US troops keep ties with PH alive
Amid President Duterte’s retreat from a foreign policy heavily tilted toward the United States, American soldiers continued to try to win hearts and minds in noncombat components of military exercises with the Philippine Armed Forces in the islands of Luzon and Visayas.
In the province of Zambales, at least 12 US Navy officers and sailors gave hygiene kits and medical supplies to deaf students being cared for by the Foundation for Differently Abled Persons in Olongapo City.
The US servicemen from the unit Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 85 “Firehawks” were part of American forces that would hold annual “Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder)” military exercises with their Philippine counterparts today.
The Firehawks is part of a US Navy reserve helicopter squadron based in San Diego, California.
Norman Tuzon, a US military liaison officer in the former American naval base in Subic Bay, said the noncombat-related activities of the US Navy in the Philippines were part of “Project Handsclap,” a humanitarian program that started in 1962.
Through the program, he said, US sailors distribute materials and offer medical support to various civic organizations.
On April 28, sailors from the Military Sealift Command’s Expeditionary Port Unit 111 visited Gordon College in Olongapo to donate 22 boxes of books and first-aid supplies.
They also delivered medical and dental supplies to James L. Gordon Memorial Hospital and handed out stuffed toys and gifts to young patients there.
Another batch of US Navy officers and enlisted servicemen from USNS Pecos donated hygiene supplies and clothes to Olongapo City Development Center for Girls.
They also donated soccer balls and jersey uniforms to Dragonball Kickers, a local youth soccer team.
In a statement, the US Embassy in Manila said US forces would conduct civic activities in different areas of the Philippines, including the provinces of Panay, Leyte and Samar.
US and Philippine soldiers taking part in Balikatan, the embassy said, would renovate schools and deliver medical services.
The key component of the exercises, however, would be to improve counterterrorism tactics “to build safer communities and work for the eradication of global terror networks.”
But in the Visayas, a ranking Philippine military officer said the holding of Balikatan was not related to any terror threat.
Col. Medel Aguilar, head of the Philippine Joint Civil and Military Operations Task Force, made the statement as 50 US soldiers were to take part in Balikatan in different parts of Visayas amid a still-ongoing hunt for at least three members of the terror group Abu Sayyaf, who were among those who tried to set up a base in Bohol province.
Aguilar said the 50 US soldiers would take part in “humanitarian and civilian assistance, and transfer knowledge and skills” on disaster response.
The US soldiers, said Aguilar, would help build disaster-resilient facilities, classrooms, hold training sessions on disaster preparedness and response, and develop good working relations with the people.
US and Philippine soldiers would hold Balikatan exercises for two months in Panay, Leyte and Samar.
Col. Camilo Ligayo, head of Unified Command Staff, said Balikatan would strengthen ties between the Philippines and United States, which had taken a nosedive following Mr. Duterte’s rants against the United States.
Mr. Duterte had called Americans hypocrites for expressing concern about the rising death toll in his war on drugs yet ignoring the massacres committed by Americans during the colonial period and justifying US invasion of Iraq through false claims of discovering weapons of mass destruction being kept by Saddam Hussein.
To show his disdain for the United States, Mr. Duterte recently visited warships from Russia and China that docked in Manila in symbolic gestures of warming ties between them and the Duterte administration.
But Balikatan, said Ligayo, was the “most evident manifestation of a shared commitment to move shoulder-to-shoulder for stability, security and development.”
“I believe we are changing lives and making a difference one classroom-building at a time,” he said.
Lt. Col. Ryan Scott of the US military engineering department said the recent clashes between Philippine troops and Abu Sayyaf in Bohol, which indicated an expansion by the terror group, did not worry him.
Since April 11, eight Abu Sayyaf men have been killed in clashes in the Bohol towns of Inabanga and Clarin.
Among the dead Abu Sayyaf members were Moammar Askali, the leader of the group; bomb experts Abu Sufyan and Edimar Isnain; Joselito Melloria, a native of Bohol who guided the Abu Sayyaf; pumpboat operator Aldimar Taib; and one alias Richard. —ALLAN MACATUNO, ADOR VINCENT MAYOL AND NESTLE L. SEMILLA/rga
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