Army Reserve civil affairs Soldiers have been working with Texas A&M and local officials to help improve the lives of people living in low-income communities.
Soldiers of B Co., 486th Civil Affairs Battalion, from Tulsa, Okla., assessed impoverished properties in Webb County, where an estimated 16,500-25,000 people live in sub-standard conditions in 64 communities called colonias, said Webb County Economic Development Director James Flores.
Many homes have little or no infrastructure, including a lack of running water, sewer, electricity or other utility services.
In 1991, the Texas State Legislature founded The Colonias Program to help address the situation, and it is housed within the Texas A&M College of Architecture.
To assist Texas A&M and Webb County, the Soldiers of B Co. walked door-to-door and spoke to residents to determine what services the homes need, said Maj. Jeffrey Nantze, the B Co. commander.
In all, the Soldiers assessed about 800 properties during their month-long annual training mission, he said.
Working alongside the Soldiers, staff members and volunteers from Webb County served as interpreters to help facilitate communication with the colonias’ Spanish-speaking residents, said Cindy Liendo, Webb County Commissioner Precinct Four.
This is extremely realistic training for the civil affairs Soldiers, Nantze said.
"During a deployment, our Soldiers find issues and work to mitigate the influence of those issues,” he said. “A Sewage Water Electricity Academics Trash (SWEAT) assessment is just one of the tools at our disposal."
This type of real-world mission also helps develop junior leaders, he added.
“Personally, when I found out we got this mission, I was very pleased,” Nantze said. “You can’t always replicate some of these things in the school house.”
The Soldiers came to the colonias mission through the Department Of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training program.
IRT delivers joint training opportunities across the United States and its territories to increase deployment readiness. At the same time, the program provides key services to the communities it visits, including health care, construction, transportation, and cybersecurity.
U.S. Army North has a history of working with Texas A&M and Webb County on the Colonias Project, helping bring together military units looking for innovative training opportunities with local leaders.
ARNORTH’s Army Reserve Engagement Cell worked with Army and Army Reserve units to bring civil affairs Soldiers to the project.
“I want to thank you all for taking good care of the American people,” said U.S. Army North Commanding General Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, during his visit to La Presa, a colonia near Laredo.
This is the third year that the IRT mission has come to Laredo and Webb County. In past years, there have been medical and engineer missions, in addition to the civil affairs efforts. Another engineer mission is scheduled for later this year.
“What it gives back to the community is invaluable,” Nantze said.
The civil affairs Soldiers assessments help local officials determine what improvements the properties need.
“Once we know what the problems are, we can assist them to the best of our ability,” Flores said.
During the 1990s, the majority of the colonias had no infrastructure, but now only 30 percent remain in that condition, Flores said.
Fifteen years ago, the county developed a strategic plan that helped it receive about $200 million in grant money, he said. He hopes a new plan in the works will bring in that much funding or more.
Last year, for example, because of the work the civil affairs Soldiers did, the county received a $750,000 grant to build the first public health facility in a rural area, he said. Another colonia is in the planning stages to build a new community center, he added.
“We’ve come a long way, and everybody’s aware of our efforts,” Flores said.
Overall in Texas, there are 2,333 colonias with about 500,000 people living in them, said Oscar Munoz, director for the Texas A&M Colonias Program.
“The more we talk to people, the more benefits we get,” he said, praising B Co.’s efforts. “You guys have outdone yourselves this year, completely,” he added.
Webb County is very grateful for the program and work of the Soldiers from B Co, Liendo said.
“It’s a great benefit that you have brought to us,” she said to the Soldiers. “You will always have a home here.”