HUEHUETENANGO, Guatemala –
Situated between farmers cutting sugar cane and annual city carnival, a small team of U.S. Army Reserve builders are already working as the sun begins to rise July 8 in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
The 990th Engineer Company, Fort Dix, N.J. is fresh off a deployment to the Middle East and now faces a different kind of mission — building a trade school in remote Central America as part of the partnership for joint exercise Beyond the Horizon. The exercise is a chance for more than 1,200 Service members from the U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard to work and train intimately on combat support roles like building structures and providing medical services alongside Guatemalan counterparts.
Spc. Luis Gomez, a Bronx, New York native who spent much of his childhood in the Dominican Republic, has taken on the expanded role of liaison between the 990th Engineer Company and the Guatemalan military working on the project and local community. He is traditionally a carpentry and masonry specialist for the Army Reserve, but being able to communicate across the Spanish language barrier has elevated his importance on the job site.
“It has been used in every facet of our job,” Gomez said.
In one instance, the city carnival began near the job site and Gomez was key in working as a liaison with the community to ensure the U.S. military equipment didn’t block the public from accessing and parking the annual event. As a result of those discussions, the community now regularly visits the job site to bring coffee and other things for the Soldiers in greeting.
When the project is done, the unit hopes the school will have a lasting impact on the community.
“I was privileged enough to come from parents who migrated to the United States, but most of my people still live in the Dominican Republic in areas very similar [to Guatemala],” Gomez said. “As I grew older, I saw how my life was different from those of my cousins and close family members. They didn’t have the chance to go to good schools, so this is very important to me and is something that makes me very proud.”
In the past six weeks, rotations of U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard engineers have spent early mornings and late nights laying the concrete foundation and lasting elements, like cinder block walls and a steel roof. The 990th is responsible for painting and refilling masonry, as well as beginning some electrical work.
The school, known as Los Olivos after a neighborhood street, will eventually be used as a trade school to teach the sciences and practical skills, such as accounting and automotive skills.
For the Soldiers building the project, the school job site represents a chance to learn and refresh skills.
“This is the first time since advanced individual training that I’ve been able to do masonry and actually lay cement blocks,” said Spc. Abigail Dilworth, of New Jersey, who is on her first annual training outside the United States. “Typically, we used sheetrock and wood.”
Dilworth says the unit fits right in with the community.
“I mean, we are not so different. There is just a language barrier,” she said.
Staff Sgt. Steven Saiia, an engineering supervisor for the 990th Eng. Co., says his Soldiers strived to broaden their skills on the job.
“A lot of my guys are getting cross-trained,” Saiia said. “Some are masons who are learning electrical. I have a mechanic who is learning electrical and block work.”
Being Army Reserve Soldiers means this kind of training, he said, gives his Soldiers a chance to practice their tradecraft.
“They are working hard and engaging with the work that needs to be done,” he said.
Beyond the Horizon is a joint exercise between U.S. Army South Command and Guatemala deploying U.S. engineers and medical professions to provide civic assistance and training between the two nations. The exercise will conclude July 27.