SONSONATE, El Salvador - About 1,400 National Guard, reserve and active-duty Soldiers and Airmen working side by side with their counterparts from four other militaries are building a lot more than four new schoolhouses in remote El Salvadoran communities.
With each concrete slab laid, each earthquake-resistant wall raised and each corrugated aluminum roof put into place, many recognize that they are building new hope and opportunity for the people of El Salvador – and new bonds that, like the schools they are building, will last a lifetime.
Army Lt. Col Raymond Valas, commander of Joint Task Force Jaguar, is overseeing the Beyond the Horizons 2013 mission in El Salvador. In addition to construction projects in four communities in the country's Sonsonate and Ahuachapan states, it includes two medical exercises, a dental exercise and two veterinary exercises, all conducted by engineering, medical, dental and veterinary professionals from the U.S., El Salvadoran, Colombian, Chilean and Canadian militaries.
Valas called the multinational participation one of the most important aspects of the mission, led by U.S. Army South in support of U.S. Southern Command's theater engagement efforts. All, he said, are working together in demanding conditions to accomplish a common goal.
He recalled walking the construction site for a new school in Las Marias, and marveling at how easily a U.S. Soldier, a Colombian Soldier, two Chilean Soldiers and a Salvadoran Soldier pulled together to pour concrete in sweltering 120 degree temperatures.
"No one put them together in that way. It was just a group of engineers from different countries, getting together to get the mission done," he said. "And all the differences between us kind of melt away as we focus on the task at hand. You take your motivation from one another, and it has an overall impact on our Soldiers that just can't be measured."
The new construction projects are quickly becoming the prides of their local communities. One, in rural El Taramindo, includes two new classrooms, a bathroom with flushing toilets and running water and storage space.
"We used to have a lack of almost everything," said Raquel Ruano, describing the old structure, a refabricated building that turned into an oven under unrelenting summer temperatures and flooded during every rainfall.
The school had become the butt of jokes in neighboring communities, but now Ruano and her students can barely wait to move into the shiny new blue-and-white structure that will replace it.
"We are so very thankful," she said, gathering with the children to watch the progress taking place. "Now we feel whole."
A second project, in Rancho San Marcos, consists of a two-room schoolhouse and latrine, including running water, a septic system and grading to divert standing water toward a nearby river.
"It's a lot of hard work, and it's very hot," acknowledged Army Staff Sgt. R.W. Lemmons, a Wisconsin National Guard Soldier serving as the site's noncommissioned officer in charge.
But as he walked the site, past the tired-looking brick school directly behind the new building, Lemmons said all that is quickly forgotten when he sees the excitement among the local children.
"When you see the smiling faces of the kids, it makes it all worth it," he said. "This is going to be forever."
The largest construction site, in Las Marias, consists of a new, three-room school, latrine and kitchen. The community has no school, and local children had to walk almost an hour along a dangerous roadway to attend classes in a neighboring town.
Army Sgt. Anthony Rorick, a New Hampshire National Guard member serving as the site project manager, admits to a paternal tug at his heartstrings when he talks about what the new structure will mean to the local children. As a new father whose child was born just a week before he deployed here in late March, Rorick said, he's found particular reward in helping to give other children a better future.
"The gratification is knowing that we are doing something important for the people in this community," he said. "It makes what we are doing really rewarding work."
The final construction project, in El Castano, consists of new latrines to replace dilapidated outhouses at the schoolhouse there.
With the Soldiers and Airmen on schedule to complete the projects within the next two weeks, Valas said their most lasting memories will be those formed in the local communities, especially with the children. "They build real friendships, and there is mutual admiration and a sense of respect that goes two ways," he said.
"The kids in the neighborhoods are so happy that they are going to have a new school to study in, and there is a lot of excitement about that," Valas said. "And I think our Soldiers gain a respect for the folks in those communities – their day-to-day lives, what their joys and their hardships are.
A real bond is built there, and I think that is something we will all take with us when we leave here that will last a lifetime."
Those bonds are particularly strong for members of the New Hampshire National Guard, a 12-year partner with El Salvador through the Guard's State Partnership Program. Valas, for example, and his senior noncommissioned officer, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Speltz, first came to El Salvador through that program in 2002. The New Hampshire Guard now conducts more than a dozen exchanges with El Salvadoran military and government representatives every year.
"So we have a real stake in what we are doing here," Valas said. "We know that we are coming back to El Salvador," he added, noting that this provides an even greater incentive to do the best job possible.
"We are going to come back and see those results," he said. "We won't just build it and then walk away."
For many of the other Beyond the Horizon participants, one of the difficulties is leaving at the end of their scheduled rotations without getting to see their projects through to completion. "A little of their heart stays here," Valas said.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Infante, a Maine National Guardsman who arrived here in May for his two-week annual training, ended up volunteering to finish out the exercise as noncommissioned officer in charge of all four construction programs.
Infante said he loves watching the projects take shape, and the problem-solving and decision-making that goes into it. "This is the best training you can get," he said. But the greatest satisfaction, he added, is knowing the long-term impact the schools will have on their communities.
"It all begins with education. And if we can do something to make it easier for the society to educate their kids, then that is a big step in the right direction," he said.
Valas said everyone involved in the mission recognizes the role they have played in helping to educate El Salvador's future generation. "And if any of our Soldiers should pass through El Salvador again, they are going to know that their work there, and the sweat and labor they put into building those schools, is something they can take pride in forever," he said.
A second Beyond the Horizons 2013 exercise is underway in Panama, and a sister mission, New Horizons 2013, is taking place in Belize.