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Preface: With Gustav battering the Gulf Coast, the GOP convention all but on hold, and most political rhetoric toned down for a day or two, I thought this an appropriate lull to present my final post on Operation Continuing Promise. Also, since this is Labor Day, consider what your armed forces are doing: securing the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan, mobilizing to clean up the Gulf Coast once Gustav is finished, and conducting this humanitarian mission in Latin America. We truly have a remarkable force laboring for us, representing us, the world over. Happy Labor Day. — Crowe
Operation Continuing Promise may have been an a-typical military mission, but one basic tenet of military operations has held true: when the bullets start flying, the plan carefully laid out goes right out the window. The last day featured a series of last-minute changes for the better, and one huge decision to stick to the plan when flexibility would have been understandable. I’ll take you through a blow-by-blow chronicle of the day…
0600: For whatever reason, I was not on the manifest to take a helo over when I first reported to muster. This means that without higher-up intervention I’m not going to shore for the final day in Nicaragua and I’ll miss the celebrations and ceremonies. I alerted ENS Day, the Public Affairs Officer, and, figuring I simply wasn’t getting off the boat, went up to the Wardroom to get the breakfast I had missed. Was halfway through my eggs when Day burst into the Wardroom: someone with enough clout had intervened and I was headed over in the last flight. I finished my eggs and French toast without much hurry — the last flight wouldn’t leave for at least another 1.5 hours.
0700: Waiting for flight; got bumped up to an earlier flight. This new flight has me spending the day with the US Air Force Prime BEEF (Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force) and Navy Seabees who are heading out to finish up a few projects, including one they took on after arriving in country. Everyone will wind up at the municipal park for the “closing ceremony” which is the city’s farewell to Operation Continuing Promise and is also the formal opening of the refurbished park.
0830: Helo to shore, board buses with the engineers, head to the government center where SEA huts had been constructed to house vocational sewing classes. During a rain storm the previous day the roofs leaked — on the heads of the assembled dignitaries (OCP leaders, engineering leaders, and local officials) who formally presented and received those buildings. Slightly embarrassing. This day they spent 30 minutes and put additional corrugated aluminum sheeting over the problem seams to seal them up.
0930: Head over to Juan Comenius High School to complete the cielings in a few of the classrooms. I walked through the brand new chain link gate in the new chain link fence installed by these OCP engineers. While at Juan Comenius I observe a Navy doctor close up an incision in a woman’s foot where he had just removed a cyst. I wander into another room and snap a picture of two COMREL team members painting that room. This final COMREL team volunteered the night before to come ashore and bust their butts to get the last few rooms painted at Juan Comenius. As I was leaving that room I noticed that one of the COMREL team members I had just photographed painting was actually Captain Towns, CO of the Kearsarge, getting his hands and coverall uniform dirty and paint spattered.
1020: Get back on the bus and head over to Ruben Darîo Middle School. USAF Major Tom DeFazio, lead Air Force engineer for OCP, told me that after arriving in country the engineering arm of this mission found out about this school and it’s overflow “classroom.” Not having enough space in the building they had put additional wood framing around a metal swing set frame and tossed black plastic sheeting over it. They put desks underneath and held classes there. A short distance away, out in the open, the school moms would prepare food for the students. The USAF and Navy engineers constructed two shelters on the grounds in two days, one for the food prep and the other as a classroom shelter. This day they are restoring the swing set. Kids watch through the nearby fence; some venture through the usually-locked gate and watch with fascination and glee as the Air Force and Navy engineers give them back their swing set.
1100: Commodore Ponds arrives to formally hand these school improvements over to the administrator. USAF Sgt. Boucher, site leader, takes a moment away from hanging swings to take part and have his picture taken with the formation.
1130: Get back on the bus and head over to the municipal park for the final ceremony and presentation of the refurbished park to the people of Puerta Cabezas. There are now two teeter-totters, eight fully-functional swing sets with a total of 29 swings, the new playground with three sliding boards, a newly-painted gazebo with flood lighting, a new water tower-fed fountain, and no more stumps of trees destroyed by hurricane Felix. The swings are all still wrapped around the top of the sets in preparation for today’s official opening. The playground equipment has yellow tape around it. Kids with Christmas-morning faces are everywhere, just waiting for the word “go.” The engineers arrive, Commodore Ponds arrives, and the word is given to lower the swings and take the tape off the playground. The Prime BEEF and Seabees find themselves surrounded by kids who want to be the first one to swing on that swing. Girls run around in Sunday dresses and boys in whatever their parents could get them to wear. All running around, many begging to have their picture taken and then shown to them — they always laugh and point at their own picture. The playground set goes from placid and peaceful to absolutely clotted with a mass of youthful humanity that flows like water down the slides — one after another after another, each right on the tail of the one before.
Kids are the same anywhere you go — some kids are hanging onto two swings to save that second swing for a friend; one boy comes down the tube slide and digs his heels into the ground and braces himself in the opening to clog it up. The tube quickly fills up as the kids at the top of the slide continue hopping in. The smiling, giggling little mischief maker finally can’t hold on any longer and pops off the slide to let the pile-up behind him come tumbling out in a tangle of limbs and joyful screams. Over on the basketball court — with its two brand new hoops and nets — some of the very tall Seabees and Prime BEEF have a gaggle of kids who are just tossing the ball up at the rim. None of the kids is more than 5′ 3″, so the Seabees and Prime BEEF on the court, all of whom top 6′, are able to get the rebound and distribute the ball to give everyone a chance. I managed to strike up a conversation with two boys who didn’t mind my asking them to repeat themselves frequently.
1230: I notice a black cloud rolling in, right on schedule for the regular afternoon storm. This one looks a little bigger and a little darker. Usually the afternoon storm blows in, rains hard for 5-10 minutes, and blows out. This one looks a little more foreboding. Also imminent is the farewell/thanks/here’s your park ceremony. The sky grows darker; the air gets even more moist; a slight rain begins. I make my way to one of the markets that lines two sides of the park. This one has its back wall against the storm so I’ll stay dry in there. Same can’t be said for the assembly of officers and high-ranking enlisted who are forming up at the gazebo for the ceremony.
1300: The assembly is called to attention. The rain gets heavier. I begin taking video footage of the spectacle in front of me. The National Anthem is sung. The rain gets heavier. They stand in formation at parade rest after the national anthem and as the ceremony progresses through speeches and presentations. The rain approaches torrential downpour and the wind begins blowing the rain in sheets. The thunder follows very closely upon the lightning. They stand in formation. I begin laughing at the ridiculousness of all this and the people in the market with me begin to laugh also — laughter needs no translation. I notice that though the crowd has thinned, kids are still scurrying all around the playground, no doubt gleeful to find that the sliding boards are faster when wet. My video stops on its own at nearly 10 minutes. The rain and the wind and the ceremony continue for 20 minutes more. I’ll tell ya — it was an impressive display of discipline and pride: they stood there in that rain and wind. They would not change the timing of the ceremony to wait out the storm; they would forge ahead and stick to the schedule at a point when an allowance for the rain would have been entirely understandable.
1345: The rain has subsided, the ceremony is finished. Boys are splashing and diving into the deep puddles around the park. The high school band, which was supposed to play during the ceremony itself emerges from the shelter they found across the street. It’s mostly drums, with a few beat up horns and some cylindrical instruments they rub with a stick to get a swishing rhythmic noise out of. The rest are cheer leaders and the dance line with batons. The conductor is a tall, thin youth — no more than 20 — who blows a whistle and holds up his fingers to indicate the next transition. They play and dance and whistle for about 20 minutes.
1410:We are returning to the buses to return to the airstrip and arrange a seat-of-the-pants return to the Kearsarge. Before I get on the bus a local woman walks up to me, shakes my hand in an effort to emulate a gesture foreign to her, and says Gracias. Gracias. Then she pulled me close, kissed my cheek, looked me in the eye, and said, haltingly, “thank you.” I didn’t know how to say it in Spanish, but I tried my best to communicate to her, “It’s our pleasure. You’re deeply welcome. Thank you for welcoming us.”
1400: We arrive back at the airstrip as a light rain continues to fall. I was supposed to take the LCM back to the ship again, but all helicopter, LCM and LCU operations were suspended during the electrical storm. It will take an hour for the LCMs and LCU to reach shore, so they send the CH-53s to come pick up personnel. I manage to get on the first flight back.
I left the Kearsarge early the next morning to fly back to the States. That day they steamed away from Nicaragua and over to Colombia for the next leg of the mission. After Colombia they’ll go to Panama, the Dominican Republic, Curacao, Trinidad & Tobago, and finally Guyana, returning to Norfolk in early December.
The final numbers for our two weeks in Nicaragua:
The numbers are impressive, but only tell part of the story. The greater part of this story has been, and continues to be, the impact of the mission on the receivers as well as the givers of the aid.
In no time at all many of the improvements made could be undone. Health doesn’t remain, especially in an environment as harsh and unsanitary as that. Infrastructure improvements will break down, especially if, for instance, someone determines that the chain used to hang the swings could be “better used elsewhere.” But the permanence of the work done isn’t the point — the permanence of the impression one person had on the other is the point. And judging by the smiling kids and thankful adults on the Nicaraguan side, along with the open-eyed COMRELs and engineers and doctors who met people who live happily amidst truly unthinkable conditions on the OCP side, the one-to-one interactions were, are, and will be an even greater success.
It’s a training mission. It’s a first-crack at “soft power” and the prevention of insurgencies rather than the suppression of them. It’s a vehicle to advance American foreign policy. It’s all those things. But it’s a mission of concern for our neighbors: as the dominant global power, and a power unlike any the world has ever seen, we have a vested interest in seeing that these people who live so nearby can live a better life. It’s the neighborly thing to do. It’s the American way to be. And good Americans are undertaking the mission with energy, courtesy, gratitude, and dedication. Be proud of them. Thank them. Never forget the great work they do for all of us in all parts of the world.