Civil affairs unit ends mission in Philippines
By JULIANA GITTLER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 18, 2003
(NOTE: The following correction to this story was posted on Dec. 18:
A Dec. 18 story about the civil affairs mission ending in the Philippines contained inaccurate information. The Armed Forces on the Philippines supported the civil affairs groups but without U.S. force protection. And Maj. Jeff D’Antonio, civil affairs mission commander, said he once was forced to leave Manila after opposition leaders began showing interest in him.)
MANILA, Philippines — They walked into towns where the dust barely had settled from terrorist bombs to show their support and offer help.
They rebuilt communities and lives living in the field, working long hours and facing villagers’ dire needs.
“Every school we’ve been to needs help,” said Sgt. 1st Class Bob Mahoney, civil affairs detachment noncommissioned officer in charge and lead engineer. As for administering medical aid, he said, “We could start tomorrow and never finish.”
After two years of such work in the country, the current U.S. civil affairs mission to the Philippines has ended. The final 17 civil affairs soldiers said goodbye to their projects and headed home this week. Plans are in place for a new humanitarian mission to begin next year.
Civil affairs operations began in 2000 during Balikatan, the six-month operation in the impoverished and largely Muslim south, where Philippine troops, aided by U.S. advisors, worked to clear communities of terrorist strongholds.
Then civil affairs troops filled the void with engineering and medical help.
The goal was to help the Philippine government and its military — not that of the United States — gain legitimacy. “The whole thing is to bring a favorable light to the AFP” or Armed Forces of the Philippines, said Capt. Tim Clemente, detachment commander with 426th Civil Affairs Battalion, foreign internal defense-unconventional warfare.
The work continued in the south and later spread across the nation. The detachment later grew this year to 17 soldiers, who set about winning hearts and minds — the civil affairs motto.
“It’s very rewarding. You’re actually helping people,” said Maj. Jeff D’Antonio, civil affairs mission commander.
They met Philippine soldiers who’d fought with U.S. forces in World War II; they helped whole communities battle diseases such as malaria.
And they battled exhaustion, both physical and emotional. Local leaders, for instance, sometimes fought for projects that would benefit themselves as opposed to their people; the unit’s soldiers indicated they had to be able to discern the difference.
Almost routinely, they had to do jobs for which they’d never trained. They spent money out of pocket to augment projects. And they faced threats of terrorist attacks daily — made more dangerous when they carried few or no weapons.
“Civil affairs operates best when they’re light and do not appear to impose a threat,” Clemente said. But being light also means being less secure.
The AFP supported the groups during their missions but it operated with the U.S. forces protection some civil affairs units enjoy. Some visits were cut short when security became threatened; D’Antonio reportedly once was forced to leave Manila after opposition leaders began showing a particular interest in him.
Still, Clemente said, “One team can influence a whole region.”
“We may not be a lot” of people, said Sgt. 1st Class Felix Rosales, a medic, “but we do a lot of work.”
Clemente recounted befriending mayors and leaders in small villages and learning to love one national pastime: singing to karaoke-type Videoke machines.
“We’ve all developed our voices,” he said. “It’s another great icebreaker.”
For their efforts, the Philippine government awarded team members from the 426th a Military Civic Action Medal on Monday.
“We can never quantify the highly visible results that have come about,” Gen. Edwin H. Vargas, deputy chief of staff for the AFP’s civil military operations, told the medal recipients. “What you have done is of great value to our country and people.”
The soldiers have left the Philippines now but several indicated they’d return if they could, even if it would mean another stretch in sweltering heat and poor conditions.
“There are quite a few of us who would come back,” Rosales said. “It’s quite a rewarding job.”