SANGOLQUí, Ecuador – Ecuadorian civil engineers recently welcomed a team of Air National Guard, active-duty Air Force and civilian personnel from U.S. Southern Command to observe, train and equip a battalion of demining soldiers.
The visiting group, led by Senior Master Sgt. Matthew Wilt, transferred more than $1.3 million in equipment to the Ecuadorian Army’s 168th Battalion Feb. 25 to help clear the last portion of border still mined in the southern part of the country.
“It’s an amazing feeling to work with these soldiers to accomplish this effort to provide them new and innovative equipment and foster relationships built with our state partners,” said Wilt, superintendent of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight.
The Kentucky Guard and Ecuador are part of a cooperative military-to-military exchange effort administered by the National Guard Bureau. Called the State Partnership Program, it facilitates cooperation between U.S. National Guard units and foreign allies, fostering enhanced understanding across all aspects of civil and military affairs.
The equipment package included 16 portable solar panels that lighten the load and provide a rechargeable capability in the field. Additionally, the package features four storage batteries, the largest of which will provide 1,250 watt-hours to recharge the deminers’ sensory equipment.
The lightweight equipment is easier for the deminers to haul as they trek deep into the jungle. Other materials included electronic tablets for hazard mapping, protective suits, and field kits with shovels, mats and cordon materials.
In addition to the equipment, Wilt said the team conducted important training with the 168th Battalion’s 60 deminers, including land navigation and plotting, information and data gathering, and information management.
This effort has been years in the making, supported and sourced by the Civil Affairs and Humanitarian Assistance Directorate at U.S. Southern Command.
“After 11 years without a humanitarian mine action engagement with Ecuador, the U.S. Southern Command is very happy and honored to again support the Ecuadorian military in their humanitarian demining operations aiming to render their beautiful land mine-free by the year 2025, so their population can return to it and use it again for crop farming and raising livestock,” said Dr. Jose Castro, U.S. Southern Command program manager, who oversaw the training and transfer.
Ecuadorian Army Lt. Gian Tapia, commander of the 168th Battalion, said the initiative is greatly appreciated.
“For a commander, this is valuable innovation and very important support,” he said. “We receive this equipment with the best of intentions, and rest assured, it will be put to good use. The equipment is very useful, and the technology and innovation is very important.”
U.S. personnel also gained a great deal from the interaction.
“I enjoyed the opportunity to teach the Ecuadorian Army on the use of equipment they have not seen,” said Tech Sgt. Oscar Morales, noncommissioned officer in charge of training at the 7th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas.
Morales, who speaks Spanish, was instrumental in helping ensure the correct translation of teaching points from English.
“I am grateful that Senior Master Sgt. Wilt reached out to the EOD community for Spanish speakers for this mission, and that I was useful in translating throughout my time with the team.”
Tech Sgt. David Bernal, team leader for the New Jersey Air Guard’s 177th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight, said it was a privilege to help his Ecuadorian partners.
“The U.S. military and Guard forces are uniquely positioned to share our technology and experience with our partners,” he said. “The mission that the Ecuadorian military faces is a difficult and dangerous one, and I think this training and equipment will support that endeavor. By providing them with updated protective equipment and solar power, the deminers will be able to complete this mission and return the land safely to the population. As an American service member, it is a privilege to assist the Ecuadorian military in this noble cause.”