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Soto Cano getting permanent makeover

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- New buildings going up here will replace the more than 270 wooden structures called "hooches" where Joint Task Force-Bravo troops presently live.  Construction is ongoing for 44 four-unit apartments.  Officials said they also plan to build seven dormitories.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- New buildings going up here will replace the more than 270 wooden structures called "hooches" where Joint Task Force-Bravo troops presently live. Construction is ongoing for 44 four-unit apartments. Officials said they also plan to build seven dormitories. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Going to the showers or latrines can be a hike for troops stationed here.  Joint Task Force-Bravo troops live in wooden structures called "hooches" that have no running water.  But changes are coming, and new permanent apartments and dormitories are being built.  Servicemembers serve a one-year remote tour at the base, and 120 days for Airmen rotating in for air and space expeditionary forces deployments.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Going to the showers or latrines can be a hike for troops stationed here. Joint Task Force-Bravo troops live in wooden structures called "hooches" that have no running water. But changes are coming, and new permanent apartments and dormitories are being built. Servicemembers serve a one-year remote tour at the base, and 120 days for Airmen rotating in for air and space expeditionary forces deployments. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- After decades of living in wooden structures called “hooches,” troops at this small “temporary” base soon will get new homes as part of a military construction project.

The new buildings will replace the base’s 270 hooches with 44 four-unit apartment buildings and seven two-story, 72-occupant dormitories, said Capt. Geoffrey McManus, 612th Air Base Squadron engineering chief.

Four of the apartment buildings are finished and occupied. Another four apartments are under construction and should be occupied by mid June. Four others will be ready by the end of November, Captain McManus said. But, he doesn't know when construction will begin on the dormitories.

Most important to the Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines of the base’s Joint Task Force-Bravo is the quality-of-life boost it will give them, he said.

Senior Airman Heather Kowalski, a firefighter at the base’s 60-person fire department, said the changes are long overdue. The additional personal space and privacy will be nice, and troops will not have to shower “with a bunch of other people,” she said.

“And when you take a shower, you’re sweating by the time you walk back to your hooch. (That) kind of defeats the purpose,” she said.

Airman Kowalski said she likes life at the base, located 50 miles northwest of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. But after six months on station, she said she has grown to hate getting up in the middle of the night and going to a communal bathroom in another building -- sometimes in pouring rain. And though she will not be around for the changes, she said troops will definitely welcome them.

“I wish the changes were in place right now,” she said.

The construction will take place “over the next few fiscal years,” said Army Col. Rick Bassett, commander of the joint task force’s 600-plus troops. Eventually, all base facilities will be new or receive major upgrades. He said this kind of construction is not common for temporary bases.

“Normally, a joint task force is stood up for a short period of time,” he said. “But we’ve been in existence for almost 20 years and will be here for the foreseeable future.”

Construction crews are building some of the apartment buildings in a big open field next to rows of the old hooches.

Lt. Col. Jim Hetherington, who commands the task force’s 240-plus Airmen, said the construction will take some of the edge off of being on a remote assignment. A big improvement is the indoor plumbing and central air conditioning the new buildings will have. Hooches do not have running water, and many have old, noisy window air conditioning units.

The changes will boost morale for joint task force troops, he said. They have a big U.S. Southern Command mission. Joint task force servicemembers maintain the largest runway in the country so troops can support counterdrug and humanitarian missions, provide search and rescue and afford a U.S. presence in the region.

Besides keeping the runway open, Airmen provide the base’s civil engineering support. The new buildings will make their jobs easier since they will not require constant maintenance like the existing buildings, Colonel Hetherington said.

Colonel Bassett said the construction is indicative of the commitment the U.S. has toward the task force’s mission and its presence in the region. And since the pullout of U.S. forces from Panama in 1999, Soto Cano’s mission has grown in importance.

“We’re the only forward-deployed element in Southern Command’s area of responsibility,” he said. “So we’re the first response.”