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Panamanian priest offers spiritual support to Task Force New Horizons

Father Jose Rodriquez leads a congregation of Task Force New Horizons service members in a Catholic service June 27. Father Rodriguez, a Panamanian missionary in the Darien province, volunteered to assist the task force chaplain during New Horizons Panama 2010, a 12-week humanitarian assistance mission designed to improve critical infrastructure and provide free medical care to the people of Panama. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Eric Petosky)

Father Jose Rodriquez leads a congregation of Task Force New Horizons service members in a Catholic service June 27. Father Rodriguez, a Panamanian missionary in the Darien province, volunteered to assist the task force chaplain during New Horizons Panama 2010, a 12-week humanitarian assistance mission designed to improve critical infrastructure and provide free medical care to the people of Panama. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Eric Petosky)

Father Jose Rodriquez leads a congregation of Task Force New Horizons service members in a Catholic service June 27. Father Rodriguez, a Panamanian missionary in the Darien province, volunteered to assist the task force chaplain during New Horizons Panama 2010, a 12-week humanitarian assistance mission designed to improve critical infrastructure and provide free medical care to the people of Panama. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Eric Petosky)

Father Jose Rodriquez leads a congregation of Task Force New Horizons service members in a Catholic service June 27. Father Rodriguez, a Panamanian missionary in the Darien province, volunteered to assist the task force chaplain during New Horizons Panama 2010, a 12-week humanitarian assistance mission designed to improve critical infrastructure and provide free medical care to the people of Panama. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Eric Petosky)

METETI, Panama -- Father Jose Rodriquez spends his days as a Catholic missionary in the remote villages of the Darien frontier region of Panama, and on June 27th he added Task Force New Horizons to his flock.

"As a missionary, I go to small towns and villages and services are in huts, not churches," he said through an interpreter. "I love doing it. It feels more intimate with a smaller group; I can reach out to people better. I would love to come back (to the New Horizons camp) again."

Father Rodriquez also provides Catholic services to the Panamanian Frontier Police each week, and accepted an invitation from the New Horizons chaplain to offer services to U.S. Airmen, Soldiers, and Marines supporting the 12-week humanitarian assistance mission. He does not speak English, and there are only a handful of Spanish-speaking service members on site, so his service was delivered via interpreter.

Staff Sgt. Christopher Fetters, a chaplain assistant deployed from the 175th Wing, Warfield Air National Guard Base in Baltimore, said finding spiritual leaders of different faith groups is the standard operating procedure in deployed locations. The military chaplain's office collects religious preference information to tailor faith programs to the specific location.

"Chaplains identify with a specific faith group - Protestant, Catholicism, Islam, etc.," he said. "While chaplains from one faith group cannot preside over another faith group's service, they still have to make resources available to everyone, regardless of religious choice. If we cannot find a specific faith group leader on base, we'll go off base to find one."

Father Rodriguez was only too happy to answer that call. He said the U.S. mission in Darien is providing much needed improvements to the local schools and clinics.

"I feel that any help to a poor province like Darien is most welcome," he said. "I would like to see more collaboration like this between our two countries in the future."

In total, four schools and two medical clinics will be improved by a force of U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army engineers during New Horizons Panama 2010. The construction is scheduled to last until mid-September. Additionally, five medical teams will deploy for two-week rotations in the towns of Chitre, Veraguas, and David to provide care in the fields of ophthalmology, ear-nose-throat surgery, and dentistry.

Since New Horizons started in the mid-1980's, Airmen and members of U.S. Southern Command have built schools and community centers, dug wells, provided medical care, and constructed clinics year after year at the request of numerous countries in the spirit of cooperation and friendship.

All these missions revolve around USSOUTHCOM's ongoing commitment to theater security cooperation, and are requested by the host nation. By sharing experiences, information, vital skills, tactics, and techniques, the United States continues to build enduring partnerships with nations in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.

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