BOGOTA, Colombia -- Staff Sgt. Diego Gantivar first learned how to repair vehicles as a teenager growing up Bogota.
If he ever missed the 45-minute bus ride to school, his mother would send him to work at his stepfather’s auto shop. There, he’d get his hands dirty fixing safari-type vehicles -- a necessity in the area, with its rough roads and water crossings.
“I would go and work with my stepdad, cleaning parts, doing oil changes,” Gantivar said, adding he’d also help out on the weekends. “That’s how I started when I was a kid here.”
Decades later, Gantivar, 39, a senior mechanic advisor with the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, is back in Colombia’s capital city to assist its military.
A 45-member task force from the brigade, including Gantivar, arrived in Colombia last week after the country requested support, as part of U.S. Southern Command’s enhanced counternarcotics mission.
“I’m just happy to be here. My team and I are going to be giving a 100% effort to make this mission a complete success,” he said, “and to build a rapport with our Colombian partners.”
First to South America
The task force will spread 12-member teams around the country, partnered with four regional military commands.
The advisory teams will focus on logistics, services and intelligence capabilities that support U.S.-Colombia counternarcotics collaboration and information sharing, a Southcom news release said.
The mission marks the first time the U.S. Army has sent SFAB advisors to South America, following missions to Afghanistan and Africa.
In 2018, the 1st SFAB deployed across Afghanistan to train, advise and assist Afghan military partners. About half of the task force in Colombia served in that nine-month deployment.
Rather than training a foreign military on the fundamentals, the task force will primarily assist with staff planning at the battalion and brigade levels.
“The biggest difference is our partner force,” Lt. Col. Michael Berriman, who leads the task force, said of past missions. “The Colombia military is very skilled and very professional.”
Because of their capability, the task force does not plan for a specific training schedule.
“Instead what we want to do is simply get with our partner forces and observe their processes for staff planning and resource allocation,” Berriman said. “And then maybe just offer some different ways to tackle a problem set.”
He expects his Soldiers to learn from their Colombian counterparts, too, as they closely observe how another military works. After the mission, those NCOs and officers could then one day lead other Army units using that unique knowledge.
“What a great contribution back to the brigade combat teams,” he said.
After a two-week quarantine due to COVID-19, the task force is slated to link up with their partners later this month to officially start the mission, which currently has no set timeline.
“The duration of the time I don’t think matters quite as much as the effects we hope to achieve,” Berriman said. “And the effects we hope to achieve is simply an improvement in planning processes and maybe resulting in better operations.”
He also sees the mission as a way for the Army’s SFAB strategy to validate its capabilities and pave the way for future missions in the region.
Berriman, who serves as commander of the brigade’s 3rd Squadron, previously headed a cavalry squadron in the 7th Infantry Division. He expects the upcoming mission to be completely different to what he’s done before.
In his former role, he said his unit would mount and move Stryker vehicles to set up observation posts and look for the enemy on the battlefield. But this mission involves less “direct action” events, he said, and is more academic.
“We’re partnering with foreign armies and we’re working with their staffs trying to help share some of the good things we think we do,” he said, “but we’re also learning a lot of the good things they do and trying to bring that back to our own force.”
To prepare for the Colombian mission, Soldiers received specialized education at the Military Advisor Training Academy and had video teleconferences with their Colombian counterparts.
The task force also held a weeklong planning exercise using other Soldiers at Fort Benning, Georgia, to replicate working with a foreign military staff.
“This was helpful to our advisors because they further refined their information on the U.S. Army’s staff planning process, but they were also able to coach [others on it],” Berriman said.
Other training included cultural and language courses, in which Gantivar helped play a role since he lived about a decade in the country.
“He’s been really helpful for us as it comes down to understanding the culture and preparing to come down here,” Berriman said. “This is an environment that is way different than our experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan, so it’s been pretty neat to have Staff Sgt. Gantivar here on the team and able to share his experiences.”
After he left Colombia in 2003, Gantivar later joined the Army to take his mechanic skills to the next level. The Army eventually paid for his technical certificate in automotive technology and helped him obtain U.S. citizenship.
The service has also allowed him to support his wife and three children.
“Sometimes people don’t understand how much the Army helps you out,” he said. “The Army gives you so much.”
He’s now back where his career all started. After learning to fix vehicles in his stepfather’s shop, Gantivar looks forward to helping fellow Colombians as a skilled U.S. Army mechanic.
“I’m so happy I got the opportunity to deploy with the task force and be able to help them,” he said. “I’m grateful to be able to give back.”