Soldiers Return To Their First Humanitarian Mission After 22 Years

Story by SFC Richard Stowell on 06/15/2017
Fifteen courses of blocks rise up from a dusty lot in the village of Double Head Cabbage in rural Belize. It will soon house a medical clinic, replacing an old wooden frame structure 50 yards to the south.

Army Staff Sergeant Juan Cruz looks on as Belizean soldiers stucco the new building's western face.

East of the construction site stands Belize Rural High School, a single story structure with exterior corridors and brightly painted columns. Cruz knows it well. He was there when it went up, too, in 1995. He laughs as he thinks about how long it took him to realize it.

"My first day [back at this site] I didn't even recognize it," he admits.

Cruz had been in Belize for a few weeks when he first went out to the spot where the clinic building would soon go up. Another Soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Miguel Carrasquillo, told him to go look at the plaque on the school next door.

The cast iron plaque next to the principal's office reads,
"This project was made possible through the efforts of the governments of Belize and the United States of America. This school was constructed by the men and women of the Belize Defence Force and the 448th Engineer Battalion, United States Army Reserve, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. June 1995."

"I recognized it immediately," said Carrasquillo, speaking about the time he visited the clinic site last July. "As soon as I got there I knew it was the same building we constructed 22 years ago. I knew because it was the only building I have ever built with a roof like that."

Cruz and Carrasquillo are still with the 448th Engineer Battalion, 210th Regional Support Command. They are back in the country for Beyond the Horizon 2017, a combined joint exercise that runs from late March until June 17, designed to provide engineering and medical support to Belize. They, along with Chief Warrant Officer 3 Herminio Romero and Sgt. 1st Class Miguel Rivera are part of Task Force Jaguar. The new clinic structure at Double Head Cabbage is one of five construction projects underway here.

Carrasquillo was part of the task force planning group, and had conducted a leaders' reconnaissance the previous summer. He was excited to tell others who worked on the school that they'd be doing another project so close.

All four of the Soldiers were carpenters when they worked on the school. Cruz, Carrasquillo, and Romero held the rank of specialists. Rivera was a sergeant. They were all on their first major training outside the country.

Romero enlisted in 1989 and after two years on active duty, he continued his service in the Army Reserve joining the 448th Engineer Battalion in Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico.

"I came out in the first rotation, as part of Bravo Company. We did the foundation and the slab," said Romero.

Cruz and Rivera were part of Alpha Company, who came in on the second rotation. They began the walls and columns of the schoolhouse. Carrasquillo's company, Delta, finished the walls, and Charlie Company emplaced the roof and painted the structure.

While Carrasquillo had been back to Belize as part of the planning group for Beyond the Horizon 2017, Cruz, Romero, and Rivera didn't arrive until March of this year. Cruz first went to the Double Head Cabbage clinic site in late March.

Then, in early April, Maj. Gen. K.K. Chinn, commander of U.S. Army South, visited Belize and toured the project sites with exercise leaders, including Romero. Accompanying Chinn was Brig. Gen. David Jones, commander of the Belize Defence Force. When they visited the Double Head Cabbage clinic, Cruz mentioned the coincidence. As they talked, Jones paused, according to Cruz.

"He looked at me and said, you worked on that school?' Then he tells me he was there, too."

He told Romero and Cruz that he was a platoon leader as a new lieutenant in the Belize Defence Force. They all walked over to visit the school and see the plaque again. As they read the plaque, Jones saw a familiar face. The custodian of the school was the same woman from 22 years ago. She gave Jones a hug.

"Not until I was with General Jones and General Chinn and we started talking did it hit my mind. This really was the same building we built way back then," said Romero.

Another person who remembers the schoolhouse going up in 1995 is Mary Wade, the vice principal at the Rural Belize High School. Twenty-two years ago she was teaching English literature and social studies.

"I had never had any interaction with the U.S. Army until then," said Wade. "I was happy that they were here and optimistic that the work they did would improve our school. We really needed that building."

The four Soldiers didn't all know each other on that mission, but became friends over the years as members of the same unit.

None of them had ever seen the completed schoolhouse until now. They all credit their time and experience as Soldiers with the motivation to keep volunteering for civil assistance missions.

"When I joined the Army I saw myself as a combat Soldier. But as I got more mature I realized that it's more important to be part of something bigger," said Romero. "When I was young I wanted to fight; now I know I can help more with hammers and nails than with guns and bullets."

The impact that the 22-year-old schoolhouse has had on the community it serves is significant, according to Wade.

"This building means that our community will always have the support of the United States. It means a lot to us. We will always treasure it," she said.

It is a sign of optimism for the future as well as a memory, according to Wade. "When I see those Soldiers working [on the clinic], it reminds me of when they built our school," she said.

Carrasquillo says it is a good feeling to know that the result of their work is still helping the community.

"Working construction, especially on a humanitarian mission, really pays off because you get to see how it benefits the local people," added Rivera.

Cruz is happy knowing that his work as a young Soldier helped so many children.

"Be proud of the work you do here," added Romero. "You never know when you'll get the opportunity to see the results of it."



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