SANTIAGO, Chile — When Senior Airman Vincent Lopez came down to the Chilean International Air and Space Fair (FIDAE) earlier this month, he figured his crew would be putting on a show in the skies above the city’s airport.

But the real performance was on the ground; he and the other airmen from Texas’ 9th Bomb Squadron spent the week giving tours of the plane and practicing their Spanish while joking with the locals.

“Everybody has been friendly and we’re really loving it,” he said. “We’ve had chances to meet with [locals] before, but never like this or this many.”

The air show — SOUTHCOM commanders flew 17 aircraft and more than 250 airmen to the event — was part of a broader effort connected to Southern Command’s hearts and minds push, a lesson taken from the sometimes contentious relationship U.S. servicemembers have had with citizens in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Officials said medical missions, visits to local hospitals and performances by the Air Force Band are designed to not only help strategic partners but also introduce foreign cities to an often unexpected, friendly American servicemember.

“We’re sending our guys out to orphanages and out downtown … with the Chilean troops as well,” Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, commander of U.S. Air Forces Southern, told reporters at the FIDAE event.

“In some cases, the interaction these people have had with military has not always been positive. But we need to show them the military can help.”

Last year SOUTHCOM stood up a new directorate to better coordinate military efforts in the region with charitable groups and private ventures.

Col. Scott Van Valkenberg, Air Force South command surgeon, said where past medical missions might involve only military personnel, planners are now bringing in U.S. doctors groups, staff from local clinics, and other civilians.

“We average about 30 medical missions a year, see about 100,000 patients, conduct about 4,500 surgeries,” he said.

At FIDAE, largest air show in South America, more than 150,000 locals got a chance to watch U.S. demo teams show off their skills and speak with the crews afterward. Lines to tour Air Force tankers and pose for pictures in front of a Predator UAV snaked for hundreds of feet around the tarmac.

Paul Simons, the U.S. ambassador to Chile, said regular visits by high-level U.S. military leaders to the country are important to keep up diplomatic partnerships. But the presence of the younger airmen at the show influenced many more Chileans.

“It’s putting a human face on what we’re all about,” he said. “They’re out there shaking hands, making friends. That’s what the military needs to be doing today.”

Reporter Rick Vasquez contributed to this story.

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