Special Tactics unites with South American partners on training to save lives

  • Published
  • By Capt. Alejandra Fontalvo
  • 24th Special Operations Wing

"United to save lives” or “Unidos para salvar vidas”… is the powerful motto behind exercise Ángel de los Andes Cooperación VII, a Colombian-led search and rescue disaster relief exercise bringing together over 740 participants from across the Americas from Aug. 30-Sept. 10, 2021 in Rionegro, Colombia.

This year, 32 of those participants included Special Tactics and combat mission support airmen from the 26th Special Tactics Squadron based out of Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico.

“We had a few objectives for this exercise,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Charles Hodges, commander of the 26th STS. “First and foremost, we wanted to build relationships with the partners and allies we have in South America. Due to our persistent presence in the Middle East over the last two decades, we have not focused on our partners to the south as much as we would have liked. Secondly, we want to work on our tactical rescue skills in Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief operations.”

The squadron embraced the unique opportunity to train in an unfamiliar environment and with the Colombian partners for the exercise’s third iteration since it started in 2015. Other country participants and observers included Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and Canada making it the most diverse and largest contingent of personnel in Ángel de los Andes’ history. 

“The opportunity to conduct joint and combined operations in a permissive environment is ideal. Thereby, understanding each other before the first time we are working through coordination and communication issues with other partners or services isn’t in a hostile environment or after a crisis occurs,” said Hodges. “Additionally, we learn from their experience and they can learn from ours. It’s a win-win opportunity.”

"While in Colombia, the team hit the ground running. The ST Airmen were able to train on various critical skills to hone their land and maritime personnel recovery capabilities including medical treatment, patient transport, military freefall, helicopter fast roping, rappelling, collapsed structure and confined space rescue techniques.

“Training on these tactical skills gave us the opportunity to integrate with aircrews from multiple countries, rescue specialists from local volunteer response teams and doctors in field hospitals,” said the Combat Rescue Officer and lead for the ST team. “It really encompassed all aspects of what a true humanitarian assistance event might entail and served as an opportunity to identify what works well and where we could integrate more effectively in the future.”

 Not all of the exercise training was scenario-based however. During one event, the Special Tactics team took off from a soccer field of an isolated village in a Colombian Blackhawk surrounded by waving local families after helping the international team provide medical care to hundreds of Colombians. This was just one of the impactful moments the team got to experience.

“Another memorable moment was on the final afternoon during a formal jump wing exchange with the Colombian [pararescuemen],” said the CRO. “After pounding his jump wings into my chest, in accordance with strict tradition, my Colombian counterpart looked me in the eyes and said, ‘never forget that we are brothers, we are family, and you’re always welcome here.’”

 As the successful large-scale exercise came to an end, the ST Airmen believe the sincerity of the bonds built over the two weeks of training will increase both countries’ ability to respond to any future disaster together if required.

“I’m extremely grateful and proud of the 24th SOW’s participation and execution in ADLA, specifically the 26th STS,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jaime Clark, 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) Command Chief and former 24th SOW Command Chief. “Their leadership, professionalism, and performance was exceptional. Despite ADLA being an exercise, ST strengthened partner nation relationships and countered threats, which directly supports and enhances 12th Air Force’s mission. What ST brings to bear in combat, peacetime, and gray zone operations is second to none.”