Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Balikatan 2007

Balikatan means shoulder to shoulder and is an annual combined military exercise involving U.S. and Philippine forces. This year, one significant portion of it, is a civil project in a small town on the north shore of our island. It's my teams turf so we are responsible for the coordination between the Marine engineers and Navy Seabees and the Philippine forces involved. These Sailors and Marines have been a credit to their nation. Their service and interaction with the locals have been exemplary.

The Seabees are currently building new classrooms for the local elementary school. Working with local materials and methods completely foreign to what they are used to, they are constructing buildings that will be used to further the education of many children for many years. They are working in the middle of town and have earned the respect and gratitude of the people in town.

The Marines are improving the road into town. They started with a narrow and rutted dirt trail and are widening it and turning it into an improved dirt road that will stand up to the heavy rains common in these tropics. Their use of heavy equipment prevents them from the more literal slogan of shoulder to shoulder but their professionalism is a positive example to the dozens of children and adults who love to watch the big machinery at work. Then the thought occurred to me, the only thing that could make this operation better would be to have toys, replicas of the big machinery in use, to hand out as physical reminders of the time the American and Philippine forces improved their town.

This past weekend we coordinated for a bazaar of local vendors to be organized so the Sailors and Marines could experience some local culture and purchase souvenirs. I was assigned other duties on Saturday and could not participate in the bazaar that day but did participate on Sunday. Once again, the Sailors and Marines were excellent examples of international ambassadors. It was a thrill to watch them interact with the local vendors and townspeople. They talked with children who were trying out some of the English they learned in school and sampled local foods. The locals love the money the Americans brought to town and the Americans love the souvenirs the Filipinos have to offer. Hardly a day passes without me seeing an American proudly showing his peers the new treasure he acquired through purchase or barter.

Basketball is the Philippine national sport and Phil soldiers often play at the national level. I have seen them play some very competitive ball. So, when the Marines and Seabees saw some Phil soldiers playing basketball on the court in the middle of town (literally the very heart of the town) they quickly challenged them to a game. When the first five Americans began to be educated on the basketball court, a call went out to the best ball players in the American camp. The second American team managed to match the tired Phil team basket for basket, after they found their style of play, and there was a large crowd watching the game cheering for the players and not the teams. But, the game came to an abrupt and early finish.

First, it was just a distant boom. Explosions are not daily occurrences here but they are heard frequently and do not cause much alarm. Then, we could hear the distinct sounds of small arms fire. The sounds of artillery can echo off the mountains and be heard over long distances but small arms fire has to be pretty close to be heard. It also makes the battle much more personal.

The Phils were the first to be recalled. The Marines quickly followed their lead and all liberty was cancelled 30 minutes early. We needed to quickly account for all Americans and ensure their safety. We also needed to find out what was happening. The details filtered in through the remainder of the evening and both work and pleasure ended early for the day.

For a couple of hours, war became a spectator sport. We watched helicopters attack, heard artillery pound the nearby hills, and listened to reports filter in from the various U.S. and Philippine units in our area. All about this: Soldiers engage Sayyaf in Sulu; 6 bandits killed which happened just over a mile from our location.

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