Reaching out on South American deployment

FORWARD OPERATING LOCATION MANTA, Ecuador -- Chaplain (Capt.) Gabriel Rios, deployed to FOL Manta from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, serves lunch to children at the Jesus de Nazareth community kitchen in Manta, Ecuador Feb. 27. A good portion of the chaplain’s work involves building partnerships with local organizations to make a lasting impact on the community outside the gates. (U.S. Air Force photo)

FORWARD OPERATING LOCATION MANTA, Ecuador -- Chaplain (Capt.) Gabriel Rios, deployed to FOL Manta from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, serves lunch to children at the Jesus de Nazareth community kitchen in Manta, Ecuador Feb. 27. A good portion of the chaplain’s work involves building partnerships with local organizations to make a lasting impact on the community outside the gates. (U.S. Air Force photo)

FORWARD OPERATING LOCATION MANTA, Ecuador -- Chaplain (Capt.) Gabriel Rios brings toiletries and visits with locals who work and live in Manta, Ecuador’s landfill. The captain is deployed to FOL Manta from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. (U.S. Air Force photo)

FORWARD OPERATING LOCATION MANTA, Ecuador -- Chaplain (Capt.) Gabriel Rios brings toiletries and visits with locals who work and live in Manta, Ecuador’s landfill. The captain is deployed to FOL Manta from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. (U.S. Air Force photo)

FORWARD OPERATING LOCATION MANTA, Ecuador -- Imagine a child who only has one meal a day, or one who spends hours in the dump looking for something to eat or sell. While these circumstances may seem unthinkable, my deployment to South America gives me the chance to combat this type of poverty on a daily basis.

Two months ago, I deployed with Air Forces Southern to Forward Operating Location (FOL) Manta, Ecuador. I serve as the installation chaplain for more than 40 active-duty Airmen, 200 contractors and dozens of crews flying counternarcotics missions in the eastern Pacific. U.S. military here also work with local groups to build stability and prosperity in the region, and I am charged with leading FOL volunteers in our community relations committee.

When my air and space expeditionary force rotation was approaching, I thought I would certainly go to Iraq or Afghanistan, and I began preparing mentally, physically and spiritually for what lay ahead. However, I never expected to deploy to another part of the world with a unique mission like this.

While I oversee the usual chaplaincy affairs like counselings, pastoral visits, worship services and guidance to leaders, a major part of my job description is building teams that impact the community. Typically, I plan two or three events each week and take groups of 10 to 25 volunteers to the city dump, local schools, hospitals and orphanages. We hope to reach out by bringing donations, serving meals or fixing facilities.

The FOL also works with the U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador, to bring Humanitarian Assistance Program funds to worthy projects. Through U.S. Southern Command's HAP initiatives, we have made lasting improvements to a community soup kitchen, day care and school. Our impact is seen in the smile of a child, gratitude of a mother or the cheer in a community.

Personally, I am reflecting on how much I can do when few resources are available. If I have a compassionate heart and am determined to help those less fortunate, any available item can be a blessing to others. With the help of volunteers, we notice change in our neighbors' self-esteem, appreciation for life and of course, willingness to become better people.

While I was not expecting this type of deployment, I am enjoying it. I am busy but satisfied. I do what the Air Force has asked of me and what God expects me to do when I tender a hand to his "little ones." Since I deployed, many people and organizations have sent diapers, clothing, school supplies and toiletries. I thank them for the generous donations and assure them they are direct participants in this ministry. A heartfelt greeting to all, and I will see you in July.