NEWS | March 29, 2013

Women from the New Hampshire National Guard and Salvadoran military exchange security expertise

By 1st Lieutenant Alec Vargus 157th Air Refueling Wing

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - Women from the New Hampshire Air National Guard's Security Forces Squadron met last month with an all-female class of Salvadoran military and police for a week-long exchange of security forces expertise.

This is the second subject matter expert exchange put together for women here, who make up a small percentage of the Salvadoran military but are becoming increasingly important for several missions including combating drug trafficking. Only female officers are allowed to search female suspects due to Salvadoran cultural norms.

Based on an after-action report from the first SMEE (Subject Matter Expert Exchange), the Salvadorans wanted more hands-on time during this session to practice their skills in real-world scenarios.

On the first day the group ran drills on a variety of techniques including defensive rifle fighting, baton striking, and defensive knife skills.

The second day they tested these skills, attempting to handcuff and search volunteer suspects made up of their classmates in different scenarios. The conditions were randomized in that suspects could be either compliant or resistant to being searched, as well as possibly carrying weapons and other types of contraband.

Being Citizen-Soldiers in the Air National Guard allowed the female Security Forces members to draw from skills and experience in both their military and civilian careers.

Before joining the New Hampshire National Guard, Staff Sgt. Autumn Clark served in the active duty Air Force from 1998 to 2003. After that she spent more than three years as a corrections officer in a co-ed facility in Merrimack County, N.H.

Based on their real-life experiences, one of the key concepts the New Hampshire Guard members wanted to exchange was the importance of using body language and voice commands to convey confidence and authority. These things can help security personnel avoid physical confrontations.

"The number one tool in security forces is presence. Especially as a female, you really have to announce your presence when you come into a room. It will determine whether a situation is going to escalate or de-escalate," Clark said.

Chief Master Sgt. Brenda Blonigen also attended the subject matter expert exchange. While no longer in security forces, she served seven years active duty as a law enforcement specialist. As a civilian she has over twenty years of experience as a police officer and found she could relate to the Salvadoran women as being outnumbered by her male counterparts.

"When I first started in the civilian police field it was quite challenging. At the time there were only two other female officers in my department of 49 people. I had to prove myself as a police officer much more than my male counterparts, especially when it came to difficult situations," Blonigen said.

The classroom instruction was facilitated with the help of two interpreters who provided near real-time translation between English and Spanish. Breaking up into smaller groups or one-to-one instruction required some improvisation and creativity to communicate.

The class was able to overcome the language barrier by utilizing the Salvadoran females who spoke English to assist in translating, as well as using universally understood gestures.

Looking at the challenge as an opportunity, Senior Airman Devin Godfrey shared her insight into how this experience will be helpful to herself and her fellow Guard members.

"The people we work with every day back home, it's very easy to communicate. Down here we have to think outside the box when it comes to exchanging information. If I deploy somewhere that I don't speak the language, this experience will make it easier for me to interact with the local people there," Godfrey said.

The Salvadoran women are taking on a number of new roles in addition to security forces. The class included the first female fixed wing aircraft pilot, first female helicopter pilot, and one of the very first female Salvadoran naval officers. All of these firsts could be seen as a sign of the increasingly important role women are playing within the Salvadoran military.

Another member of the class is Lorena Sosa, who became one of the first female police officers in El Salvador in 1993. She is now a 10-year veteran of the force and has risen to the rank of chief inspector, in charge of a division of 159 officers. She reflected on how she has seen the culture change toward women in service here.

"Society here has taken a step forward to allow women to wear the uniform of the armed services. The role of women in the military and police is very significant now. Women can be combating drugs, working against organized crime, gang violence, and serving on land, air and sea,” Sosa said. “These women will use the skills learned here every day when interacting with citizens, searching vehicles, and many other situations. This is a great opportunity, and we hope this will not be the last exchange."

This expertise exchange is part of a State Partnership Program, which was established between the New Hampshire National Guard and El Salvador in 2000. The goals of the program include building lasting relationships between members of the two groups and to foster the mutually beneficial exchange of expertise in the military, civic, business and educational arenas.

The program benefits from cooperation with other agencies such as the local embassy and the Military Group Command here, Southern Command or SOUTHCOM. Col. Carlos Figueroa is the senior defense official and defense attaché with the SOUTHCOM military group, and assists with coordinating between the New Hampshire National Guard and the Salvadoran military. He provided his thoughts on the impact of this particular event.

"El Salvador is a very important country to the United States. They have been a great ally. For the New Hampshire National Guard to come here with female facilitators, what you're telling the Salvadorans is that everyone is equal, everyone has the opportunity to perform, and everyone has the opportunity to accept responsibility and leadership."