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Adm. William J. Fallon, U.S. Pacific Command commander, made a brief stop Thursday in the Philippines to thank U.S. servicemembers participating in Balikatan for their dedication to helping the country’s people respond to the deadly Feb. 17 mudslide.

Adm. William J. Fallon, U.S. Pacific Command commander, made a brief stop Thursday in the Philippines to thank U.S. servicemembers participating in Balikatan for their dedication to helping the country’s people respond to the deadly Feb. 17 mudslide. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

CLARK SPECIAL ECONOMIC ZONE, Philippines — He wanted to tell them in person.

U.S. Pacific Command’s top military leader, Adm. William J. Fallon, made a brief stop here Thursday afternoon to thank his troops for helping with the humanitarian relief mission in Southern Leyte, where at least 1,000 villagers were buried in a Feb. 17 mudslide.

Successfully and swiftly redirecting operations during a major exercise “on very short order has really been a treat to watch,” Fallon told a mixed crowd of soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines at Clark for the annual Balikatan military exercise with the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Fallon flew to Clark by helicopter from the USS Essex, one of the ships still in the region that helped deliver hundreds of Marines and supplies to the disaster area.

“I flew over the site — it looks pretty sad,” he said. “I wanted to pass on my condolences to (Philippines Defense) Secretary (Avelino) Cruz and all of the people of the Philippines.”

Fallon said he plans to attend a memorial service Friday at Guinsaugon village. The province’s governor was to lead a formal blessing and planting of a huge cross at the disaster site, according to local news reports. The U.S. military left the area earlier in the week, though a small team stayed behind to help the local government, Philippine National Red Cross and non-governmental and private volunteer organizations coordinate recovery projects.

The quick response to the natural disaster — the U.S. military was on the ground in the remote village by Feb. 19 — demonstrates the importance of forward-deploying U.S. forces to key positions around the world, Fallon said. It enables the military “to respond to the full spectrum of challenges, whatever they may be,” he said. “Unfortunately … this type of disaster is likely to happen again … We need to be ready.”

Real-world events threatened to sidetrack this year’s Balikatan, the 22nd annual and the largest training exercise between U.S. and Philippine armed forces. The mudslide happened three days before the exercise was to open. Then, less than a week into training, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said a coup attempt against her government had been foiled and declared a national state of emergency.

“The instability in Manila, it’s unfortunate,” Fallon said, “but it’s a matter for the Filipinos to deal with. I spoke with Secratary Cruz. He’s confident they’ve taken care of the threat they faced and they expect to see the emergency decree lifted” on Friday.

Despite the diversions, Balikatan is to wrap up Sunday with much accomplished in two weeks, including some important military-to-military training, he said.

“As amazing as it seems, while a large number of folks responded to the disaster … a vast majority of all the intended work is being accomplished,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’ll gain what we wanted to do and also have the satisfaction of being able to help the people.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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