, Boyer, a Michigan native responsible for the maintenance and repair of communications equipment, relied on his working proficiency in Spanish to work side-by-side with his counterparts on a daily basis.
"We dove into the manuals for hours, figuring things out together," said Boyer, recalling an instance where he enabled communications between Panamanian air support, U.S. and partner nation ground forces.
"We figured out the best way for us to accomplish our missions everyday using what we had and speaking with the little we both knew," he said, noting that the interactions really tested his Spanish and his counterpart's English.
Like Boyer, Spanish is a second language for the majority of the American exercise participants. Only a third of the service members who took part in the training were fluent, with the rest having a minimal working proficiency in the language.
"That's why training like this is so important. We get a full language and cultural immersion we wouldn't get back home," said Matt, a senior Special Forces weapons sergeant with the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), out of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, who for security reasons spoke on condition of anonymity.
The first time many junior service members gain valuable experiences in leadership, mentorship, instruction, and advisory roles are also during joint combined training.
"The first opportunity I had being a team leader was during a previous JCET, where I was responsible for leading a group of partner nation members as we conducted training," said the Special Forces sergeant, who has deployed eight times, with this trip being his first to Panama.
"It was during a prior JCET that I was also put in charge as a ground convoy commander for the first time," he added. "With little prior experience in such a position I put together a plan, thought of all the obstacles we might come across, and began to develop contingencies for a two-hour movement. The contingencies included coordination with an air element."
Additionally, U.S. Special Operations Forces tackle logistics, communications, and transportation hurdles on a daily basis during joint combined training that begins as soon as they arrive in country.
"That's another benefit to this training, working through and finding solutions to the day-to-day real-world problems that you do not encounter back home," said the Special Forces sergeant.
BEYOND THE TRAINING
Aside from boosting U.S. force's response capabilities in the Americas, this exchange training also strengthened working relationships and built trust between the elite forces. This not only saves valuable time in being able to make split-second decisions during training, but also when working together in the event of a crisis.
"These relationships and trust can help reduce the scope and duration of a crisis and increase the likelihood our partners can respond to crises on their own," said U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, U.S. Southern Command's commander, before a Senate Armed Services Committee last year.
Similarly, the most rewarding aspect of the training for many of the exchange participants was building professional relationships needed if they are one day called to work alongside each other.
"Our mission is to execute high-risk operations in urban areas and to intervene against sabotage against the canal," said police Capt. Javier Bethancourt, deputy operations officer with Panama's National Police counterterrorism unit, known in its Spanish acronym as the UFEC.
Without these working relationships and training, it would be difficult for the multinational forces to work together, said the operations officer. "So building these relationships is important, especially if it comes to protecting the canal."
"We build a relationship with these guys because they are the best and they might stay in the same unit for years," said the U.S. Special Operations Forces weapons sergeant. "This makes integration easier, knowing that we speak the same language when it comes to tactics and techniques. At the end of the day, the ultimate outcome for us is to build and maintain steady relationships that prepare us for any type of crisis we are tasked to respond to."
Other participating units included Panama's National Police Rural and Maritime Anti-Drug Unit, known as the UTOA, and elements from the National Aero Naval Service, known as SENAN, in their Spanish acronyms.