U.S. marines and sailors with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Southern Command (SPMAGTF-SC) held a final formation at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, November 18th. The service members arrived in Camp Lejeune on the day prior, ending their six-month deployment to several Central American and Caribbean nations.
“During the course of the past six months we operated primarily in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, but also deployed mobile training teams to Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Panama,” said U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Michael V. Samarov, the commander of SPMAGTF-SC. “Our primary missions were to conduct security cooperation training with partner nation military forces, posture for disaster response in the region, and conduct infrastructure improvement projects approved by the governments of our partner nations.”
The marines trained for three months at Camp Lejeune before deploying the Command Element to Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, to provide command and control for every element of the task force operating in the region. With teams spread out across Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize, the Logistics Combat Element (LCE) successfully completed seven engineering projects. In Guatemala, LCE marines constructed a military operations in urban terrain training facility in Jutiapa for the Guatemalan Army’s 3rd Brigade as well as renovated a school in the nearby town of Guazacapán. In Honduras, marines completed renovations of four separate schools in the vicinity of Trujillo, a town on the northern coast of the country.
Marines also conducted extensive improvements to a military hospital at Price Barracks in Ladyville, Belize. In each country, the marines worked shoulder to shoulder with partner nation military engineer units to complete the projects.
“By the end of the deployment all of the projects were completed,” said U.S. Marine Corps Captain Ismael R. Lopez, the civil military operations planner with SPMAGTF-SC. “We increased partner nation capacity via their militaries, their medical capacity and their education systems.”
At the same time, the Ground Combat Element’s (GCE) four security cooperation training teams, as well as their two mobile training teams, instructed partner nation forces across eight countries in topics such as land navigation, patrolling, martial arts, marksmanship, and basic infantry tactics. “This specific mission is interesting, especially for infantry, because now instead of being instructed, we get to instruct,” said U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Lee C. Gugino, an infantry tactics instructor with the Belize Detachment, GCE, SPMAGTF-SC. “It allows us to formally learn how to teach skills we are going to use back at our units. When we come home, we become better trainers for our own junior marines.”
Supporting the missions of the LCE and GCE were the marines and sailors of the Aviation Combat Element (ACE) and their four CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters. “The ACE brought the heavy-lift capability that the marine corps brings to the fight,” Capt. Lopez said. “Primarily, they were used to transport heavy equipment in support of the engineering projects as well as move around personnel who were required in the different countries to support training and various events.”
In addition to these established missions, the marines of SPMAGTF-SC were called upon to support humanitarian aid and disaster relief efforts in the Caribbean Sea in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria as part of Joint Task Force - Leeward Islands (JTF-LI). “JTF-LI was an incredible experience,” Capt. Lopez said. “You had the SPMAGTF deploying from Honduras, setting up in Puerto Rico, and supporting HA/DR [humanitarian assistance and disaster relief] missions on the islands of St. Martin and Dominica.”
In St. Martin after hurricane Irma, teams of marine corps water support technicians purified and distributed water to citizens in need. “On St. Martin we had two sites that we were doing water purification with the light weight water purification systems,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Jebadiah A. James, the supply and logistics chief with JTF-LI. “We produced and distributed over 80,000 gallons of water to the local populace that was in need. We also did a lot of work with the French and Dutch governments and delivered about 250,000 pounds of relief supplies for them to distribute out.”
With hurricane Maria quickly approaching, JTF-LI had to quickly relocate resources and shelter personnel in Puerto Rico before pushing out once again to support the mission in Dominica. “The mission in Dominica was primarily the evacuation of American citizens at first,” Capt. Lopez said. “That quickly transitioned into the transportation and delivery of goods into austere or remote locations on the island to reach populations in need.”
Ultimately, the success of the deployment and impact these experiences had on the marines and sailors of SPMAGTF-SC has made them more capable and confident at their jobs as they return to the United States. “My experience with SPMAGTF-SC was a very good one,” said U.S. Marine Corps 2nd Lieutenant Matthew A. Lopata, a watch officer with SPMAGTF-SC. “We had a lot of interaction with other units, other forces and the local people. That has been an opportunity of a lifetime.”