Servicemembers grateful for chance to help people of storm-torn Philippines
Mission to the PhilippinesPhotos by Jim Schulz, Stars and Stripes.
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INFANTA, Luzon, Philippines — For the first few days of their humanitarian mission to the Philippines, Marines at food distribution sites didn’t eat.
“We weren’t getting any drops of supplies because the weather was so bad, so we bought lumpia (Philippine egg rolls) and gave out our [Meals, Ready to Eat],” said Lance Cpl. Dennis K. Lis Jr. with the Combat Assault Battalion at Camp Schwab, Okinawa. “We were trying to help them a little better.”
More than 13 million people in the Philippines were affected by storms and a wave of flooding and mudslides three weeks ago that left 1,800 people dead or missing, the Philippine government estimates. Many who lived through it lost their homes, crops and possessions.
The Pentagon sent assistance in the form of more than 600 Marines, sailors and airmen from Okinawa and Japan on a humanitarian mission to fly aid into isolated communities.
The mission moved nearly a half-million pounds of relief supplies within a week and touched many of the servicemembers who participated.
“I can’t believe how devastated this place is. I think about how lucky we are to go home and take a shower, to order a BLT and french fries. They’re still here and don’t even have running water and electricity,” said 2nd Lt. Tim Alvey, site commander and platoon commander of the Motor Transportation Company, Transportation Support Battalion in Okinawa. “It does make you feel a little guilty.”
The damage is some of the worst he has seen in 14 years with the Marine Corps, previously as an enlisted Marine.
The survivors are facing hunger, formidable reconstruction, sickness and trauma.
“It [was] like ocean waves coming from the mountains. That’s how they explained it,” said Tess Masauding, a Red Cross volunteer in Infanta, one of the hardest-hit towns.
In a 10-minute span, water filled the home of Jun Obrigal. He had just enough time to rush with his family to the top of a fuel truck to wait out the flood of mud and logs.
Sefa Libranda said she prayed for help during the flooding. A line of dried mud on the walls of her house shows the floodwaters reached nearly to the second floor, far above her head.
Libranda said she was glad when the supplies began to arrive and is happy U.S. forces are helping, although she was nervous when the helicopters and Marines first came.
Marine and Air Force helicopters operated out of the former U.S. Clark Air Base, transporting supplies to be distributed by Philippine agencies. Without the aircraft, supplies could only trickle in on foot.
“I’m glad the U.S. has helped us with heavy lifting,” said Philippine Sen. Richard J. Gordon, who also chairs the country’s Red Cross. “The supplies are coming in a lot faster.”
During continuous trips ferrying supplies, pilots and flight crews had a unique view of the damage.
“I saw people throwing mud out of their homes. It’s pretty amazing,” said 1st Lt. Ben Taggart, a pilot with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262. “You look out over the hills and just see brown spots.”
The coastline is littered with logs, most illegally cut and responsible for many deaths, according to the Philippine government.
Near the delivery sites, people wade through thick mud, past destroyed homes and buried furniture and vehicles. People wash muddy possessions by the roadside.
Many Marines said they were happy to help after seeing the devastation, and pleased by the experience they gained.
“Training is fun, but it’s nice to actually go out and do a real- world operation,” said Lance Cpl. Brett Armstrong, with the 3rd Marine Division Combat Assault Battalion from Camp Schwab, who is part of the perimeter security at the distribution sites. “I’d be happy to keep doing these [missions].”
He said he wouldn’t mind if the mission lasted through the holidays. “It would be nice to stay here helping out.”
Lis, who also conducted site security, said the noncombat, real-world experience is making him a better Marine — a thought echoed by Joint Task Force 535 commander Brig. Gen. Kenneth J. Glueck, who led the mission.
“We train them to the full spectrum of force and the options in the elevation of force, but until you have the opportunity to actually execute it, it’s a little bit foreign,” Glueck said. “So to be able to have the opportunity like they’ve had here, it has really become very clear to them how important it is. When they leave here, they will be far better Marines.”
Even those who didn’t visit the aid distribution sites understand the importance of their mission.
Loading pallets for the helicopters, Pfc. Chris Sizemore, with Landing Support Company of the 3rd Transportation Support Battalion based at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, is doing his usual job. But now, bags of life-saving food replace the usual loads.
“We usually just get to do Marine Corps gear. It feels good to help people,” he said. “It lets people see we’re different than what they think.”
For the servicemembers of Filipino descent, the mission has particular importance.
“Just to be back in the Philippines, to be able to help people — I’m glad to be able to speak Tagalog again,” said Navy Hospitalman Apprentice Miguel Cothern, who was born in San Diego and grew up in the Philippines.
“Originally I am Filipino. So it is my privilege to be back again and to help these people,” said Navy Chaplain Lt. Cerino O. Bargola, who held a Catholic Mass for townspeople who lost their priest and church. “I cannot forget this.”
After moving thousands of pounds more supplies than their mission target, U.S. personnel wrapped up with a celebration Thursday. They were to return to Okinawa and Japan in the coming days.
Many say they leave knowing they helped save lives, despite arduous hours of work.
“It’s for a good reason,” Sizemore said. “So it doesn’t really bother us.”