SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Jan. 15, 2020 —
SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras – Col. Steven Barry, Joint Task Force-Bravo commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. Alexander Aguilastratt, JTF-Bravo senior enlisted leader, sat down to discuss the state of the task force and several key areas of interest Jan. 10. The following is an abridged transcript of their interview.
How would you describe the state of JTF-Bravo today?
Long-term, the task force has been here as an established organization for well over 30 years, but the missions have evolved. Today, we are a dynamic force that the [U.S. Southern Command] commander can deploy anywhere he needs to throughout the area of responsibility. We’ve worked hard over the past six months to have that capability. Traditionally, we were tied to Honduras, doing most of our activities in this country because we are based out of here. Now our scope and our gaze has expanded beyond to try to have more regional focus. The past six months have been a huge effort from all components of Joint Task Force-Bravo to change not only things like equipment we need and our procedures, but most importantly, our mentality. Folks know they’re only a phone call from having to go anywhere to provide a whole host of services. Another significant change over the past few months is that now we have a persistent presence with civil affairs in the Northern Tier countries. That is something that we lacked, and now we are able to conduct activities every day in those countries. They are critical to our neighborhood here in the Western Hemisphere, and the impact we can have to work with those countries that obviously influence the United States is great.. You know, hundreds of thousands of folks in the Northern Tier have relatives in the United States. By having JTF-Bravo in those countries doing things daily has really bound us with our partners even better than in the past.
CSM Aguilastratt: I would say, in one word: relevant. JTF-Bravo has been around for a long time, but at one point, we were stuck in ‘what used to be.’ Like every noncommissioned officer, you create your senior enlisted leader initiatives to support your commander’s intent. I think at this point, JTF-Bravo is absolutely relevant, and I’ll explain why. It’s incredibly important to take care of our joint operations area, but we have also expanded into South America in areas that are important to the combatant commander like NCO development.
What has been the driving factor for pushing JTF-Bravo’s activities further into the joint operations area?
Col. Barry: When you look at the entire U.S. Southern Command region, it’s 31 countries, and so we decided that inside those countries – including Central America in its own operating area – JTF-Bravo was given a regional focus to help the combatant command integrate everything we are doing. Geography and relationships – everything is tied together on this isthmus, from the border of Colombia and Panama to the border of Mexico and Guatemala. You really have to take a regional view, especially when considering that borders are extremely porous. Every one of these Central American nations has a large tract of land that is essentially an ungoverned space – whether it’s Gracias a Dios in Honduras, Peten in Guatemala. What we are trying to do is knit the efforts together across the borders, including how we spend money and how we do activities. There are eight components in U.S. Southern Command that work throughout the entire area of responsibility, so we’re also trying to bring some coherent unity of efforts to how we operate here in Central America, which is far more underdeveloped than parts of South America. It has things like a poor doctor-per-person ratio. It still has high murder rates, although they have gone down. Their militaries could benefit more from our security cooperation. The threat networks that work throughout this region don’t care about borders, and they exploit them. So, by focusing beyond just one country, we are trying to bring a more deliberate approach and knit these activities together.
How important is a historical and cultural perspective for members of JTF-Bravo, and how does it inform your decision-making model?
CSM Aguilastratt: Well the historical perspective has a lot to do with cultural awareness. We need to adapt cultural awareness to our military needs. It is not only the language capabilities, but I am also going to steal our combatant commander’s narrative, which is that we are all Americans – we have shared values, we live on the same continent. We have an advantage that our adversaries don’t have. They’re invaders here, and they’re trying to inject a slate of values that we do not share that are not conducive to the values of this hemisphere. But the approach that we are taking now through the JTF is a lot smarter than before. We take our individuality – we take our strengths and we take our partner nations’ strengths – and we know now what is important for them and important for us, and we work on that. We celebrate our common goals and our common objectives and our values, and we also celebrate our differences – and that is OK.
Col. Barry: I think historical perspective is tremendous. I have a deep history background, so when I came into this job, I tried to find what I could about what we are doing in Central America and South America, as it was my first time in the region. I tried to get that background and ask, ‘What exactly do we need to be doing here?’ We did not even have a written history of our unit to put it all in perspective. When I think about what this region looked like in the early 1980s at the height of the Cold War, this is where the war moved to. It was the last sort of gasp of where the Soviets and the U.S. teed off against each other. As those nations weakened their presence here, narcotrafficking increased. But as we’ve clamped down and put pressure on that drug network, we’ve had other threats grow too. The world is really trying to follow two philosophies right now: Either you’re for a liberal, open, democratic and international, rules-based framework, or you’re for more authoritarian-run nations who subscribe to only some of the economic policies of capitalism. There are also external-state actors in this region, which is part of why the U.S. presence matters so much. We’re here as a brand name to represent the United States, especially in our neighborhood as Americans. Even going beyond the last 30 or 40 years, this is the New World, so to speak. This is the Western Hemisphere, and the Unites States always has interests here. We are the most significant power here, and we have the responsibility to lead and support our partners to make sure it can be the best neighborhood. Obviously, you have to keep up with current events, and that’s why we’ve evolved what we’re doing today. Often with task forces, they’re stood up for a certain reason, and then they’re stood down, and I think that’s totally appropriate for some missions. JTF-Bravo is unique because of its geographic location and the cultural similarities and interests we have with our partners. When I look at [the Soto Cano AB] airfield, I imagine in ’82 or ’83 we were out here paving it, and we’re still here now using it to do all the things we need to do.
What has been the strategic impact of the work the JTF-Bravo has done over the last six months?
Col. Barry: First, I would say we’ve been able to get people to look beyond themselves and their time here. We’re producing a long-range training calendar well beyond any of our tenures here. So getting people to have that idea that, ‘Hey, when I leave here, the mission still continues, so how have I set the right conditions?’ is important. We talked before about the expeditionary mindset – realizing that as a staff we need to push people out from Soto Cano and bring them back. Whether that’s equipment or new processes to do that, the staff has done a tremendous job. Considering our regular, current operations, how do we track what’s going on? How do we protect our Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Sailors when they’re here? We’re at a level now where, based on what I’ve seen in previous operations, whether it’s been combat or not, we’re at the standard. When you walk into the operations center, you definitely get that sense. One of the other key components is relationships. I always emphasize to the staff that those matter outside of Soto Cano and JTF-Bravo. I talk about the fact that we always know who we work for and who we need to work with. The staff has made tremendous strides building relationships and being aware of capabilities. I am very proud of all of that. Because we turn over so much, a lot of our standard operating procedures for how we plan and how we operate have been established, which has been a ton of work. We have a centralized processing with our staff in which we actually on-board them and teach them about what they’re going to be doing. We’ve actually done mission analysis on what we are supposed to do. If there is some sort of crisis down here, now we have plans on the shelf for how we respond. We’ve done a deep dive on the seven Central American countries and produced useful information that any officer or NCO coming into this organization can pick up and read and have some situational awareness. I’m really proud of how we have taken it as a challenge to integrate folks and to have continuity.
How do you connect junior enlisted members to strategic impacts?
CSM Aguilastratt: Messaging. One way of connecting them is the development of the NCO corps. Let me tell you one of my proudest moments. We were invited to the South American Defense Conference last year, and I was invited to speak in front of the South American chairmen and their senior enlisted leaders, and I really didn’t say anything other than showcase the great work that our enlisted men and women do here: You know, how a tech sergeant or a master sergeant has responsibility for the only C-5 capable runway in the hemisphere. How our crew chiefs for the [1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment] and our first sergeants and our sergeants keep our helicopters flying over terrain that strongly resembles the [Indo-Pacific Command] region. How our [Army Forces] battalion keeps everything rolling, from force protection to maintenance to everything, with three components. That works at the NCO level and every enlisted member has a voice. To us, it’s day-to-day, but when you go outside the scope of your own armed forces and you hear the comments from the partner nations, you know how special the NCO corps is. Another great moment was when we were invited by [U.S. Army South] – and we were extremely grateful for this – to augment their staff on the planning of Southern Vanguard in Chile. We could have sent planners, and it would have been entirely fine, but we decided to send two sergeants major. Those guys, and their experience in combat and the national training centers, shaped that exercise. Our Chilean counterparts went out of their way to bring all their enlisted to the base to hear what we had to say. I think that is the right approach to NCO development in the hemisphere, to educate the officer corps on how important our NCOs are. One of the key phrases was from Command Sgt. Maj. Zickefoose, who directed attention to why an NCO corps is important in Latin America. The quote was, “A 21st-century nation that wants to win wars cannot afford not to have an NCO corps.” The constant messaging to our men and women about how important they are and what they are doing – that they are that last tactical mile protecting the homeland – increases pride, increases morale, increases discipline, which is extremely important, and drives across this sense of purpose that every professional Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine needs to function.
What is the value of developing leaders, and how does that help build our team?
Col. Barry: It’s an interesting environment here, because typically when we focus on leader development, you’re at a unit that’s in your service already. Whether that’s a squadron in the Air Force or an infantry battalion in the Army, you have time to train up for a deployment and you deploy as that unit. Here as a standing task force, small bits of units rotate through as individuals. So I have to think, ‘How can I focus our efforts to develop these leaders while they’re here?”, because a lot of them are here for a year or nine months. Even though we’re doing operations, there’s always time to develop leaders. The experience itself develops people. Planning an operation, running the airfield if you’re in the 612th [Air Base Squadron], flying a helicopter – you’re getting that just by doing. Part of development is how you lead folks. We also focus on how do we train them to plan in a joint environment. We take a holistic view and use NCO development sessions, leader development, or officer sessions to focus on everything from how promotion boards work to how you plan a joint operation. We have a lot of junior officers here – most of them have never been on a combatant command staff or service staff. We have a reading list for folks. I put on there a mix of leadership development and also things about Central America. I always say, “You’ve got to know stuff.” Part of being a leader is you have to know your craft – whether that’s geopolitical information or current events. Even though we’re here doing our job every day – unloading aircraft, flying helicopters, doing medical exercises, doing civil affairs – this is a people business, and when you deal with people, you have to invest in them. How do you do that? You do it through a leader development program.
CSM Aguilastratt: The commander has enabled me to develop our NCOs. We have to hold NCOs responsible for being at the point of friction – the critical point. At JTF-Bravo now we have NCOs working day-to-day operations and planning at the operational and strategic level. For example, our knowledge management system was nonexistent about 60 days ago. Now, an Air Force NCO is in charge of it. By her own initiative, she took it upon herself, and now we have a knowledge management page – something that will perpetuate the commander’s intent. Our crew chiefs are flying missions that are inherently dangerous. From planning to execution to recovery to after-actions. The [1-228th AR] is not a regular aviation unit – it does not have a recovery element, so they have to do everything themselves. When they had to have a precautionary landing in the middle of the jungle in Costa Rica, they recovered themselves. They operate over rough terrain, over water, doing inherently dangerous missions. Our medics are Reservists, but their value to Army readiness is often underestimated. They’re in a region of the world in which they can perform surgeries in medical exercises on a regular basis. I mean, they’re seeing gunshot wounds, they’re seeing burns on all ages. And they’re performing surgeries, all in the field under austere conditions. This is going to become increasingly important where we’re going to have to fight fights where surgical and medical capabilities have to be extremely close to the forward line of troops to save lives. These guys are training and building readiness for the joint force. When we go to the point of friction, we get those lessons-learned and we execute them again, each time better and better and better. Mistakes are acceptable – we learn from our mistakes, and we move forward. We develop our leaders, and we don’t accept patterns. But we learn as we go, and we develop as we go. So, I’m extremely happy with our people – extremely happy and extremely proud.
What is your favorite book from the leader development plan reading list?
Col. Barry: That’s a tough question. On the reading list – it’s a tough read, but the material is easy – is Black Hearts. That book tells you when leaders don’t do their job, awful things will happen. If you’re not familiar, it’s about Iraq in 2004, when essentially a battalion had a failure in leadership, and you had a platoon that – portions of it – murdered a local family. They also had a huge loss in discipline and had Soldiers lost and abducted and killed as retaliation. So it’s a whole story about the Black Hearts, which was the brigade they were from – it was the symbol on their helmet from the 101st Airborne Division. Obviously, it has a double meaning. I often recommend to people who ask, ‘Why does leadership matter?’ to read that book. It is a compelling story.
JTF-Bravo recently has new lines of effort. Why were they chosen?
Col. Barry: We have a new SOUTHCOM campaign plan, which every combatant command writes those and updates them periodically. So our responsibility as a component is to decide how we support that plan. We thought about the three lines of effort – strengthen partnerships, counter threats, and build our team – and we adopted them for our more tactical level. We changed ‘strengthen partnerships’ to ‘grow partnerships’ because we believe we are at the grassroots, tactical operational level to do that. If we look at ‘build our team,’ we still do that, and that can be everything from our leader development program to how we work with other folks in the SOUTHCOM enterprise. One of the other things we have to do is ‘counter threats.’ It’s very difficult with the way JTF-Bravo is organized to directly counter a threat. As far as something like an external state actor, we try to undermine those actors by doing the activities we can do under the authorities we have. We also focus on threat organizations – basically terrorist or criminal organizations – that operate in Central America. Because of the high corruption, weak institutions, poor economic opportunities, there is a high gang and crime rate, including narcotrafficking through here. JTF-Bravo does directly support our partners who counter that. Together, these are the three parts that essentially echoe the SOUTHCOM lines of effort, but we’ve changed the names a bit to come in line with what we are actually meant to do. Now the way we assess everything we do is tied to that, how we plan our activities. So really what those lines of effort did is give us aim points to ask, ‘Are we doing this activity right?’ Are we doing it in the right place with the right people?’ And are these the effects that we want?
What does the future of JTF-Bravo look like, both in the near and long-term?
Col. Barry: I think it’s going to look fairly consistent if you looked at six months from now or two years from now. One of the good things about being here this long as a task force is there has been a sustained stability brought to the region. If you go back 20 or 25 years, there was violence against U.S. personnel here – helicopters being shot down, grenade attacks. Today, that does not happen. You see a slow, steady stabilization here for this region. Now we can focus on some of the underlying things like corruption and building the capacity of our partners to deal with threat networks. How do we get our partners to be more efficient at countering threat networks? I think you’ll see attempts through our policies to try to use the aid packages where we spend money down here to undermine certain actors. I think our presence here and the way we spend our money does counter that long-term. So, I don’t see any drastic shifts. There’s no cold war going on. I don’t see a terrorist campaign developing here because of the cultural similarities we have with Central and South America. I don’t see that as a way for, say, the Iranian threat network or any other terrorist threat network to come over here. I see the region struggling with the same things it has been. There’s a lack of economic opportunity in Central America. We really need to figure out how to get that right. A lot of those are not in our ‘job jar,’ but they definitely affect what we do.
What else do you want the task force to know?
Col. Barry: You know, we’re always turning over, but for folks who were past members of JTF-Bravo and for folks here now, we certainly have brought a level of effort that taxed people, and they put in a lot of extra hours. Everybody I deal with from outside the task force recognizes that – they have seen the difference that everybody in the task force has made. It’s because of your efforts. I want to thank everybody for implementing the vision of some of these things, as far as being expeditionary and being focused on supporting the SOUTHCOM campaign plan. Everybody told me when I took this job that it goes by super fast. Use every day to your fullest. I try to do that, and I’m amazed that with not a lot of people that we have gotten all this change. I’m in awe working in this environment – in a joint environment – and learning what everyone brings to the table. I’ve worked in the joint environment at the highest levels, but to actually be at the tip of the spear, so to speak, and see the level of professionalism in the 1-228th AR, and the 612th ABS, the Army Forces Battalion, the JTF-Bravo staff – it has been amazing, and I am thankful for that.