Every day, Honduran Emilson Abelardo Guzmn wanders down below his village to the Mame River, where engineers from Louisiana and Missouri National Guard units are building a new footbridge.
The young farmer from the village of Los Encuentros, which has remained isolated since last October's hurricane Mitch tore out an older footbridge, has a particular interest in seeing the US soldiers complete their work: He hopes to find a wife soon and bring her back to live in Los Encuentros.
"It's already asking a lot of a woman to spend the rest of her life with Emilson," teases a grinning Abel Prez, the prospective bridegroom's friend. "But he knows no woman's about to marry him if she has to wade across this river to get to her house. So he's really cheering on the gringos."
For the men and women working in Honduras and Nicaragua as part of Central America's post-Mitch reconstruction, it's nice to feel the local people's appreciation.
"It's really different when you see these people who are so enthused about what we're doing," says Staff Sgt. Ellis Taylor, an Army engineer from Livingston, Ala., who is part of the contingent from the National Guard, the Army Reserves, and a sprinkling of active duty soldiers from the US military.
With the village having lost 24 of its 80 houses in the floods, the new bridge is the key to getting the area on its feet again.
"At home our training generally consists of building something and then taking it down," says Sergeant Taylor, "but here you really feel the purpose."
Toiling under a hot Central American sun, the footbridge construction crew is just one small piece of the $1 billion in assistance the United States has approved to help Central America rise from the devastation Mitch left in its wake.
Aid gets a human face
Yet while that aid is usually treated in terms of generalities like infrastructure reconstruction, economic recovery, or foreign debt forgiveness, it is the soldiers in Honduras's Aguan Valley and the Estel region of northern Nicaragua who give it a human face.
"Back home you heard about Mitch, and then you heard about the [US] government coming through with assistance, but this is the real thing," says Sgt. Sandy Lewis, looking over the foundation his National Guard unit from Ironton, Ohio, is pouring for two new school buildings in Casablanca, Nicaragua. "We're getting something done that's useful for this community."
The post-Mitch reconstruction being carried out by military task forces in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala is part of a decade-old program called New Horizons.
Before New Horizons, annual training exercises for National Guard and Reserve units were carried out in the US. Sometimes that training resulted in useful projects for American communities.
"After Mitch we knew there would be a great need for the medical readiness training we do, for new schools, wells, roads, and bridges, so we found every unit out there that needs training, and we threw them into the mix." says Steve Lucas, a spokesman for the US Southern Command in Miami.
Some units were ready to participate even before they were called. Coming from a state with a large Honduran population, the Louisiana National Guard started preparing for a Central America exercise not long after the winds of Mitch stopped. They arrived in Honduras in February and will stay until projects are finished in August.
"Instead of doing routine training back home, our people are confronted with real-life situations and completing projects the local population is going to depend on," says Lt. Col. Daniel J. Falanga, a Louisiana Guardsman and executive officer for the Aguan Valley Task Force. "There's no simulation here."
By August, 13 rotations totaling almost 5,000 soldiers will have moved through "Camp Aguan" - a small city of sleeping tents, mess halls, a telecommunications center, water purification facilities, repair shops, and acres of heavy equipment, all set up on land owned by the Dole fruit company.
After Mitch struck Central America, wiping out much of the infrastructure in the region's two poorest countries - Nicaragua and Honduras - leaders said they would not just rebuild their countries, but rebuild better.
At Camp Aguan, Colonel Falanga says the US military projects are being built with a three- to five-year life span envisioned. "Actually it's probably a better fix than that, but it's in anticipation that Honduras and countries like the US will come together to replace this with something more permanent later."
Rebuilding to last
That may be the case with some of the road work. But the soldiers working on the bridges and schools say they are sure no one's going to redo their work anytime soon.
"We're building this to withstand a lot," says Sergeant Lewis of his school buildings in Nicaragua. "We're building this to last." The same attitude prevails at the Mame River footbridge.
"This is not a standard Army bridge, this is a suspension bridge with a 190-foot span that is five feet wide, a lot higher above the river than the old bridge, and a lot stronger," says Capt. Floyd Pruitt, foreman of the project. "We'll leave behind a mini Golden Gate Bridge."
One of the goals of the New Horizons exercises is to prepare units for quick response to other emergencies, whether natural disasters or human conflicts.
"Most of my unit is in Albania right now," says Capt. Pam Grover, whose well-drilling team out of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada is digging eight wells in Nicaragua in three weeks. "This is great training so that we're ready to go when something like Kosovo comes up." Captain Grover's team consists of active duty personnel. But since 75 percent of the Central American task forces are "weekend soldiers" from the Reserves and National Guard, there's little chance they'd be sent much farther from the US.
After a team from Camp Aguan dug a new well for the nearby village of Chorrera, the townspeople sent the local marimba band to play as a token of thanks. Accompanying the band were five truckloads of villagers who taught the soldiers how to dance to marimba music.
"These people lost so much in Mitch that they really want to show their appreciation," says Aguan Base Commander Capt. Lynn Borel. "And it's nice for our guys to have a good feeling to take home along with their training."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society