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For U.S. troops, Tegucigalpa’s good life has its dangers

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Capt. Cliff Bayne looks for souvenirs in a market off Plaza Morazan, the capital city's main plaza. The captain is serving a four-month tour at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, where he's a logistics officer for Joint Task Force-Bravo.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Capt. Cliff Bayne looks for souvenirs in a market off Plaza Morazan, the capital city's main plaza. The captain is serving a four-month tour at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, where he's a logistics officer for Joint Task Force-Bravo. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Capts. Dan Beard and Cliff Bayne (left to right) take a breather at a monument in the capital city's Plaza Morazan. The two captains are logistics officers with Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras. When they get a chance, both said they like to explore the country, which gives them a break from life at the austere base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Capts. Dan Beard and Cliff Bayne (left to right) take a breather at a monument in the capital city's Plaza Morazan. The two captains are logistics officers with Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras. When they get a chance, both said they like to explore the country, which gives them a break from life at the austere base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Capts. Dan Beard and Cliff Bayne (left to right) discuss where they'll go after their sightseeing tour of the capital city's Plaza Morazan. The logistics officers for Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, enjoy visiting different sections of the country when they get a chance. Without getting to know the people and the culture, "you really don't know the country," Captain Bayne said. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Capts. Dan Beard and Cliff Bayne (left to right) discuss where they'll go after their sightseeing tour of the capital city's Plaza Morazan. The logistics officers for Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, enjoy visiting different sections of the country when they get a chance. Without getting to know the people and the culture, "you really don't know the country," Captain Bayne said. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Capts. Dan Beard and Cliff Bayne (left to right) chat on the steps of a replica of a Copan Indians temple in United Nations Park, which overlooks the capital city. Both captains are logistics officers for Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, and like to visit sites around the country to soak up the local culture and eat the tasty local food. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Capts. Dan Beard and Cliff Bayne (left to right) chat on the steps of a replica of a Copan Indians temple in United Nations Park, which overlooks the capital city. Both captains are logistics officers for Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, and like to visit sites around the country to soak up the local culture and eat the tasty local food. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - One of the sights Capts. Dan Beard and Cliff Bayne took in while touring the capital city was a park high on a mountain. There, a huge statue called Christ on El Picacho, overlooks the city below. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - One of the sights Capts. Dan Beard and Cliff Bayne took in while touring the capital city was a park high on a mountain. There, a huge statue called Christ on El Picacho, overlooks the city below. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- American servicemembers visiting this capital city from nearby Soto Cano Air Base come to rest, relax and get a taste of the good life.

On weekends, they succumb to the pampered lifestyle lavished on them at hotels, restaurants, discotheques, tourist sites and shopping areas. It’s a life many don’t often experience.

So it’s easy to understand why most don’t pay much attention to the city’s high crime rate and kamikaze drivers. Many see it as just another thing to get used to in a foreign land.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not aware of what’s going on around them, said Capt. Dan Beard, logistics deputy director for Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano. During his 11 months in Honduras, Captain Beard has spent 10 weekends in “Tegus” — as troops call the bustling city.

“The crime rate’s scary,” he said. “But every week we get safety briefings. And in the city, or anywhere in the country, we always use the buddy system and go places as a group.”

The reason is obvious. Tegucigalpa, which sprawls uncontrolled over a bowl-shaped valley, is menaced by violent gangs. Armed guards stand outside most businesses, and national police with automatic weapons are a common sight on city streets. Still, murders occur daily, adding to Honduras’ whopping homicide rate of 46 per 100,000 people.

“Here the people must plan their lives around the gangs and violence,” said Emilio Gamez, who works for a transportation company that ferries U.S. troops to and from the base. “It is a sad part of our daily lives.”

Army Col. Rick Bassett, the Joint Task Force-Bravo commander, said in the past 10 months, two task force members have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both received stab wounds.

“Fortunately, neither was seriously hurt,” he said.

However, crime doesn’t deter Airmen, Marines, Sailors and Soldiers that make up the task force from venturing out of their camp for a bit of “R and R.” The cost for a hotel, meals and entertainment is much cheaper than in the United States. There are exotic places to visit. Plus, there’s safety in numbers.

“It’s great to get off the base and into a nice hotel where you actually have a bathroom in your room — that’s a bonus,” Captain Beard said. “Being able to go just relax, get pampered and have a nice meal. They take such good care of you here, the hospitality is unbelievable.”

Troops welcome the preferential treatment. Because at Soto Cano, a base outside the city of Comayagua that U.S. forces share with the Honduran air force, troops don’t necessarily have it easy. Their job is to keep the base’s almost 9,000-foot runway open to provide a logistical support base to counter illicit trafficking operations and humanitarian missions in the region.

But life at the camp is pretty Spartan. Troops live in wooden “hooches” with no running water or bathrooms. They brave torrential downpours to use community showers and toilets. And apart from a military dining facility and a few on-base restaurants, there’s little variety in the type of food available. Entertainment options are limited to a few on base lounges, the gymnasium and an arts and craft center.

Life can be a bit tough, for sure, but “it sure beats living in a tent,” Captain Beard said.

Camp life, while not bad, can wear on a person, he said. People need to recharge their batteries by getting off the base. Tegucigalpa is the most popular destination. But the offshore island of Roatan is also a favorite spot because of its beautiful beaches and world-class diving.

Another draw is the country’s diverse culture, food and natural beauty, said Capt. Cliff Bayne, also a task force logistics officer. But to truly take advantage of what Honduras offers, he said, takes learning the language. It’s something he’s working on.

The captain has been to the capital twice so far during his four-months here. He said all the troops get plenty of information about the city before they go on a weekend visit. They learn of the latest hotspots to avoid, to be careful and to watch each other’s back.

“But you still worry,” he said. “So you use your good senses and stay away from the bad areas of town. And you remain cautious.”

Knowing what areas are safe and which are not is information servicemembers get in safety briefings. But troops have also come to rely on hotel staffs and taxi drivers for information on what places to avoid. Most hotels have trusted taxi drivers they recommend their guest use.

Cesar Dominguez is a bell captain at a luxurious American hotel where many of the troops stay. He said telling guests what places to avoid is not a just a courtesy, but an obligation.

“These people are guests in our country,” he said. “It is our responsibility to tell them where they might get into problems, so they can avoid those areas.”

Another thing most Americans avoid doing is driving. Task force members can’t bring their cars to Honduras. And it’s just as well, Captain Beard said, because driving in the country is dangerous. He said the highway “from the base to Tegucigalpa is treacherous.”

“It’s like a death march every time you go from Soto Cano to Tegus,” he said. “The way people drive here is unbelievable — like nothing I’ve ever experienced before in my life.”

The two-lane highway to the capital city winds through the mountains — and there are few guardrails. Huge semi-trucks and buses, fumes-spouting old cars and horse-drawn carts can take a toll on even the most experienced driver.

Mr. Gamez has worked with the Americans for 10 years. But unlike many of his countrymen, he prefers to take his time when driving. He wants to ensure his, and his passengers’ safety.

“Anyone with a car can drive here,” he said. “And everyone is always in a hurry; so many people never obey traffic signs. You put your life in your hands when you drive here. I want to make it home safely to my family — and I know my passengers do too.”

Nevertheless, each weekend, Soto Cano troops board a shuttle bus and head for Tegus or elsewhere. The drivers know the roads well and have plenty of experience, Captain Beard said. But it’s up to the troops to decide if they want to brave some of the aspects of Honduran life.

Those people that don’t leave the confines of Soto Cano to explore what Honduras has to offer will lose out, Captain Bayne said.

“When you’re in a foreign country it’s important to experience the culture. How else will you get to know the people?” he said. “And you can’t do that within the confines of the base gate.”

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