Army Staff Sgt. Michael Abels, an equipment repairman in the 742nd Support Maintenance Company, S.C. National Guard, uses a translator application on his phone to describe the correct firing order for an armored security engine to maintenance personnel in the Colombian army. The engagement between maintenance personnel of the partnered countries is part of the National Guard State Partnership Program between the S.C. National Guard and Colombia. (Justin Montgomery / AP)
COLOMBIA, S.C. — Making use of new-style smartphone apps and old-style technical journals, soldiers from the South Carolina National Guard spent last month helping members of the Colombian army learn to care for and repair their military equipment.
The visit was the second time the unit of South Carolina mechanics traveled to the South American nation as part of a National Guard program that pairs U.S. units with friendly nations overseas.
Colombia is working to emerge from decades of civil war, and is trying to update some of its military practices, said Maj. Dave King, who coordinated the visit for the 15 soldiers from the Guard’s 742nd Support Maintenance Company, which is based out of the McCrady Training Center at Fort Jackson in Columbia.
“Our guys got down there and were just turning wrenches with the Colombians,” said King, 54. “We weren’t trying to recreate the U.S. Army there, we were just trying to roll up our sleeves and help them work.”
King said the exchange program is geared toward helping the Colombians establish work patterns and repair systems that create “a maintenance culture.”
The group worked on repairing night vision goggles, armored vehicles and small caliber weapons. It worked on a military base in the city of Melgar, about 60 miles southwest of the capital of Bogota.
In the U.S. military, King said, maintenance crews ideally deploy as a supporting unit for a combat group that uses the vehicles and equipment they repair, helping maintainers understand the quirks and complexities of the gear used in combat.
In Colombia, because of its years of internal conflict, gear is repaired and sent away to the front lines without as much follow up, King said.
“They are very serious about what they do. Their country has basically been in a civil war for about 50 years,” said King, who accompanied the group on the month-long trip.
Last month, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Colombia to pledge support for the nation’s newly re-elected President Juan Manuel Santos and the peace process he has pursued with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. As a senator, Biden worked on a program to support Colombia’s counternarcotics and anti-insurgency efforts, through which Washington has sent more than $9 billion in aid and military support since 2000.
The major said the two groups were able to communicate despite language differences by relying on the diagrams in technical equipment manuals as well as Spanish-English smartphone translation apps, King said.
“Even though the repair manuals were written in Spanish, our guys could look at the graphics and help explain to them how to do things,” King said. “If they couldn’t figure something out, they could often look up a translation” for what they wanted to say, he added.
Another interesting aspect of the trip was that several of the Colombian soldiers they worked with were “wounded warriors” who were given the job part of their rehabilitation, the major said.
“It was very motivating to work with them,” King said. “They are very hardworking soldiers.”
A unit of Columbians visited South Carolina in the past year to view the helicopters flown by the Guard, he said, and King said he hopes the exchanges continue.
“When you teach something, you learn as well, so it was a benefit to our guys,” King said.
Guard units from states such as North Carolina worked with Botswana in 2008; from Texas with Chile in 2008; and Mississippi with Uzbekistan in 2012. In all, the National Guard Bureau has sponsored 68 state partnerships since 1993, according to information on its website.