GIs fight terror by aiding poor in Philippines
May 19, 2003
ZAMBOANGA, southern Philippines — Pulled teeth pile up in buckets, and children are dewormed to keep parasites from absorbing all their nutrition.
But the success of the Medical Civil Action Projects in the southern Philippines is more easily measured by the number of villagers in Luhayan cheering, “We love Americans. We love the U.S.”
MEDCAPs are designed to help the poor and sick. In the southern Philippines, where U.S. forces have held a small but significant presence for more than a year, they also mean political stability and a small victory in the war on terrorism.
The U.S. mission here is helping the country defeat terrorism by training troops and helping people. The U.S. servicemembers, a few hundred in all, train Philippine forces in anti-terrorism, conduct humanitarian missions and offer logistics and support. A large number of those personnel are here to provide security in one of the most dangerous assignments for Americans in Asia.
The high threat level also means restrictions — no one goes off base. “We’re kind of stuck to the four walls of the base,” said Navy Capt. Dave Pittelkow, the top U.S. official in the area and commander for the joint task force in the Philippines.
Life at Camp Navarro, where the United States maintains its headquarters, is austere and constrained.
“We joke that it’s like living in a medium security prison,” says Air Force Master Sgt. Denise Hicks, a Florida Air Guardsman from Tampa stationed here for three months. “All we do is eat, sleep, go to work and watch DVDs.”
Hicks said the restraint is obviously necessary, and she wouldn’t go off base if she could. But, she adds, this will be the first deployment where she didn’t get to see the country she’s in.
Every day is similar and every face familiar after a while, she adds.
Marine Sgt. Tyson D. Brown, part of the security detachment, says being restricted to the base isn’t so bad. The Morale, Welfare and Recreation department offers plenty of accoutrements: sports tournaments, free calls home, Internet access and a gym. And a hopping, open-air officers club, which anyone can attend.
“Every once in a while, they bring a band [to the club] and there’s karaoke,” Brown said. “You just have to make it fun for yourself.”
Later this month, the contestants from the Western Mindanao Miss Philippines contest will put on a show to raise money for charity. The base was abuzz about it for days. “I will be attending,” Brown said.
Army Capt. Ed Oliveros recently arrived to take command of the civil military operations center, which orchestrates MEDCAPs and engineering projects. He could be here for up to a year.
“I was surprised,” he said. “I thought, you guys have DVDs, free soda, morale calls. Despite the hardships, the command has done a lot to provide for the morale.”
Most units are posted here for three-month rotations, except civil-affairs personnel. While in the southern Philippines, all servicemembers receive special imminent danger and hazard pay.
Some complain that people back home are largely unaware of the area’s dangers and the U.S. mission.
World attention has been focused on the Central Command area — which includes Iraq and Afghanistan — but the Philippines was a part of Operation Enduring Freedom and is a key piece of President Bush’s war on terrorism campaign.
Two Philippine opposition groups are on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations and another is being considered. Still, the Philippine constitution bars foreigners from fighting in the country, so the U.S. mission only trains, advises and assists. Some Philippine politicians have suggested even that’s too much.
The mission’s future also is murky. Humanitarian projects are set to end in August and counterterrorism training in December. Both governments must draft a new plan for the mission to continue, Pittelkow said.
If servicemembers wonder why the United States maintains a presence in the southern Philippines, even as the government here debates it, they can ask Conception S. Rivera, who, at a MEDCAP in May, had her very first eye exam. Her five children received vitamins and a medical checkup.
“We cannot afford to go to hospital,” Rivera said, “because my husband, no job.” She lives in a village inhabited by former squatters from Zamboanga City, resettled by the government for a better life. “We are very happy Americans are here,” she said. “Whole village, we love Americans.”
That adds credence to the U.S. government’s plan to erode terrorism by helping the poor. The feeling also makes life more palatable for the servicemembers stationed here. “That’s why I like it,” Brown said. “The people, they’re so friendly. They like us here.”