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News | Jan. 4, 2021

Still holding strong: Task force Marines built lasting structures, relationships in Honduras

By 1st Lt. Heather Chairez

Almost two weeks after Hurricane Eta, a category 4 storm, ripped through Central America with torrential rain and heavy winds, Hurricane Iota, another category 4 storm, hit the already strained region.

Hurricanes Eta and Iota hit Honduras hard with winds surpassing 100 mph and caused more than 6 feet of flooding.

The storms affected more than a third of the population causing destruction of homes, extreme flooding and deadly mud slides.

As the winds and rain demolished buildings across the country, four buildings in Puerto Lempira, Honduras, stood strong – so strong that locals abandoned their homes and took shelter in them.

These buildings were built by U.S. Marines and Sailors from Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Southern Command five years ago.

The SPMAGTF-SC is comprised of mostly Marines and Sailors from U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve. During the 2020 iteration, the task force continued the enduring partnership within the region by safely forward deploying more than 60 Marines and Sailors into the U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility, while the remainder was on standby to rapidly respond to support partner nations with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

“...These same structures are now saving the lives in the aftermath of two powerful hurricanes." Chief Warrant Officer 3 Calvin Gatch III, a SPMAGTF-SC engineer equipment officer

In 2015 and 2016, SPMAGTF-SC supported Honduras by building three schools and enhancing the quality of structure within the local hospital center that could sustain the winds of a tropical storm.

“Today, in 2020, these same structures are now saving the lives in the aftermath of two powerful hurricanes,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Calvin Gatch III, an engineer equipment officer with the SPMAGTF-SC 2019 iteration who helped maintain those structures with a team of Marine engineers. “The structures are now providing shelter to families within the local population because many have nowhere else to live after the hurricane damage.”

To begin their 2015 deployment in Honduras, the logistics element of the task force built three schools from existing structures that were falling apart. Prior to this, the children and teachers of the local community were holding classes in huts.

As the SPMAGTF-SC Marines laid the building foundation, they also built long-lasting relationships in the local area.

Koritza Mejia, the current governor of Gracias a Dios, which is the department or province where Puerto Lempira is located in, was an active member of the community in 2015 when the construction projects began. Now, as the governor of the department, she said she has seen the lasting benefits of the work the Marines did.

“Before these buildings existed, the children who are now cared for in these educational centers, were in class under trees or in the corridors of some church,” said Mejia through a Spanish to English translator.

The community lacked books, desks and even things to write with. Therefore, during the 2016 deployment of the task force, 46 reserve centers from across the country donated these basic school supplies that greatly affected the condition of the schools, said Gatch.

Laying The Cement Photo by Cpl. Kimberly Aguirre
A U.S. Marine uses a float to even out the surface of cement for the foundation of the Republica de Cuba School in Puerto Lempira, Honduras, Aug. 14.

Since the first iteration of the SPMAGTF-SC, who deployed in 2015, schools in Puerto Lempira have increased by 11 classrooms, five teachers and nearly 400 students due to the ongoing maintenance of the schools.

“For the first time, these children are in decent and suitable places to be able to give them the opportunity to receive an education in a dignified space,” added Mejia.

The team of Marine engineers also improved the quality of the local hospital center by refurbishing the structure of the building and reinforcing the property’s security fencing.

The hospital in Puerto Lempira is the only hospital in the region that offers trauma services, and the hospital staff are currently saving lives from the natural disasters. The aftermath of the hurricanes caused many injuries to those in the area, needing immediate care.

“All of these structures have supported our communities in responding to both the COVID-19 emergency and the two hurricanes,” said Mejia.

Gatch said through his experience in serving multiple deployments with the SPMAGTF-SC, he understands that Honduras is one of the most inaccessible regions in all of Central America, which created many challenges he and his team had to overcome.

“Considering the numerous obstacles required to conduct operations in this area, it was an incredible feature for the Marine Corps to provide so much support to the educational and health systems,” he said.

In the face of the two recent hurricanes, USSOUTHCOM responded with a strong show of support. Together with components of USSOUTHCOM, non-government organizations and partner nation militaries from around the region, the combined team delivered more than 1.2 million pounds of aid and conducted more than 850 rescues to devastated communities in Central America. The SPMAGTF-SC began this strong show of support in 2015, laid a foundation of partnership and friendship, and recently completed its final deployment to the region in November.

“The work the SPMAGTF-SC has accomplished continues to have such a significant impact on the lives of so many people years after completion and is a testament of fundamental Marine Corps capabilities and values,” said Gatch.