The deployment is expected to last six months, and a replacement unit won't deploy again until the following spring.
It's the first time the region will see a land-based Marine rotation of this scale, and it's new for a lot of the Marines as well, said Lt. Col. David Hudak, the SPMAGTF's commanding officer. Many assigned to the new unit have not yet been overseas.
"Marines nowadays are just looking for an opportunity to deploy," Hudak said. "This was one of the only shows in town, and about 90 percent volunteered to go. Morale is high and they're excited."
"That's a unique thing having the SPMAGTF brings," Hudak said. "We have distributed teams in the four countries, but if there were a natural disaster or an event the U.S. was called to respond to, we'd have a limited but immediate capability to provide an initial short-term response."
Expanding existing partnerships
Standing up the new task force is part of a broader effort by SOUTHCOM and Marine leaders to partner more closely with other marine corps, navies, armies and coast guards in the region. The Marines will be based in some of the most troubled countries in the Western Hemisphere, including two from which tens of thousands of child migrants have fled for the U.S. border to escape violence caused by drug cartels and local gangs.
The Corps will stand up a new Marine air-ground task force for U.S. Southern Command in June. About 250 North Carolina-based Marines will deploy with four heavy-lift helicopters. They'll spend six months training alongside local militaries and will conduct humanitarian missions, if needed.
Photo Credit: John Bretschneider
"They understand that the liberty opportunities will be restricted," he said. "It's better than Iraq or Afghanistan, but still something to be aware of."
Military leaders like Gen. John Kelly, head of SOUTHCOM, and Brig. Gen. David Coffman, head of MARFORSOUTH, have stressed the importance of building partnerships and good will with Central and South American allies.
Small teams of Marines have been deployed to Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador in recent years to train local forces to combat cartels and narcotics traffickers. SPMAGTF-South will include security cooperation teams that will continue that training mission, Hudak said.
Meanwhile, Hudak said the engineers have been building small structures aboard Camp Lejeune like the schoolhouses and other infrastructure they'll construct in Central America. While deployed, the Marines with 8th ESB will build several schools, and work on road, utility and airfield construction, Hudak said. They've even sent a portion of the engineers to a local community college in North Carolina to learn more about utility construction before they depart.
Marines with 8th Engineer Support Battalion nail felt paper, a water-proofing and insulating material, to the roof of a building aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C. The engineers are preparing for an upcoming deployment to Central America, where they'll work on several construction projects.
Photo Credit: Cpl. Elizabeth Case/Marine Corps
The Marines have also completed a security cooperation course, a joint humanitarian cooperation course, a basic adviser course, and culture and language training. Many of the Marines deploying are Spanish-speaking, Hudak said, since it's the main language in three of the four countries where they'll be based. English is the official language in Belize.
In June, the unit will also participate in Tradewinds, a Belize-based international exercise that will include U.S., Belizean, Caribbean, Mexican and Canadian forces, Daviu said.
"We're all connected in this day and age, and the U.S. has a vested interest in the success of these countries," he said. "We're doing what we can to lend a hand."