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World Perspective | LATIN AMERICA

Army Reservist Helping Build Schools, Goodwill in El Salvador

May 20, 2000|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA FE, El Salvador — As a child growing up in war-ravaged El Salvador, Angelica Ortiz ran home and hid when she saw soldiers in the street.

This past week, the U.S. Army transportation specialist has been delighted that children smile and wave at her as she passes them in uniform. She is here driving the big trucks that transport bulldozers and other heavy equipment used to build schools and drill wells in their poor communities in the northern province of Chalatenango.

"You feel wanted and appreciated," said the 22-year-old, who wears her dark hair pulled back under a camouflage cap. "I see the children laughing and playing, and we couldn't do that."

Spc. Ortiz is among the thousands of U.S. military reservists from 18 states participating in a three-month training program in El Salvador, designated "New Horizons." Most of them, like Ortiz, are doing their annual two-week stint for the armed forces on the mission.

The primary purpose of the exercise is to provide the reservists with training they might need for combat or peacekeeping missions, U.S. military officers emphasized. But this particular effort has had the side benefit of leaving 10 wells, four schools, two community kitchens and a health clinic in this mountainous, arid province. Doctors and veterinarians participating in the program examined 30,000 people and 10,000 animals.

"This is the most important thing you can do," Gen. Alfred Valenzuela, deputy commander of the Southern Command, said during a visit here. Last year, the Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military interests in Latin America, sent more than 60,000 reservists on such missions in the region.

Besides building a good working relationship with the armed forces in the host country and goodwill with civilians, he said, the exercises help minimize the effects of natural disasters by helping people be better prepared.

And for Ortiz, the missions have an even more special meaning.

This is the first time she has been back to El Salvador since she left as a frightened 8-year-old. She lived in the eastern province of La Union with her grandmother and two brothers on money her parents sent home from New York, where they worked.

What she remembers mainly about that time was fear. "You didn't want to be around soldiers," she recalled. "They could do anything. They could go into your house and take anything."

As the army and the Marxist guerrillas--who fought the government until a peace agreement was signed in 1992--began forcibly recruiting younger and younger boys, her parents decided to send for the children. The family lived in New York for a year, then moved to Brockton, Mass., where her mother supported the family by working a factory job.

Six years ago, Ortiz's older brother finished high school and joined the Marine Corps. So she decided to join the Army Reserve. "I thought it would be fun and different," she said.

Indeed, driving big rigs as an Army reservist is considerably different from her regular job as a United Parcel Service customer service representative. Especially because she is small, Ortiz said, her driving attracts attention in the United States and caused quite a few second glances this week in rural El Salvador.

In October, a sergeant who had recently transferred to her reserve unit told her that his old unit would be participating in New Horizons. "I told him to get me in there, that I wanted to go," she said.

"My mom was nervous about me coming here," Ortiz said. "I'm going to be so glad to go back and tell her how much things have changed."

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