Sept. 24, 2009

29th ID partners with 20 countries for PANAMAX '09

By Sgt. John Slosser
Virginia Guard Public Affairs

CAMP BULLIS, Texas — The National Guard’s 29th Infantry Division Headquarters combined forces with more than 700 U.S. and partner nation personnel at Camp Bullis, Texas for the simulated ground portion of Fuerzas Aliadas (FA) PANAMAX ’09, a multinational, joint forces training scenario built around the defense of the Panama Canal.

  PANAMAX 2009

Col. John Epperly from the 29th Infantry Division briefs El Salvadoran Army Col. Yohalmo Figueroa Mata at the Coalition Forces Land Component Command headquarters in Camp Bullis, Texas during PANAMAX 2009. PANAMAX 2009 is a multinational, joint forces training scenario involving 20 countries and more than 4500 participants and observers training to protect safe passage through the Panama Canal. (Sgt. John Slosser, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

The full spectrum training exercise involves civil and military land, air and sea forces from 20 countries. This year’s PANAMAX pulled together more than 4,500 personnel, 20 maritime vessels and a dozen aircraft to form a Multi-National Force throughout the Central American region. The training scenario centers on the protection of the Panama Canal and safe passage through it, while respecting national sovereignty. The annual multinational, multilingual event tests the coalition’s ability to conduct combat operations, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance in the region.

“This is a wonderful training event. We have ships, planes, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and it really is the largest exercise of its kind being conducted anywhere,” said Brig. Gen. Frank Batts,  deputy commander for the 29th ID and acting commander for the PANAMAX Coalition Forces Land Component Command (CFLCC). “We only see one portion of it here at the land component, but we have to work with all of those other forces out there also. It really is a tremendous environment to be in.”

The 29th ID Headquarters filled in as the bulk of the CFLCC for the virtual land-based training. The unit focused on command and control, stability operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief operations. Virginia National Guard Soldiers worked side by side with servicemembers from El Salvador, Chile, Peru, The Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Columbia, Guatemala, and Canada. The CFLCC’s own deputy commander was from Central America and was honored with the opportunity to command the 29th Infantry Division headquarters for one day.

“It is a very interesting opportunity to work in a multi-cultural environment. We can develop professionally and personally with each other,” said Col. Yohalmo Figueroa Mata, an Army artillery colonel from El Salvador. “We’re also learning from the troops that have come from Virginia and the United States. We still find answers to many of the same challenges but with different points of view and different cultures.”

The exercise did pose some interesting environmental challenges. It has been a number of years since the 29th ID has deployed its headquarters. During the unit’s initial setup, the San Antonio area received more rain in two days than in had in the previous 13 months combined.

“In some ways we’re building the plane and flying it at the same time,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Green, the 29th ID command sergeant major. “Some of it has been difficult, our soldiers have stood up and done a tremendous job in meeting those challenges, but it has been a wonderful experience.”

Another unique challenge for the National Guard unit, was the multi-cultural and multi-lingual environment.

“Language does present some challenges in that in everything we do here we make an attempt to translate it into Spanish which is the native language of most of our partner nations in this exercise. Since we are all integrated within this exercise, each one of us has had to understand what is being presented at any one of our briefings,” said Batts. “Obviously if you say something in English and you wait for the Spanish translation of it, it does take longer. You have to slow down a bit so translators can catch up with you.”

The number of partner nations participating in this exercise has grown significantly over the past few years. PANAMAX began in 2003 with three countries: Panama, Chile and the United States. Now with 20 nations contributing, this is the first time for many Servicemembers to participate in this exercise of its kind. Figueroa also commented on an overall reason for the tremendous growth in the number of PANAMAX’s partner nations.

“It indicates an increased interest in many countries willingness to work together and learn from each other. That means that we each encounter the same challenges and problems in the various regions where we work,” said Figueroa. “The emerging challenges know no boundaries, therefore we should all work together to overcome them. This demonstrates an increase in interest and in trust to the problems we share.”

The Panamax exercise is the third major event for the 29th ID headquarters in the last year. The division took part in  Exercise Yama Sakura in Japan in December 2008, supported the Presidential Inauguration in January and has a Warfighter exercise scheduled for next year.

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