Kentucky, New Jersey Guard aid Ecuador land mine removal operation

Ecuadorian civil engineers recently welcomed a team of Air National Guard, active-duty Air Force and civilian personnel from U.S. Southern Command to observe, train and equip a battalion of soldiers in the process of removing land mines from an area in the southern part of the country.

Mine contamination in the Republic of Ecuador resulted from a border conflict with Peru that culminated with the 1995 Cenepa War, the most recent military conflict in the Americas between countries contesting territorial sovereignty.

After signing the 1998 Brasilia Peace Accords, ending the dispute between both countries, the demining process began and humanitarian aid operations started in the border areas in the Condor mountain range that were at the center of the dispute.

The visiting group, led by Senior Master Sgt. Matthew Wilt, transferred more than $1.3 million in equipment to the Ecuadorian Army’s 168th Battalion to help clear the last portion of the region still mined.

“It’s an amazing feeling to work with these soldiers to accomplish this effort to provide them new and innovative equipment and foster relationships built with our state partners,” said Wilt, superintendent of the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight.

The Kentucky Guard and Ecuador are part of a cooperative military-to-military exchange effort administered by the National Guard Bureau. Called the State Partnership Program, it facilitates cooperation between U.S. National Guard units and foreign allies, fostering enhanced understanding across all aspects of civil and military affairs.

The equipment package included 16 portable solar panels that lighten the load and provide a rechargeable capability in the field.

Additionally, the package features four storage batteries, the largest of which will provide 1,250 watt-hours to recharge the deminers’ sensory equipment.

The lightweight equipment is easier for the deminers to haul as they trek deep into the jungle. Other materials included electronic tablets for hazard mapping, protective suits, and field kits with shovels, mats and cordon materials.

In addition to the equipment, Wilt said the team conducted important training with the 168th Battalion’s 60 deminers, including land navigation and plotting, information and data gathering, and information management.

This effort has been years in the making, supported and sourced by the Civil Affairs and Humanitarian Assistance Directorate at U.S. Southern Command.

“After 11 years without a humanitarian mine action engagement with Ecuador, the U.S. Southern Command is very happy and honored to again support the Ecuadorian military in their humanitarian demining operations aiming to render their beautiful land mine-free by the year 2025, so their population can return to it and use it again for crop farming and raising livestock,” said Dr. Jose Castro, U.S. Southern Command program manager, who oversaw the training and transfer.

Ecuadorian Army Lt. Gian Tapia, commander of the 168th Battalion, said the initiative is greatly appreciated.

“For a commander, this is valuable innovation and very important support,” he said. “We receive this equipment with the best of intentions, and rest assured, it will be put to good use. The equipment is very useful, and the technology and innovation is very important.”

U.S. personnel also gained a great deal from the interaction.

“I enjoyed the opportunity to teach the Ecuadorian Army on the use of equipment they have not seen,” said Tech Sgt. Oscar Morales, noncommissioned officer in charge of training at the 7th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas.

Morales, who speaks Spanish, was instrumental in helping ensure the correct translation of teaching points from English.

“I am grateful that Senior Master Sgt. Wilt reached out to the EOD community for Spanish speakers for this mission, and that I was useful in translating throughout my time with the team.”

Tech Sgt. David Bernal, team leader for the New Jersey Air Guard’s 177th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight, said it was a privilege to help his Ecuadorian partners.

“The U.S. military and Guard forces are uniquely positioned to share our technology and experience with our partners,” Bernal said. “The mission that the Ecuadorian military faces is a difficult and dangerous one, and I think this training and equipment will support that endeavor.”

The New Jersey resident, who is now assigned to the United States Air Force, was also a detective with the New York City Police Department for 17 years, as well as a US Army reconnaissance scout team leader and a United States Marine.

“By providing them with updated protective equipment and solar power, the deminers will be able to complete this mission and return the land safely to the population,” Bernal said. “As an American service member, it is a privilege to assist the Ecuadorian military in this noble cause.”

Antipersonnel landmines are explosive devices designed to injure or kill people.

They can lie dormant for years and even decades under, on, or near the ground until a person or animal triggers their detonating mechanism. A landmine blast can be fatal or cause injuries such as blindness, burns, damaged limbs, and shrapnel wounds.

As of January 2021, 55 states and five other areas had an identified threat of antipersonnel mine contamination.

There is no credible estimate of the total number of mines in the ground worldwide, however the impact of mines can be measured in several ways, including totaling the amount of land that is unusable due to contamination or gathering data about the number of people killed or injured by mines.

In the image above, Tech Sgt. Oscar Morales, 7th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight, provides field training to Ecuadorian Army soldiers to use new demining equipment in Sangolquí, Ecuador. The equipment, from U.S. Southern Command, will be used to help clear the last remaining part of the country’s southern border so it can be returned to the local population for farming and other activities. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Lt. Col. Allison Stephens)

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