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Volunteers provide search and rescue for Central America

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Army Master Sgt. Lorenzo Zamora helps Senior Airman Ben Roundtree prepare for a rappel training exercise here May 3.  As an additional duty, Sergeant Zamora serves as rappel master and noncommissioned officer in charge of the base's search and rescue team.  The team is Army run, but relies heavily on Airmen and Marines to accomplish their mission.  Sergeant Zamora is the Joint Task Force-Bravo Army Forces support platoon leader.  Airman Roundtree is assigned to the base fire department.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Army Master Sgt. Lorenzo Zamora helps Senior Airman Ben Roundtree prepare for a rappel training exercise here May 3. As an additional duty, Sergeant Zamora serves as rappel master and noncommissioned officer in charge of the base's search and rescue team. The team is Army run, but relies heavily on Airmen and Marines to accomplish their mission. Sergeant Zamora is the Joint Task Force-Bravo Army Forces support platoon leader. Airman Roundtree is assigned to the base fire department. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgt. John Deese rappels during a search and rescue training exercise here May 3. Each week the SAR team conducts different training exercises to prepare for operations throughout Central America.  The team is Army run, but relies heavily on Airmen and Marines to ensure mission success. Sergeant Deese is a crew chief with the base fire department. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Staff Sgt. John Deese rappels during a search and rescue training exercise here May 3. Each week the SAR team conducts different training exercises to prepare for operations throughout Central America. The team is Army run, but relies heavily on Airmen and Marines to ensure mission success. Sergeant Deese is a crew chief with the base fire department. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras -- Search and rescue operations at this Central American base are not ordinary.

Instead of the typical Air Force pararescuemen enveloped in heavy gear, the SAR team here is Army run. It encompasses people from all services, an assortment of career fields and numerous volunteers.

“It’s an additional duty,” said Army Master Sgt. Lorenzo Zamora, platoon leader for the Joint Task Force-Bravo Army Forces support platoon here. He also serves as rappel master and noncommissioned officer in charge of the team. “You get to do stuff that a lot of U.S. personnel in the rest of the world don’t get a chance to do.”

Though the team primarily comprises Soldiers, the security forces are currently Marines, and the firefighters are Airmen. Sergeant Zamora said the team relies a great deal on volunteers.

And though training is always important for mission success, working with volunteers who have occupations outside of the normal SAR duties make it even more critical that they are up to speed on their skills, he said.

To accomplish that challenge, the people who make up the team gather weekly to ensure their skills are in check.

“Each week we train on different items,” Sergeant Zamora said.

Training varies from enhancing rappelling proficiencies by scaling down tower structures or from helicopters, to sharpening rescue swimming skills by enduring water survival training at the base pool. The troops, in battle dress uniforms, are loaded down with ruck sacks and Kevlar gear.

And though the training can be tough, for many of them, it is the out-of-the normal duties that make involvement so attractive.

“We normally don’t do these activities at a regular base,” said Staff Sgt. John Deese, crew chief at the base fire department and fire department contact for the team. Sergeant Deese has enjoyed his duties on the base so much that after 11 months on station, he asked to stay another year. “I love doing stuff like this.”

But though most people will not challenge the importance of saving a life, the servicemembers’ schedules often challenge their ability to accomplish training.

“We all get along really well,” Sergeant Deese said. “But the only problem we have is getting training time because of the different schedules.”

Schedule complications can affect actual emergencies as well. So all of them carry pagers to ensure they can be contacted if an event arises, Sergeant Zamora said.

And they take their jobs, though voluntary, very seriously. The team operates missions throughout Central America, often responding to requests for assistance from U.S. Embassies.

“We do any ground lost personnel and downed aircraft recovery,” said Sergeant Zamora, who served nearly two years at Soto Cano and is looking forward to another 11 months. Other skills the team trains for include: security for crash sites, mortuary affairs and mapping.

The goal is to save a life, but more specifically, react within the “golden hour.” That means when an aircraft goes down and people are hurt, their best chance of survival is within an hour.

“That’s (when) we hope to get to them, fast enough to be able to make sure or hope they can survive, getting them out,” Sergeant Zamora said.

And that is all the gratification he said he needs.

“If you actually save somebody, that in itself is great enough,” he said. “Whereas the medals don’t mean anything, the certificates don’t mean anything, it’s that life that means something.”

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