UTAPAO, Thailand - In a village too small to recognize on a map, the principal of the Wadnakhunsan School in the Ratchaburi Province in Central Thailand, observes progress on a multi-purpose room currently under construction in front of the main school building.
The building and four others presently under construction at schools in the region are projects in support of Exercise Cobra Gold 2010. Cobra Gold is a regularly scheduled joint and coalition multinational exercise hosted annually by the Kingdom of Thailand.
This year marks the 29th iteration for the exercise, which consists of a Global Peacekeeping Operations Initiative Exercise, Command Post Exercise, Humanitarian and Civic Action projects and field training exercises.
Since their inception into Cobra Gold, Engineer Civic Assistance Program projects have been on the forefront of the exercise, not only providing necessary infrastructure to communities, but valuable training to U.S. Armed Forces and Royal Thai Armed Forces engineers. This year engineers from the Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Darat, or Indonesian Army and the Republic of Korea are working side-by-side and training with the U.S. and Thai engineers.
"These are a huge part of Cobra Gold," said Maj. Carl Beury, U.S. Army Pacific, Civil Affairs operations officer and lead planner for the projects. "It shows we are not just out at the rifle range or at the field training site doing tactics. We are doing positive things for communities and, on top of that, these are great training opportunities (for the engineers)."
Beury further stressed the importance of these projects for the future of U.S. troops.
"These servicemembers will eventually go downrange and do this as a part of contingency operations," said Beury. "This is very important for them."
This year's engineer projects are solely focused on schools and are all the same blue print, said Beury. The structures are all 65 feet by 26 feet buildings, and he said their use is at the discretion of the school. Beury also said he hopes the buildings will better the communities and provide a "very nice and very sustainable" workspace and meeting space for both children and their parents.
The additional buildings also mean more children will be able to stay in the area to attend school.
"By building a bigger and nicer school, it means the local children will have somewhere to go and provides a better chance they will stay in the village to go to school. It also means the community will have a place to conduct local business," said U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Marc Jolicoeur, 176th Engineer Company, Washington Army National Guard.
Joliceur is the Officer-in-Charge at the Baan Pu Plu School ENCAP site in Petchaburi.
In small communities such as these, Beury said, schools act as a hub for a community and great importance is placed on the school and its faculty.
"Schools are a second home for the students," said Chonlada Sawangruk, the principal at the Wadnakhunsan School. "We not only give them a technical education, but we teach them how to be good people in society."
Selection of these sites was a process which began about a year before construction started. Beury said there were 14 sites selected by the Government of Thailand as well as the U.S. joint military advisory group. The sites were eventually whittled down to five, based on need, funding and location.
"One of the criteria for an ENCAP project is that we are at least 50 km away from a major town or city," said U.S. Army Capt. David Myer, commander, 176th Eng. Co. and OIC at the Wadnakhunsan School site.
The distance to a larger city or town is little deterrence for interaction with the local population. Each site's U.S. servicemembers have spent time with the people they are helping.
"The people have been very welcoming," said U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. Matthew Munroe, job site commander, and officer assigned to the Marine Wing Support Squadron 172 based in Okinawa, Japan. Marines from MWSS-172 are working closely with Royal Thai Marines at the Nong Jek Sroi School in the Chantaburi Province. "They go out of their way to say hello every morning and they love to share their knowledge of English, and teach us the Thai language."
This interaction with the local populace is an extension of the interaction these servicemembers get on the job sites daily.
"This is a useful operation, which shows the close relationship between the U.S. and Thai military units," said Royal Thai Army Col. Suchart Suttinol, chief of 1st Region Development Office, "this good relationship between the militaries and the local populace is important."
The engineers on site build on that relationship daily and they are constantly talking and learning about each other about the different ways the construction is completed, Munroe said.
"This is a true learning process, the Royal Thai Marines are very proficient in their job, and they have been helping us a lot," said U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Anthony Tejada, foreman at the Nong Jek Sroi School.
Both U.S. and Thai servicemembers at each site expressed their pleasure in working together.
"This is a great experience and I am glad we can join together," said Royal Thai Marine Petty Officer 1st Class Wirapa Saenrot, deputy foreman at the Nong Jek Sroi School. "It was great to learn about advanced technology and teach (the Americans) about how we do things."
Each H/CA site is nearing completion and dedication ceremonies are scheduled throughout the exercise