LOS LIMONES, Guatemala — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel got a firsthand look Friday at the U.S. military's goodwill-building humanitarian work — its dangers as well as its benefits.
An object of curiosity for mountain villagers unaccustomed to visitors from Washington, Hagel toured a health clinic and a construction site where U.S. Army soldiers are using prefabricated materials to erect a new wing to a tiny schoolhouse.
The soldiers, including members of the Missouri Army National Guard, are participating in an exercise here dubbed Beyond the Horizons. It gives noncombat troops experience in interacting with civilian populations and applying engineering, medical, construction and language skills in ways that foster goodwill.
There was an air of pride among the Americans, tempered by grief. Just three days earlier, Army Spc. Hernaldo Beltran Jr., 24, was struck and killed by a branch that broke off a towering conacaste tree that stands a few feet from the school.
With the damaged tree as a backdrop, Hagel addressed a small gathering of soldiers. He thanked them for their work, which he said is helping "make a better world." He did not mention Beltran by name but expressed remorse "for what happened here." He added: "Our prayers and thoughts are with the families of those who were injured, and I know it's difficult when we lose one of our own people."
Guatemalan President Otto Fernando Perez Molina, who accompanied Hagel on a helicopter flight to the remote site, also thanked the Americans for their work and said he deeply regretted the fatal accident. "We're really sorry about it," he said.
Later, on the flight back to Washington, Hagel told reporters that he was told the branch may have been broken by reverberations from the blades of a helicopter while U.S. troops were moving supplies to build the school. He said the matter is under investigation to determine the cause and whether it was preventable.
U.S. soldiers at the site Friday said weather was not a factor.
"You try to minimize those accidents in every way you can, but these things happen," Hagel said aboard his plane, adding, "Everybody is stunned by it, saddened by it, but they keep going."
When it announced Beltran's death, the Army said he was a radio operator assigned to the 56th Signal Battalion at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. It said he enlisted in the Army in December 2009, and that he had deployed to Guatemala once before, in 2012, as part of an earlier "Beyond the Horizons" exercise.
Three others were injured by the tree branch. Hagel said they included a colonel who serves as the U.S. defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City.
Reflecting on the value of such humanitarian missions, which get little public attention outside the country in which they are conducted, Hagel said the U.S. has long sought to use its military power as a force for good beyond its own shores.
"We make mistakes," he said. "We overplay our hand, and we get ourselves in trouble, but overall I think our record, when you stack it up with the other sovereign nations of the world, is pretty good about trying to do the right thing, most of the time."