GULF OF PANAMA (NNS) -- With over 33 years of experience in naval operations, Panama Navy Capt. Jose Jesus Rodriguez took command of Combined Task Force 401 during exercise UNITAS 2016.
UNITAS is a multinational maritime exercise. Already in its 57th year, the goal of the exercise is to increase interoperability among participating navies and public security forces.
With the USNS Spearhead, operated by Military Sealift Command, as his flagship, Rodriguez's staff is composed of military personnel from U.S. Navy Destroyer Squadron 40, additional U.S. military personnel from across the Department of Defense brought together into an adaptive force package, and military members from the 11 multinational countries participating in UNITAS.
Rodriguez, from Panama City, Panama, began his military career when he was accepted to a military high school 34 years ago. Since then, he's seen the Panamanian navy grow from a small force with some personnel but with no actual ships to sail, to a modern fleet protecting Panama's coastlines.
As a naval officer, he's served in a wide and diverse range of positions, and is now the Panama chief of naval group, the U.S. equivalent of a fleet commander.
"UNITAS is important to Panama because of the regular presence of drug traffickers, contraband, and human trafficking - this exercise improves our sailor's professionalism and improves their ability to counter these threats," Rodriguez said.
While visiting the Spearhead, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Sean Buck, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces South and Fourth Fleet, commended the multinational personnel aboard the Spearhead for their mutual cooperation and professionalism. Like Rodriguez, he also emphasized the importance of the region and the work the multinational partners were putting into UNITAS.
"It's not enough to believe in partnership and interoperability," Rodriguez said. "Years of experience have taught me that to do it right requires training together, shoulder to shoulder, and learning each other's strengths and weaknesses. That's how multinational strength is built, and that's how friendships are forged."