A member of Marine Wing Support Squadron 472 works on a schoolhouse alongside airmen from the 820th Red Horse Squadron in Belize City during the New Horizons exercise in Belize. (Mike Morones / Staff)
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BELIZE CITY — Marine combat engineers are teaming with airmen and members of the Belize Defence Force to build schoolhouses and hospital buildings during Exercise New Horizons.
Members of Marine Wing Support Squadron 472, a Massachusetts-based reserve unit, completed construction of a two-room schoolhouse addition here, one of Central America’s largest cities. Now they’re working on another addition at a nearby five-room schoolhouse, including a kitchen and bathroom.
Brig. Gen. David Jones, commander of the Belize Defence Force, said his engineers learn a lot from working with American combat engineers. His soldiers, however, may be called on not only to build new infrastructure, but also to destroy infrastructure that’s being used illegally. That can include busting up a runway that traffickers are using to move illicit drugs by air, he said.
In turn, the Marines are learning new techniques from the Belizeans, said Staff Sgt. Matthew Houle, the New Horizons site foreman. For example, they taught the Marines a new way to finish interior and exterior walls called parging.
“It’s a concrete mix they put on the outside of the buildings here — similar to what we do with stucco,” Houle said. “It gives them a nice smooth finish.”
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Patrick Robb, the New Horizons site officer-in-charge, said in addition to the new techniques they’ve picked up, it has been good for the Marines to observe the resourcefulness of the local troops. Instead of receiving materials like ready-mix concrete, they’ll mix what they need with what’s found at the site.
Houle said he has seen them weld scrap metal into just about anything they need.
Maj. Shaun Thomson, the New Horizons civil affairs officer, with 1st Civil Affairs Group out of Camp Pendleton, California, has been coordinating the delivery of donated materials to fill the schoolhouses once the combat engineers have completed them. Non-governmental organizations in the local area are donating chairs and desks to fill the schoolhouses so they can be used immediately.
Since arriving in April, the Marines have been working nearly non-stop to complete their work. School has been in session while they’ve been doing the construction, and the Marines sometimes stop what they are doing to play sports with the kids on their break, Robb said.
They’ve also interacted with many other Belizeans, who flock to the schools on weekends because they serve as community centers for the locals, he said.
Air Force Col. Daniel Pepper, the New Horizons commander, said the exercise has been a great opportunity for the Marine Corps and Air Force to work jointly, instead of only coming together when a crisis occurs or in response to hostilities around the globe.
“We don’t often get to do this in a permissive environment,” Pepper said. “We’ve been in combat since 2001, so it’s great to have the ability to work in a permissive environment with different techniques.”
New Horizons has brought together a variety of military occupational specialties, Pepper said. But throughout the exercise he has seen the troops work together to get the job done, regardless of their MOS.
“The leadership that I’ve seen in the field amongst all our services has really been excellent,” he said.
Working jointly has been an important experience, Robb said. Just as the Belizeans do things differently from Marines, so does the Air Force, he said. With the likelihood of future operations being joint, it’s important that they speak each other’s lingo, he added.
It’s also good to utilize reservists for these types of missions, Thomson said, giving them a chance to get away from their base and out into the world.