EL SALVADOR -- A closing ceremony marked the completion of a collaborative project with the United States and El Salvador to build four schools and one medical clinic for the El Salvadoran people in a combined mission called Beyond the Horizon 2018 (BTH 2018).
The Task Force Engineer Command, in charge of constructing all five buildings, was headed up by the Florida National Guard. Florida sent two command teams to El Salvador to oversee the projects. The first team was led by Col. Dwayne Jarriel, Florida Army National Guard BTH 2018 Task Force Engineer Commander, and Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Topping, BTH 2018 Task Force Engineer Senior Enlisted Leader, Florida Army National Guard. They were followed up by Lt. Col. Blake Heidelberg and, Sgt. Maj. Mallie Lovett.
"Boots on the ground to finish took 80-days, and we actually got to send some home early," said Heidelberg prior to the closing ceremony.
Not only did the Task Force Engineer Command complete the mission 10 days early, they also completed the project under budget with no time lost to injuries. By the closing ceremony, each building had already had an individual ribbon cutting, was signed over, and the keys handed off - all complete with power and running water.
Heidelberg and Lovett, who have a combined experience of 58 years, attribute many things to BTH 2018's success. First, the command group that preceded them overcame a lot of initial obstacles with delayed contracts and deliveries. There were the challenges of a new environment, the weather, the language barrier, and adapting to the different materials available in El Salvador. They had a total of nine meetings with the ministry of power, water and education to get the power turned on and water running at each site.
"None of it was a show stopper," said Heidelberg, "the warriors accepted each new challenge and did what Americans are great at, that adaptability and ingenuity, and we overcame those challenges and ultimately succeeded."
Each construction site was assigned a team comprised of active-duty Army and Air Force units and personnel, Reserve units, and National Guard units rotating in every two to three weeks. The buses picked them up at 5:30 every morning from the Forward Operating Base (FOB) where they were housed, and brought them back at 5:00 pm every evening. They would go directly to chow and have meetings every night.
At one of the school building sites, Ulappa, the 203rd Red Horse, Virginia Air National Guard, would make their way up a 2-mile road comprised of boulders, some six-feet in diameter, every morning. Cement trucks and other vehicles containing materials would go up and down the boulder-clad road daily.
Chief Warrant Officer 2, Theresa Christensen, Florida Army National Guard, was one of the Project Managers at Ulappa. Christensen, an engineer by trade, loves seeing sketches become reality. "To me, it's art," said Christensen.
Her biggest challenge was being able to adapt their construction methods to the host nation's, and make sure the jobs they built would be very safe for children and medical facilities.
The San Marcos de la Cruz school site was built by the 202nd Red Horse, Florida Air National Guard. One day, the unit set up a walkway of wooden boards so the future students of the school house could walk safely through the construction site and see it being built.
"After we walked them through the site, we played volleyball with them and gave them some candy. We all had a good time," said Maj. Peter Rogell, 202nd Red Horse, Florida Air National Guard.
Carolina del Ramos, the teacher for the San Marcos de la Cruz school house, said they have been able to bring children from working in the fields into the school rooms. They even have two girls who aspire to be doctors.
The Escolar Santa Rita school was built by the 615th Engineering Command Company, U.S. Army, Fort Carson, Nevada. Every day, as the unit was working, the farmer who owns the property next to the school site herded his cows past the gates to the fields. He also spent time with the Soldiers every day and said he was very happy for the school kids there.
The Clinic, Unidad Clinica De Salud (UCSFI), was built by the 201st Red Horse, Pennsylvania and West Virginia Air National Guard. The medical clinic anticipates treating 30,000 patients per year.
Four warriors from the 819th Red Horse, Montana Air National Guard, came to help build the clinic. Airman 1st Class Kaitlyn Snodgrass was one of them, and it was the first time she had been on a mission.
"I had to leave my son to be here, but I'm doing a good thing, so it levels it out and makes it ok. I feel bad for missing his first birthday, but at the same time I'm doing something really great for other people. Kind of like the big picture," said Snodgrass.
When the clinic building was complete, the units used left-over materials on the site to build a see-saw and a merry-go-round for the kids that are always outside during clinic hours.
The final site, Canton El Amate was built by reservists from the 380th and 390th Engineer Companies, Tennessee. Marine reservists from the 6th Engineer Support Battalion, Pennsylvania were also there to help. It is where the opening and closing ceremonies were held.
Heidelberg said, "We built the facilities, but we didn't just leave empty buildings. The students are getting all new desks, and furniture, and supplies."
A Civil Affairs team of Marine Corps, Air Force, Army Reserve, and National Guard members formed a cell and worked with different agencies to get donations for the schools. There are supplies still coming with the last shipment scheduled sometime in August.
Overall, 800 warriors came through during the BTH 2018 exercise in six rotations of 148 service members each. At times, seven states were represented on the Task Force Engineer side alone. The combined Joint Task Force Hope represented a total of 13 states.
Heidelberg said, "We came together and were able to mold a team that had never worked together in the past and overcome any kind of differences we had. All the branches do things differently. We were able to overcome all that and accomplish the mission, and while mission accomplishment is important, the fact that we came together and were able to be successful in a short amount of time is something I'm really proud of."
"It makes a difference, that throughout your career, whether you're in the Army, the Air Force, or the Marines, no matter what kind of service member, it's not every day that you get to make a difference somewhere. I think coming down here, whether we're in El Salvador, Guatemala, or anywhere in the Central Americas, and we can honestly make a difference, it's a big thing that all these warriors can go home with their heads held high and say 'I made a difference today,' and that's huge."