BELMOPAN, Belize (March 7, 2012) -- Deep in the jungle of Belize, five U.S. Army Soldiers, accompanied by soldiers from the Belize Defense Force, moved through unfamiliar terrain with their casualty. The ability to move their casualty more than 200 yards was strenuous due to the climate and terrain. Time was a factor for their casualty, and they knew it.
Sensing they were running out of time, the medics chopped their way through thick vegetation, rappelled down steep cliffs, crossed rapid rivers, and made their way through dark caves. Once they reached their objective, the unusual happened. Their patient stood up, smiled and praised them on a job well done.
The Army medics were participating in a two-week, U.S. Army South-sponsored Subject Matter Expert Exchange, or SMEE, with the Belize Defense Force and the Belize Coast Guard Service. The exchange required the U.S. Soldiers to step outside their comfort zones and slither through the jungle and rivers of Belize, all while staying focused on properly executing their skills.
With the stability and security of the U.S. and partner nations dependent upon ability to work together to detect, deter and disrupt common security challenges, conducting exchanges with partner nations ensures the Army's regional partners are ready and able to meet potential threats.
During the two-week exchange, the Belizeans trained the U.S. Soldiers in various elements of high-difficulty casualty evacuations. Whether it was rappelling down sheer cliffs, using ropes to cross swift rivers, or crawling into confined spaces during cave rescues, the scenarios and terrain provided by the Belizean soldiers offered their U.S. counterparts an unparalleled training opportunity.
"The most important part of an opportunity like this is it gets the Soldiers out in an environment that they would otherwise not have," said Maj. Al Brown, U.S. Army South G-3 operations officer. "Back home, the conditions are not quite as challenging as you have here in the jungle. To get this deep into a jungle environment and train is pretty hard to do."
Being able to treat a wound in a brick building with sound security and a working air conditioner may seem ideal, but being able to overcome exhaustion, sweltering heat and unfavorable terrain can quickly turn the situation from ideal to deadly if unprepared.
"As medics, we may find ourselves in a jungle or cave environment and it's our duty to be able to go in there and extract that patient safely," said Sgt. Eric Chappell, a medic assigned to the 228th Combat Support Hospital in San Antonio. "Any U.S. Soldier who comes through this program will be able to take this training back with them and use it effectively. There's no question in my mind that this course has been tough."
Sgt. Matthew Archilla, a medic assigned to the 228th Combat Support Hospital, believes the training he received in Belize has the ability to pay immediate dividends.
"A lot of the rappel training they gave us is really relevant," said Archilla. "Our current situation in Afghanistan has us operating in a lot of mountainous terrain. Allowing a medic to get in there and learn how to package a patient in that type of terrain is extremely beneficial."
While the Belize Defense Force is a relatively small military, only consisting of about 1,000 troops, the experience its service members have operating in a jungle environment makes their training invaluable to partner nations seeking to improve their own capabilities.
"It's good to see how other armies handle different situations," said Spc. Marco Borrego, a health care specialist assigned to Army South's Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion. "We can learn from them just as much as they can learn from us."
After successfully making their way through the jungle, the U.S. Soldiers reciprocated the training by providing the Belizeans with medical care classes designed to improve the host nation's ability to effectively treat casualties in hostile situations.
"We taught them trauma casualty care, a step above the combat lifesaver course," said Sgt. 1st Class Efrem Dicochea, a medical operations non-commissioned officer assigned to Army South. "This will assist the Belizeans in developing the skills needed to be able to treat and evacuate casualties in a combat environment. It's important because it gives the host nation confidence in their medics so they can operate in an austere environment away from definitive care."
Since the Belizean soldiers participating already had basic medical skills, the U.S. medics provided medical training to the host-nation soldiers in how to treat casualties under fire.
"The majority of the rescuers and military here already have the rescue side down," said Cpl. Wendy Garcia, a combat medic with the Belize Defense Force. "The medical training is what we really needed to help us expand more on our medical knowledge. An exchange like this really helps us stay up-to-date on real-world changes in the medical world."
"This is very important for us," said Capt. Elfryn Reyes, the force medical officer for the Belize Defense Force. "We are always very happy when we get support from partner countries like the U.S. It is very important to keep this relationship because we complement each other. We hope this relationship can continue and grow."
In addition to the formal training, both groups spent some time enjoying the intricacies of the jungle during a 24-hour jungle immersion exercise.
"It was awesome living off the jungle," said Chappell. "You just had to go into the jungle, chop your way in and build a hut and live in that with absolutely nothing except some bread and water. We even ate termites."
"This has been a great experience," said Sgt. Christopher Pizano, the noncommissioned officer in charge, or NCOIC, for the medical section of Army South's HHBN. "Everyone brings their own expertise to the group and it's been a great experience working with them. They have taught us a lot about how to survive in the jungle. There has been no other training that I have seen that has been able to replicate something like this."
While the U.S. medics and their Belizean counterparts parted ways, the experience and training each group received will prove to be crucial toward building partner nation capacity and improving abilities to successfully work side-by-side on any future operations or exercises.
"If I'm out there working on a rescue and there is a Belizean soldier working alongside me, we both know the same information," said Archilla. "We're both tying the same knots; we're doing the same battlefield tactical combat casualty care. It just allows for a continuity and better cohesion."