JUTIAPA, Guatemala -- Having built two medical clinics here, the Marines will soon leave their work behind, but the memories of their cultural experiences will go with them.
The Marines of Company B, 8th Engineer Support Battalion, Camp Lejeune, N.C., began construction on one clinic at Hospital Jutiapa and another at El Progreso in mid-March. They will complete the projects by mid-May. While construction may be old hat for these Marine engineers, their experiences here collaborating with Guatemalan army engineers and meeting Guatemalan civilians are wholly unique.
Lance Cpl. Antonio Perez, who works at El Progreso, complimented his Guatemalan counterparts on their disposition.
“The Guatemalan engineers working with us are never sad,” Perez said. “If something goes wrong out here, they just laugh and try it again.”
Between the two worksites, approximately 70 marines are here. At each site, approximately five Guatemalan army engineers are pitching in.
Though the Marines and Guatemalans discovered many cultural differences, there was one sure similarity: their shared dislike for Meals Ready to-Eat.
“They (Guatemalans) say all the food in the MREs tastes the same,” said Perez. “They’re always asking if they can leave (the worksite) to buy food.”
“The MREs don’t agree with my stomach,” added Guatemalan army engineer Pfc. Victor Manuel Duarte, who has 25 years service in the Guatemalan army.
Another similarity is that both groups enjoy music while working, albeit with slight differences in preference. The Marines commonly listen to hard rock and rap, while Duarte prefers “rancheros”
(Hispanic country music) and xylophone tunes.
Musical tastes aside, both groups came to respect each other. “Even though they (Guatemalans) don’t have a lot, they’re smiling and laughing,” said Lance Cpl. Courtney Waddell. “It makes you think about base camp here—how we need all kinds of stuff just to get by.”
Of the Marines, Duarte said that they have a lot of discipline, work in a clean environment and joke a lot.
At the Hospital Jutiapa site, Marines there also had meaningful experiences meeting new people.
As Lance Cpl. Robert Arney was working on the new clinic next to the main building of Hospital Jutiapa, he was shocked by the sight of a severely burned patient resting in the courtyard. Arney went right over to the man and gave him $20 to help with the hospital bill.
The patient had an epileptic seizure while working in his kitchen, and a fire had started, resulting in his burns.
“He started crying when I gave him the money,” said Arney. “I gave it to him because I figure I haven’t done much good before. The only person I’ve ever really bought stuff for is my little sister back home.”
The Marines’ kindness and hard work did not go unnoticed at Hospital Jutiapa. Another patient at the hospital, Joaquin Palacios Rosales, made decorative fish for about 15 Marines by weaving new, sterile, intravenous tubing together. He includes eyes in his handmade fish made with beads purchased from a local shop.
“I made the fish because I wanted the Marines to remember someone in Guatemala like me,” said Rosales.
Rosales learned this novel fishmaking technique from another patient during a stay at a hospital in Guatemala City.
Rosales said that he feels a kinship with the Marines because he served in the Guatemalan army from 1964-66. He was conscripted and assigned to an infantry unit because the Guatemalan army was in need of soldiers during guerrilla insurgency at the time.
“The Marines are very smart how they work—they take precautions,” added Rosales. “They’re friendly and do a good job.”
Rosales also mentioned that the townspeople were impressed by the fact that female servicemembers work side-by-side with their male counterparts at the worksites.
“The women sweat just like the men do,” Rosales said. Rosales said that he dreams of someday getting an electric wheelchair because he’s been using the same, rickety, manual model for fifteen years.
(Editor’s note: Cpl. Alvaro Guzmanand and Lance Cpl. Antonio Perez, from the 8th ESB, were translators
for this story.)