Focus at Balikatan shifts to humanitarian assistance
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Unlike past years, where thousands of U.S. troops took to the jungles with their Philippine counterparts, this year’s Balikatan exercise will focus more on humanitarian assistance and “table top” scenarios.
During a briefing Monday at the start of the annual exercise that ends March 4, the Philippine exercise director, Rear Adm. Amable Tolentino, said the scaled-down exercise would shun field training in preference for humanitarian projects that aid the country’s battle against militants in the southern Philippines.
It was a sentiment backed by Maj. John Redfield, a spokesman for the 400 U.S. servicemembers participating in Balikatan, which means “shoulder to shoulder.” This year’s exercise is the 23rd in the series.
“We know that terrorists here get some support from the local population, but that level of support continues to decrease with more humanitarian projects,” Redfield said, according to The Associated Press.
Taking part in the exercise are 200 Marines and sailors from the Okinawa-based III Marine Expeditionary Force and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3.
They will focus on medical, dental, veterinary and engineering projects in Mindanao, especially Jolo Island, according to Marine Public Affairs on Okinawa.
“These will complement similar activities carried out during Balikatan 2006 in the Sulu region, as well as ongoing operations by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines,” a Marine news release stated.
Among the Seabees’ projects are the repair of a 2.5-mile road, the renovation of schools and clinics, and the construction of a pier and boat ramp. The 3rd Marine Logistics Group will provide medical and dental assistance to poor areas of Mindanao.
Other aspects of the exercise, according to Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Douglas Tom, co-director of Balikatan ’07, include “table top” planning, where the participants will engage in crisis scenarios involving piracy, drug smuggling and anti-terrorism.
During the press briefing Monday, Tom also announced that U.S. military personnel would not be given unlimited liberty at the end of the exercise.
“We want the U.S. personnel to explore and understand the culture of the Philippines,” he said. “So, what we will have and encourage is that organized tours and organized trips in groups be instituted so that our soldiers can learn about the Philippines.”
It was a November 2005 liberty incident in Subic Bay that nearly scuttled this year’s exercise. Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith and three other Marines were accused of raping a Filipina they had met in a local bar. Smith was found guilty of the crime in December and subsequently appealed the ruling. A dispute concerning an initial decision to not allow him to remain in custody of the U.S. Embassy caused U.S. officials to consider postponing Balikatan.
In an incident related to Balikatan ’07, military officials announced Monday that Corporal Timothy D. Lewis, 20, of Frankfort, Ky., died Feb. 15 after he collapsed just after arriving on Jolo Thursday for the annual bilateral training exercise.
Lewis was a food-service specialist with Combat Logistic Regiment 37, 3rd MLG, III Marine Expeditionary Force, Okinawa. According to a Marine Corps news release, he joined the Marine Corps on March 19, 2004, and was promoted to corporal Jan. 1, 2007.
Lewis collapsed after traveling for nearly 24 straight hours on plane and ship to the island, Redfield said.
“I want to emphasize absolutely that this is not related to anything that could be perceived as combat,” Redfield told The Associated Press.