Memorial Day is an important day of reflection for me. Baseball and barbecues aren’t bad either. I am grateful that so many American men and women choose to serve our country by serving in the military. We owe each of them our gratitude, respect, and support. I recently had the opportunity to see the amazing dedication and heart of our U.S military up close and personal. I was asked to participate in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC 75). It was an experience I will never forget.
JCOC is a U.S. Department of Defense civilian outreach program that that has been run 75 times since 1948. I was invited to participate in JCOC 75 which brought together 48 civilian leaders from across the country for a week of total immersion in U.S. military operations. And total immersion it was.
When we arrived at the Pentagon, prior to the start of JCOC 75, the only information we were given was that our host would be the US Southern Command led by Admiral James G. Stavridis. All we knew is that we would be visiting military installations throughout Central and South America. For security reasons we were not given specific details on where we were headed and what we would be doing. Try packing for that! It promised to be interesting given the recent news coming from the region including: Hugo Chavez, Guantanamo, the Columbian Free Trade Act and, a huge possible oil discovery off the coast of Brazil.
The mood was set immediately upon arrival to the Pentagon with a visit to the reconstruction site where 284 individuals lost their lives on September 11, 2001. While our group had yet to create the personal bonds that would strengthen over the course of the upcoming week, we all shared a common sense of excitement and anticipation as our itinerary for the week was revealed.
JCOC 75 * April 18-26, 2008 * ITINERARY
Pentagon, Washington DC
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
U.S.S. George Washington (off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Bogata, Tolemaida, and Cartegena. Columbia
Sota Cano Air Base, Honduras
Key West and Miami, Florida
Andrews Air Force Base
It was immediately obvious that this was no boondoggle when the wake up call arrived at 3:00 AM and we boarded a C-17 military cargo plane that would be our home base throughout the week’s journey for a direct flight to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Talk about diving right in to the pool. I am a news junkie and have followed a lot of the policy and political rumble over Guantanamo. Our early wake up call was soon forgotten with the riveting experience of touring two of Guantanomo’s prison facilities and visiting with American men and women who serve our country in Cuba. Regardless of your political views and the policy debate going on far from this U.S. military base, what I observed were dedicated and hard-working U.S. soldiers serving all of us in a difficult and stressful prison environment. These soldiers who are away from their homes and families for extended periods are subjected to abuse from prisoners every day and carry out their jobs with integrity and pride. I now view Guantanomo news coverage with a new appreciation for what I observed going on there.
With Guantanamo still on our minds we boarded our C-17 for an all night flight to Rio de Janeiro where we planned to meet up with the USS George Washington in transit nearby. It isn’t every day that you get the opportunity to visit an active aircraft carrier out at sea. Luckily I was in a small group of a dozen JCOC participants that were delayed in visiting the ship and by the time we were able to board the C-2A Carrier Onboard Delivery (nicknamed COD) to take us out to the ship deck we were told that we would be spending the night on board the carrier and coming back to shore the next morning. We would get to see night flight operations from the deck of the GW - an experience we were told that is rarely available to civilians. Wow! I will never forget that night and the opportunity to spend time with many of the enlisted men and women assigned to the GW.
The visit began with the COD flight and arrested landing on the GW deck. We have all seen film clips of fighter jets being caught by a wire on the short runway of an aircraft carrier. The film clips do not do justice to the actual experience. I am glad to have done it once! Imagine sitting backwards while strapped into the COD and then with little warning and no visual cues to orient yourself you experience a bone-jarring stop when the plane catches the wire on the ship’s deck. After I caught my breath I was thankful for the wire and a talented pilot. Later that evening I stood on that same deck and watched an exercise where F 18 fighter pilots practiced catapult take-offs and arrested landings. It was incredible to see the after burners of the F 18s light up the horizon off the deck of the GW and the choreography of the entire flight operations team made me think of a high tech and high stress ballet. I am glad that our country continues to invest in this important strategic military capability.
The GW is a city with 5000 on board and everyone that I spent time with was dedicated to his or her mission and had a great personal story to share about how they joined the military and how much they missed their homes, friends, and families. The other day I read about a fire on board the GW and I immediately worried about the soldiers that I had met on our visit. I hope that they are alright.
From there we left for Columbia and I was reunited with my luggage in Bogata for the first time since leaving the Pentagon. In Columbia our military plays an important advisory role to help the Columbian military strengthen its capacity to defeat the FARQ and other insurgent groups that finance their military efforts primarily through cocaine trafficking. Most of the world’s cocaine originates in Columbia and ends up on our streets in the United States. I was impressed by the progress made by President Uribe and the Columbian military to both combat drug trafficking and to support the development of an economic future that isn’t dependent on the drug trade. We visited Columbian military installations at Tolemaida and on the coast in Cartagena.
Next stop, Sota Cano, Honduras. Here we visited a humanitarian project where our military was beginning a project to build a new school in an impoverished Honduran village. I had the opportunity to help distribute school supplies to many of the students in the village. Being there and looking directly into the big brown eyes of these children really hit home and I was proud that our military plays a supporting humanitarian role in Honduras.
After an exhausting and eventful week it was back to U.S. terra firma. We visited a Coast Guard installation and the Joint Interagency Task Force in Key West, Florida. JIATF is a good example of collaborative innovation where seemingly, every silo spanning military and law enforcement services comes together for the common purpose of slowing the flow of illegal drugs coming across our borders. I was impressed by their use of technology to enable collaborative intelligence sharing and interdiction operations.
We celebrated the conclusion of our journey at dinner with Admiral James Stavridis in Miami who shared a compelling vision of a strong Southern Command with deep collaborative relationships across the entire region. I am grateful to the DOD for making the JCOC experience possible, to the Southern Command for hosting our visit and making me more aware of this important region, to my fellow JCOC participants who were all interesting and made the journey special, and most of all to the men and women who serve our country in the U.S. military.
Thank you for your service. Happy Memorial Day
~ Saul Kaplan
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