SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
Joint Task Force-Bravo and the Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command partnered with the Honduran Army’s 120th Infantry Brigade and the Institute of Anthropology and History to assess cultural heritage sites impacted by hurricanes Eta and Iota in Copan, Honduras, March 7-11.
This is the second iteration of this one-of-a-kind exchange in Honduras, with the first one conducted last year in Olancho, to assist partner nation forces with the basic methodologies, tools, and strategies on how to identify and document items or impacts within sites of cultural value.
“The idea is to exchange information and knowledge on how to better protect cultural heritage to establish better relationships between our respective governments and militaries. This is a very unique area and what is interesting is how heritage allows us to discuss security in a much larger context,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Michael Delacruz, Army Monuments Officer with the USACAPOC, based out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The exercise was coordinated by JTF-Bravo engineers, under the U.S. Southern Command, with the purpose of assisting regional partners in post-disaster capabilities.
“We think it’s important to share our expertise with our Honduran partners and it’s also important for [JTFB] to be able to identify cultural heritage sites or those that may be of significant value, as we also operate in these areas, because we want to be respectful of that while we are here,” said U.S. Army Lt. Riley Kissinger, engineer with JTF-Bravo and officer in charge of the mission.
The week included a two-day classroom exchange in Santa Rosa de Copan, where experts presented background information and demonstrated what had to be done in the field, including a form for collecting information and tools to assess damages.
Participants later spent three days on the field and visited Copan Ruinas, identified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, for context on what to look out for and what they could help protect and accomplish by assisting the Institute of Anthropology.
The teams also began the site assessment portion in impacted areas of the park that is surrounded by the Copan River, which caused floods and erosion around the location and some of the temples.
With a personal connection to the location, and as the personnel who guard this region as part of their military duties, the Honduran soldiers were personally invested in learning from the Army Monuments Officers to better prepare for future disasters where they may be called upon to safeguard, transport and store items that are part of their own tangible and intangible heritage.
“I’ve had the experience of working in this area and we’ve patrolled this area, but its until now that I realize that some of the things we thought were normal weren’t,” said Honduran Army Lt. Kevin Calix, officer in charge of the 120th’s participants, as he recalled moments when he now identified stones and boulders that were potentially from archeological sites being used as construction. “We didn’t consider the effect this caused but now we know these are damages and there are procedures to report them [to the Institute of Anthropology]. If at a certain time they want to rebuild what was once there, they are going to need it,” he said.
When discussing the importance of protecting cultural heritage, Delacruz said that not only is it important for maintaining our identity with respect to where we grew up and where we call home, “but also these resources are valuable to a worldwide audience and it’s important that we cooperate in its protection” since often following a disaster, these sites and property can be looted or trafficked.
In terms of partnership, these exchanges offer a unique opportunity for the U.S. military to strengthen bonds of cooperation by protecting the history and culture that binds the Americas, as well as our shared values.
“I hope that programs like this expand beyond what we’ve done,” said Delacruz. “I think as we witness events around the world, issues of protecting cultural heritage are a worldwide concern and we’ve been very successful in building those relationships, so in demonstrating that success here in Honduras I do think it’s something worth expanding.”
As partners to Honduras and the region, SOUTHCOM supports multiple Civil Affairs initiatives and continues cultivating relationships within Central American forces through JTF-Bravo.