A U.S. Navy Squadron Almost Pooped Itself to Death in El Salvador in 2011
Beware the buffet at the Quality Inn Hotel in Comalapa
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Ground pounding U.S. Army soldiers and Marines regularly joke that their Navy and Air Force cousins, especially pilots, can’t live without first-world comforts. Rather than sleeping in tents or holes in the ground, the air crews stay in well-stocked barracks or even actual hotels.
But in 2011, some of the sailing branch’s fliers found out that staying in a private establishment doesn’t necessarily equal a five-star deployment — this according to an annual history War Is Boring obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
In 2011, the Navy’s Airborne Early Warning Squadron 77 was scattered throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. During the year, the Naval Reserve unit flew six E-2C Hawkeye radar planes from airports and air bases in Colombia, El Salvador and the Netherlands Antilles.
The Hawkeyes were looking for drug smuggling planes and boats. These twin-engine turboprop aircraft feature a large radar dish above the fuselage that can scan the skies and the waves below.
Normally assigned to aircraft carriers, the plane’s main job is to help guide fighter jets to their targets and protect the important ships from enemy attacks. Flying from their base on land in New Orleans, Airborne Early Warning Squadron 77 was the Navy’s only squadron specifically focused on fighting the drug trade.
The squadron flew nearly 790 missions in total and spent almost 1,680 hours in the air, according to an annual review. Over the course of the deployments, the unit aided in the seizure of 2.4 million pounds of illegal drugs and the arrest of five traffickers. At times, the American crews teamed up with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Colombian air force and navy, the Dutch coast guard and the French customs service.
But in Comalapa, El Salvador, the 120 pilots, flight crew and other supporting sailors and contractors came up an unexpected opponent — food poisoning.
“Health of personnel was a major issue,” U.S. Navy commander Gerald Heyne, the head of the squadron, wrote in his annual report. “On 20 March 2011, … personnel began to experience a severe outbreak of what appeared to be a food borne G.I. illness.”
Caused by a range of bacteria, parasites or viruses, gastrointestinal infections can be debilitating. The most common symptoms are diarrhea and vomiting, which can be near constant.
Unable to keep their body full of vital fluids, anyone suffering from serious episodes can quickly become weak and lethargic. For a military unit, widespread symptoms can slow or possibly halt operations.
The basic problem is serious enough that the Naval Medical Research Center began testing a possible vaccine against one bacteria, C. jejuni, two years ago. The organism is a common cause of what is often described as “traveler’s diarrhea.”
In the case of the crews in El Salvador, “the symptoms were akin to those associated with influenza and lasted approximately three to five days once medicine was dispensed,” Heyne explained. “Of a more grave concern are the more rare cases that left my aircrew ill for greater than 30 days.”
With no specialized medical personnel on scene, the squadron tried to work out the most likely cause of the sickness. At the peak of the incident, 84 percent of the Hawkeye crews may have been sick or recovering. Medics actually diagnosed fewer than 40 of the 120 people in the task force.
“Once the suspected source was identified, we significantly reduced the number of affected personnel, primarily due to simple awareness and avoidance of the Quality Inn Hotel Los Balcones restaurant buffet,” Heyne noted.
Los Balcones is the restaurant attached to the Quality Inn at El Salvador International Airport in Comalapa, the country’s main air transport hub. “The best restaurant in the area, with international food,” its website proudly declares.
In his review, Heyne complained bitterly about the accommodations and the overall plan. Despite Navy crews regularly staying at the hotel during deployments, Pentagon inspectors had only cleared the Quality Inn to cater structured, two-week long events such as a conference.
The squadron’s crews were at the hotel for three months — the longest deployment to one location ever for the unit at that point. As aviators fell ill, the Navy squadron contacted the Army veterinarians who had cleared the site in the first place.
Their recommendation? Don’t drink the water.
“We purchased water for all Navy personnel to consume,” Heyne said.
In his annual review, Heyne suggested the Pentagon do a better job vetting where fliers would stay in the future and left it at that. Separately, he also highlighted problems surrounding “repeated failure” of the Hawkeyes’ radar equipment.
But the commander only described the illness as directly threatening his unit’s ability to do its job. “This illness severely compromised our ability to execute [our mission],” Heyne wrote.
Despite of these problems, Airborne Early Warning Squadron 77’s E-2s flew more than 90 percent of their planned missions in 2011. In February 2013, the Navy shut down the squadron altogether and sent the Hawkeyes and personnel to other units. The sailing branch’s P-3s still make regular trips to El Salvador.
But American fliers don’t have to worry about the Los Balcones buffet anymore. The sailing branch’s website for crews heading to Comalapa says individuals now stay at hotels in the Colonia San Benito neighborhood in the capital San Salvador, just 20 miles from the airport.