HONDURAS and GUATEMALA — Boots are dirty again. National Guard, Navy and Air Force reservists along with a handful of active Army support Troops are on the ground in Honduras and Guatemala this spring and summer. About 250 are deployed in each country at any given day. They are engaged in an exercise known as “Beyond the Horizons”.
These engineer-heavy task forces are oriented on construction tasks, building new or renovating existing schools and clinics in small villages throughout the countryside. Some new construction is targeted to replace infrastructure lost to Hurricane Mitch – more than 13 years ago, and leaving villages without local services ever since.
The tasks are clear. The plans are drawn. The Soldiers, Airmen and Sailors are getting the job done.
For many younger Troops, this is a first trip out of the United States. Veterans find themselves in different circumstances than offered by previous deployments. A few have done both and reminisce about humanitarian and civic assistance missions they’ve been a part of over the years.
At a town hall meeting with Soldiers, the usual topics don’t present themselves. Usually, people want to know about promotion processes, changes in the kinds of units and the ability of the state to pay for certain kinds of schools. This town hall is different. The focus here is laser-like and oriented on what more can be done to help the local people.
On the work sites, the spirit of cooperation between US and local citizens is alive and easy to see. The transformation of young US Soldiers and young host-nation Soldiers, local children and adults alike is ongoing right before our eyes. It is a magnificent sight to see.
It’s at this point where an otherwise casual observer, who, if he takes a little effort to look just a bit closer, can begin to see an intangible, but important element beginning to appear.
It won’t be immediately known, nor, hopefully, may it ever need re-emerge in a life-time, but it is there – forever.
It is the element of doubt.
The element of doubt is a crucial by-product of the goings on during these engineering exercises in our neighboring countries. The element of doubt all parties come away with from this place may far save more blood and treasure than is ever invested in a small village school or clinic.
When the day comes – and it likely will, the element of doubt installed here will be used to formulate the questions and to create the tone of tolerance or acceptance of similar, but diverse cultures. “Are you sure?” the now 12-year-old, then thirty, may ask, “I don’t remember the Americans being that way.”
“I doubt that’s true,” they may say. They can say it because they’re armed with the personal experience necessary to say it. Similarly, the Soldier who sits in the coffee shop and reads the headlines years from now thinks the same… “I doubt that’s the case.”
The first-hand experience is far more credible and powerful than the second or third-hand “information” conveyed by mass media outlets who formulate the daily news or simply relay the messages of populist, power-hungry, self-centered leaders.
Then, the rest of the questions will come. Others, who find “those in doubt” more credible than the television news, can then join the dialog with their own doubts and questions. Incomplete or misinformation becomes more questionable and harder to comprehend.
Engagement in such a meaningful measure as we see now and in decades past in Honduras, Guatemala and other places around the world can be, in fact, far more powerful than the meager investment of taxpayer dollars here may seem to suggest.
If power were measured solely in dollars or mere tangible evidence left behind such as a small village school, the Beyond The Horizons exercise series could not statistically match the tangible loss of life and trillion dollars of national treasure expended in open, hot conflict. Engagement in the form of Beyond The Horizons, and activities like it, would seem powerless to do anything meaningful at all. The opposite is true.
At the end of the day, the Soldier’s spirit is renewed. The same is true for those who now have come to know us.
To be certain, not all can be resolved or prevented with dirty boots, dirty fingernails, sweat, a shovel and a smile between new friends. However, the opportunity to sweat together in cooperation can be far more positive, meaningful and powerful than our fully demonstrated ability to bleed in opposition to one another.
I have no doubt.
This element of doubt may be a key to peace.
This summer, it has been effectively installed here in these critical places – the minds of all touched: US, Guatemalan and Honduran alike.