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A U.S. military mission: Food and smiles

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S. troops deliver food to poor Hondurans on their own dime and time
  • Many of the troops are here after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • "We love doing this," Air Force chaplain says
  • Smiles abound, children greet troops, communities grateful for aid
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By Barbara Starr
CNN
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HUMUYA, Honduras (CNN) -- "Come on let's go!" says Capt. Jeremy Bastian, a U.S. Air Force chaplain.

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About 50 U.S. troops deliver food and toys to remote Honduran villages last week.

Bastian and some 50 other off-duty U.S. troops are heading into the hills of Honduras to bring food to the poorest of the poor.

Children rush to greet the troops with smiles and laughter on dusty gravel roads.

Bastian says the hikes, which began last year, have grown every month in size and scope. "We love doing this," he said.

The approximately 600 U.S. troops of Joint Task Force Bravo are based at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, where they've had a presence for 20 years. Their main role is humanitarian relief and disaster assistance.

In 1998, they helped in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch when more than 6,000 Hondurans were killed, and again last year when Hurricane Felix slammed the region.

Beginning last year, troops gave money at the base chapel every week to help feed the poor. When they get enough, the troops buy food and, on their own time, take it to people living in remote hillside villages. Video Watch troops trek through dirt to deliver groceries to poor »

Just last week, CNN joined Bastian and several others on a trip to a small market in the nearby town of Comayagua to buy food with $900 collected at the base. It soon became clear the money would not buy what it would just a few weeks ago.

Beans had become too expensive if the troops wanted to get to all the people they were used to helping. Noodles would have to do instead.

The average income in Honduras is less than $1,200 a year, making it tough for many in the face of skyrocketing prices for rice, flour and beans worldwide.

"It's going to get worse," said 73-year-old customer Trinidad Mejia, in the checkout line. How to help

The grocery store manager said he worried "the communists" would take over the government if prices kept rising.

In so many countries, the very presence of U.S. troops causes stress and tension. But in Honduras -- or at least this part of the country -- relations are friendly. The local Honduran Air Force commander, Col. Neyjib Rivera, said having U.S. troops in his country is good.

"Every time they do any work here, they keep the Honduran civilian population in mind," he said.

That afternoon, dozens of U.S. troops showed up at the chapel to pack the food Bastian purchased, as well as toys, stickers and candy for the children. When they were done, there were more than 200 bags of groceries.

The next morning everybody strapped on backpacks and started walking into the countryside as the heat bore down.

Several of the troops were combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and some said helping others helps them on their journey back from the front lines.

"We have a lot of guys come straight from the war zone here, and it takes them a while to adjust," Lt. Col. Gregory Jicha said.

His close buddy in the unit -- Maj. Mike Angell, another war veteran -- said it's nice to walk through a village "and be welcomed."

While there was interaction with civilians during their tour of duty in Iraq, Honduras is different, they said. Chiefly, no weapons: Bulletproof helmets and vests are replaced with sneakers and sunvisors.

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Everywhere they went, the community came out to greet the unit -- kids laughing, dogs, donkeys, everyone talking in Spanish and English; smiles everywhere.

Back at the base, the chaplain began all over again, ready to collect donations for the next food hike. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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