“The Military Personnel Exchange Program serves a valuable role in our security cooperation efforts here in Colombia as it is two-way,” said Lt. Col. Charles Nolan, chief of the U.S. Army Mission to Colombia. “U.S. exchange officers live and work with specific units or organizations here in Colombia and Colombian officers do the same in the U.S.”
According to Nolan, the U.S. exchange personnel in Colombia occupy key positions where they not only develop relationships with the units they work with, they also support important U.S. Southern Command programs and U.S. Military Group efforts to develop critical Colombian army capabilities.
One such exchange is going on in Tolemaida, the primary training center for the Colombian army and home to the Lancero School. Capt. Julio Rivera is a guest instructor at the school after having completed the Lancero School himself last December. He now helps train about 80 students per three-month cycle.
Lancero School is the first level of Colombian army special operations training and traces its roots to the U.S. Army Ranger School. Rivera is also a Ranger and says that the Lancero School is very like Ranger training but the terrain where the schools train is quite different.
“Each school is tough in their respective terrain and application of doctrine,” Rivera said.
They are both also physically challenging.
“I lost 22 pounds in Ranger training when I was 30 years old and 48 pounds in Lancero School as a 39-year-old,” Rivera said. “These schools really test you, both physically and mentally.”
Lancero School is longer than Ranger training lasting three months. During those three months, students learn irregular warfare operations in both jungle and mountain terrain. They conduct water survival training; water obstacle crossings; survival training; air assault training; basic medical training; and receive training on human rights throughout all phases. After graduation they are Lanceros and can serve in special operations units such as Agrupacion de Lanceros (Lanceros Group) and Brigada Fuerzas Especiales y Reconocimieto (Special Forces and Recon Brigade).
As a foreign guest instructor, Rivera focuses on developing and improving course objectives, doctrine, and tactics, techniques and procedures with his Colombian army counterparts. In addition to instructing at the Lancero school he also rotates between the jungle school, the high mountain school, the rope master course and shooting school committees within the Lancero School. He also acts as the subject matter expert and direct link to the U.S. Military Group and U.S. Army Mission in Colombia for Lancero School issues.
Rivera keeps up a busy schedule.
“I’m assigned to the school’s Studies Inspection Department,” Rivera said. “We are currently reviewing the Lancero manual and the Escape, Survival, Resist, Evade manual. I also instruct courses, serve as an assistant instructor and also as a safety officer during events.”
Rivera additionally acts as an observer controller for evaluating students and a course inspector for evaluating instructors. He also advises and assists the staff during their day-to-day operations.
Rivera is on an 18-month unaccompanied tour but his family does visit him and the decision to take this assignment was a family one.
“My family supports me,” Rivera said. “They fell in love with Colombia during our vacation to the coast and small islands off the Caribbean coast of Colombia.”
He plans to use the experience he has gained in Colombia and apply for foreign intermediate level education in Brazil with an eventual assignment back to the 7th Special Forces Group.
Another Soldier who is serving in the MPEP in Colombia is Sgt. 1st Class Francisco Mendez. Mendez is assigned to the staff of the Center of Military Education (CEMIL) in Bogota and is the counterpart to the Colombian noncommissioned officer (NCO) who is assigned to Henry Caro NCO Academy at Fort Benning, Ga., as part of the exchange program.
Mendez rotates between NCO courses within CEMIL and also serves as U.S. Southern Command’s point of contact for the Colombian Sergeants Major Academy. Southern Command provided funding for the establishment of the Sergeants Major Academy and continues to assist with its development.
Mendez also assists with doctrine development and improving Colombian military capabilities to enhance the military’s ability to provide for its own security needs and contribute to regional initiatives.
“My contribution to the Colombian army is providing NCO professional development skills based on U.S. Army doctrine,” said Mendez. “The Colombian NCO corps is still in its beginning stages of development. My efforts are focused on helping them establish a NCO corps that will earn the trust of their leaders, subordinates and soldiers to lead them through the tough fight they face.”
As the subject matter expert on Colombian NCO development issues and the link between the military group and the Colombian military on those issues, Mendez has an active schedule.
“I evaluate training plans with the CEMIL staff and act as their Subject Matter expert on U.S. doctrine for NCO development,” Mendez said. “I conduct all U.S. doctrine classes which include the roles and responsibilities of the NCO at each level and provide them with training plans to train their troops.”
Based in Bogota, Mendez is a single Soldier. Mendez said that his immediate family understands his mission in Colombia and understands the good the assignment is doing in the region.
Mendez plans to share the experience gained on this assignment with his leaders, peers and subordinates in future assignments.
“I plan to return to a BCT (brigade combat team) and share the knowledge I have learned in Colombia,” he said . “This assignment has been a great experience since I was exposed to a different type of environment and have seen how the Colombian Army has adapted to certain situations, which will be useful upon my return to a combat unit. I have also learned more about the diplomatic side of things, understanding the ‘bigger picture’ of a situation.”
The MPEP in Colombia not only provides Soldiers with career enhancing experiences, it is one of the tools used by the Army to maintain a strong working relationship with the Colombian army. This relationship benefits both armies by strengthening each institution through the sharing of experiences and lessons learned.
Nolan said that the work that Rivera and Mendez are doing is very important to the success of the U.S. security cooperation mission in Colombia because it helps to build the capabilities of the Colombian army. As Colombian military capacity grows, Colombia becomes a stronger regional and global partner capable of assisting the United States and other countries with military training and operations.
“Colombia has already started to export these capabilities to other countries in the region, which is our long-term security cooperation goal,” said Nolan. “ The Military Personnel Exchange Program contributes to the success we have had here.”