JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas — Nations spanning across Latin America and the Caribbean sent members of their security forces to Fort Sam Houston, to build and strengthen partnerships during a week-long training exercise in August.
PANAMAX, as this exercise is known, began in 2003 with only Chile, Panama and the United States conducting a maritime security exercise focused on the Panama Canal. The exercise has grown exponentially over the past 19 years to become the largest coalition command post exercise in the region.
“To see 19 countries come together for a common cause has been phenomenal to watch, to be part of and to lead,” said the commander of U.S. Army South, Maj. Gen. William L. Thigpen, who served as the commander for the exercise’s Multinational Forces - South, or MNF-S. “Interoperability is absolutely the cornerstone of what we do and we had a chance to see it from the human, procedural, and technical dimensions working together every day on a 24-hour cycle.”
This year’s iteration of PANAMAX had representatives from each of the 19 participating nations working side by side in every aspect of the exercise. Noncommissioned officers and junior enlisted Soldiers played integral roles in leading and training in their respective areas of expertise.
Staff Sgt. Neldon Lara, an intelligence analyst from the Belize Defense Force, discussed his experience during PANAMAX and explained that rank and nationality were not barriers to success but that everyone worked together with shared responsibilities throughout the exercise.
“We met a couple of comrades from other countries, we were NCOs and they were officers, and even though they had higher rank, we had good interactions with them and they treated us as equals,” said Lara. “When we go back home we will share what we learned with other NCOs so they are prepared for future exercises or something real.”
Working through a command post exercise is always challenging as scenarios typically move at a fast pace and are designed to stress the systems put in place by the various staff sections that make up the command.
The MNF-S exceeded expectations developed during the multiple planning conferences that led up to the exercise. More importantly, PANAMAX participants garnered a deeper understanding of how a group of nations can work together as one coalition to take on a significant event in the region should one arise.
“The number one lesson we learned was that the opportunity to put together a multinational, multicultural coalition, seeking a common objective is very important at the strategic, operational and tactical levels,” explained Brazilian Maj. Gen. Rodrigo Ferraz Silva, who served as the commanding general for the Combined Forces Land Component Command throughout PANAMAX.
He continued by explaining that the exercise presented a great opportunity to learn how to win a conflict not only through the use of force but also by operating in the information environment and managing the narrative.
During the closing ceremony of PANAMAX, senior leaders provided remarks focused on lessons learned throughout the exercise and emphasizing the importance of conducting multinational training exercises in the future.
“This is a humble opportunity for all of us to be together as partners of the western hemisphere and to learn from each other,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Graves, U.S. Army South Command Sergeant Major who served as the MNF-S Senior Enlisted Advisor during PANAMAX. “The message I share with all of our Central American, South American and Caribbean countries is that we can’t do it alone; it takes a team to build a network of friendship and partnership to defend the Western Hemisphere.”
With this year’s iteration of PANAMAX now complete, the U.S. Army, along with the many Latin America and Caribbean security forces who took part this year, can begin looking ahead to the 20th anniversary of the exercise scheduled to take place next year.