GAINESVILLE — Lawlessness stemming from rising drug trafficking and violent gang attacks has resulted in thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border from Central America in recent months, seeking refuge.
A Gainesville-based Georgia National Guard unit, part of the 121st Infantry Regiment’s 1st battalion, sent 42 of its 127 soldiers to the poverty-stricken country of Honduras in May and June to train Honduran soldiers in law enforcement, combat and life-saving operations.
The mission of Charlie Company, which has several members from Forsyth County, was planned a year ago. But the timing couldn’t have been better for a Honduran military battling a violent drug trade.
Training included managing traffic control, watching for suspicious activity and conducting such tactical exercises as forceful “entering houses and rooms,” said Charlie Company commander Capt. Brian McKenna.
The soldiers helped nearly 250 Hondurans build capacity and capability to combat transnational criminal organizations and drug trafficking organizations,” states an article on the 48th Infantry Brigade‘s Facebook page.
McKenna, in describing the training, said soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan set up traffic stops to check primarily for homemade explosives.
“That’s the same thing they do [in Honduras], except they’re not really checking for explosives,” McKenna said. “It’s more narcotics trafficking.”
Authorities say the number of border crossings are dropping at the Texas-Mexico border, allowing the federal government to close temporary shelters opened to handle the surge.
The Department of Homeland Security released data last week showing about 5,500 children were arrested in July, barely half the number in May and June and the fewest children arrested in a month since February.
Charlie Company had been pegged for another Afghanistan deployment last year, when plans changed and the unit, as part of the 48th Infantry Brigade, was reassigned under the Department of Defense’s regionally aligned forces program.
“Other units went to Guatemala and El Salvador, and our battalion went to Honduras,” McKenna said.
Most of the Charlie Company soldiers who took part “had combat deployments already,” he said. “They had been to Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re noncommissioned officers, so they’re more experienced than the average soldier.”
Regarding Honduras’ military preparedness, McKenna said, “They have the foundation they’re used to, and we kind of added onto it.
“The things they lack that we have are resources and the assets. Down there, they don’t have the equipment needed to do [the job] the way we would in the United States.”
He added, “We just had to hone their skills and give them a better way of doing things, to add to what they already do.”
Planning on the mission itself started about a year ago, around the time the country elected a new president, Juan Orlando Hernández.
“Whatever is down there to drive their political reasoning, I leave that up to them,” McKenna said. “We get a mission and we go accomplish it.”
The Honduran soldiers were “outstanding,” he said. “They’re very disciplined, eager to learn. The bravado of the Latin community definitely shows down there — they like competition and to have fun.”
One hope of the Americans is that the newly trained Honduran soldiers will pass along their skills to other soldiers.
“Those soldiers ... can become force multipliers,” McKenna said. “That’s how we would like for it to work out, but it may be too early to tell. We may have to wait a couple of months and see.”
Patience is key in dealing with soldiers from other nations.
“That’s why you bring your more mature leaders, versus an 18-year-old who wants to go run and have fun,” McKenna said. “The big thing, especially, is the language barrier.”
With just four interpreters on hand, visual teaching and learning was emphasized over classroom instruction.
“And they learned really fast,” he said. “We just had to show them.”
The U.S. soldiers were able to spend some time in the countryside, visiting Mayan ruins.
“The guys really enjoyed that,” McKenna said.
He also talked about the cultural differences.
“We saw only one traffic light and that was in the big city,” he said. “Other than that, there were no rules of the road. You can drive in the middle of the road if you want to ... and try not to crash.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.