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Airman engineers Seabees’ construction in Panama

LLANO DE PIEDRA, Panama -- Capt. Star Longo talks with Bolivar Barria inside the community center the Seabees constructed here.  Captain Longo is the commander of the U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 40 (Seabees) attached to Joint Task Force Armadillo.  Task Force Armadillo is part of New Horizions 2005, a U.S. Southern Command sponsored annual training and humanitarian exercise.  Captain Longo is on a two-year exchange program with the Seabees.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

LLANO DE PIEDRA, Panama -- Capt. Star Longo talks with Bolivar Barria inside the community center the Seabees constructed here. Captain Longo is the commander of the U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 40 (Seabees) attached to Joint Task Force Armadillo. Task Force Armadillo is part of New Horizions 2005, a U.S. Southern Command sponsored annual training and humanitarian exercise. Captain Longo is on a two-year exchange program with the Seabees. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

LLANO DE PIEDRA, Panama -- Capt. Star Longo stands outside the community center the Seabees constructed here.  He is the commander of the U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 40 (Seabees) attached to Joint Task Force Armadillo.  Task Force Armadillo is part of New Horizions 2005, a U.S. Southern Command sponsored annual training and humanitarian exercise.  Captain Longo is on a two-year exchange program with the Seabees.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

LLANO DE PIEDRA, Panama -- Capt. Star Longo stands outside the community center the Seabees constructed here. He is the commander of the U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 40 (Seabees) attached to Joint Task Force Armadillo. Task Force Armadillo is part of New Horizions 2005, a U.S. Southern Command sponsored annual training and humanitarian exercise. Captain Longo is on a two-year exchange program with the Seabees. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

LLANO DE PIEDRA, Panama -- Capt. Star Longo has reason to smile.

After three months of hard work, he and his team of engineers finished building a much-needed community center in this tiny isolated town in southwestern Panama.

With his mission done, he can return home and do some surfing again. But the real reason he is smiling was all around him -- the faces of happy townspeople who were strangers at first, but ended up befriending the young civil engineer.

“The people here are what made this job the best (I’ve worked on) -- they are so friendly,” Captain Longo said.

He arrived Feb. 21 with Joint Task Force Armadillo. He is one of only three Airmen at its tucked-away camp in La Mesa. Its Airmen, Marines, Sailors and Soldiers are in Panama taking part in New Horizons 2005, an annual training exercise and humanitarian assistance effort sponsored by U.S. Southern Command.

The task force is scheduled to return home early May. Captain Longo will be going home with it, but he will not be returning to an Air Force base. Although he participated as an Airman, he did not lead an Air Force team. Instead, he was in charge of a group of Navy Seabees, which is the phonetic spelling for C B, or construction battalion. The captain is on a two-year assignment as an exchange officer with U.S. Naval Construction Battalion 40, based at Port Hueneme, Calif. To do his job well, he had to learn how the Navy does construction.

“It’s been a learning experience, for sure,” said the captain from Beaufort, S.C. Besides having to learn all the career fields of his Sailors, he spent almost his entire first year learning the Seabees’ other job: “The how we fight side.”

But fortunately, the only thing his team fought in Panama was the heat and humidity. Their job was simple: Help set up the task force’s base camp at La Mesa, and then build a community center here, a 20-minute ride on a bumpy dirt road from base camp.

The construction crew is part of the more than 400 U.S. servicemembers on the task force. New Horizons provides the mostly reservists joint deployment training. But with their humanitarian work -- construction; providing medical, dental, vision and veterinary assistance; and nation building -- they also foster good will.

Captain Longo and his Seabees fostered plenty of that.

Each day, as the team arrived for work, the one-road town welcomed their guests with open arms. Children ran to the side of the road and waved and shouted greetings in English learned from their new American friends. The people would bring the engineers cold drinks and food. And over a lunch of rice and chicken -- or iguana tail -- they talked about the community center.

Bolivar Barria, dressed in a crisp, white shirt and Panama hat, has lived his 78 years in the town. He said the arrival of the American servicemembers breathed a little more life into Llano de Piedras, which means “plain of rocks.” A town so out of the way that cowboys on horseback heard beef cows down the street.

“This building is very valuable for our community,” Mr. Barria said of the new building next to his home.

On a Tuesday afternoon, the captain and his Sailors arrived at the finished community center for a final check. Many of the town’s people, children in tow, came, too. The captain chatted in his broken Spanish with a couple of people, and the Seabees took pictures of their creation and the new friends they made.

The Americans thanked their hosts by presenting the town a Seabee plaque to be displayed in the new center. They then held an informal ceremony to present some of the townspeople certificates of appreciation for the help they provided.

Mr. Barria said the Americans were courteous guests, but may not fully realize how important their project is. He said the town has never had a meeting place for its people.

“Now there are people already asking when they can stage events there,” he said.

After the ceremony, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Manuel Reyes, a steelworker, stood under a tree, trying to get some shade from the withering sun. He said having an Airman as a boss was not such a bad thing. It taught the Seabees how to better work with a sister service. And he said the young captain “is an outstanding leader.”

“He gives us the details we ask for on a job and then he lets us finish the project,” said Petty Officer Reyes, from Baguio City, Philippines. “And he always backs us up and fights for us when we need something.”

The Seabees had already packed their gear before the ceremony here. Before leaving, however, they found time to play a little baseball with the children. They were there into the late afternoon, reluctant to leave.

“I’m going to be thinking we left a great project here. We did what Seabees do best -- we left quality in place. And we did it without one injury,” Captain Longo said.

“Everyone got to better understand the culture of Panama,” he said. “We built strong ties here. I’ll leave feeling like it was a completely successful mission.”