US, Philippine marines wrap up what could be allies’ final joint exercise
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 10, 2016
CROW VALLEY, Philippines — The Philippine armored vehicle that bogged down Monday while following U.S. Marine Corps trucks across a muddy river at the Crow Valley Range Complex symbolized the allies’ frayed relationship — frustrating and seemingly going nowhere fast.
U.S. and Philippines marines, participating in the annual PHIBLEX exercise, have been at the range, near Clark Air Base, a two-hour drive north of Manila, for the past week.
They’ve been doing this type of training for decades, but it’s unclear how much longer that will happen with new Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte throwing mud at U.S. officials in the form of crass insults and threats to end the bilateral training and get closer America’s rivals, Russia and China.
A large contingent of local media was on hand when the vehicle got struck. They had just watched the Marines fire rockets from a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and rounds from M-777 howitzers before U.S. and Philippines infantry loaded into trucks and Humvees to ford the river.
The armored personnel carrier’s wheels spun as they dug deeper into the river bed while the cameras rolled. It took about 30 minutes for an American tow truck to arrive and pull it free. A short time later, a truck carrying Philippine troops got stuck in another part of the river.
“What you are seeing are the challenges of this type of terrain and why bilateral training is so important to both forces,” said Maj. Roger Hollenbeck, a spokesman for the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade.
Nearby, 845 Marines were getting ready to tear down their camp in a muddy field beside the river, possibly for the last time. While some maneuvered on the range, others loaded tactical vehicles onto trucks for transport back to the USS Bonhomme Richard or hung out with the Philippine marines.
The two countries’ forces checked out each other’s knives and signed Philippines flags for souvenirs.
One Marine, Lance Cpl. Steven Ramirez, 23, of Fort Wayne, Ind., said that during breaks in the action, he’s tried out some local food such as lumpia — a savory-flavored Filipino delicacy, he said.
There are similarities between the local customs and U.S. Hispanic culture. For example, some of the words used by the Filipinos are the same in Spanish — Spain was the colonial power here before the United States.
The heat and humidity in Crow Valley made the training there pretty uncomfortable, but Ramirez said he liked it: “It’s more of a challenge.”
The Marines have subsisted on MRE field rations with the option of buying dinner from about a dozen food shacks that locals set up, along with souvenir shops, just outside their camp.
T-shirt, jewelry and knick-knack vendor Ariel Pamintuan, 51, was happy to haggle with the Marines in the muddy lane where he set up.
“My father was a gardener on Clark Air Base before U.S. forces left,” he said. “After that, we started selling souvenirs.”
PHIBLEX and the Balikatan exercises are the best times to sell to Americans, and the vendors hoped for more work on the old military bases under a new agreement that is supposed to allow U.S. forces to rotate troops through the country, he said.
However, Duterte’s recent statements have raised concerns that the agreement may not be implemented. Pamintuan said he’d be disappointed if that happened.
“We want the Americans to come,” he said. “We don’t like the Russians or the Chinese.”
During Tuesday’s closing ceremonies, Brig. Gen. John Jansen, deputy commander of III Marine Expeditionary Force and commander of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, said he was inspired by the “friendship and partnership that endures between our two countries.”
Jansen also thanked Philippine military leaders for their “unending hospitality and “enduring professionalism” during the exercise, and said the two countries “will continue to share in our brotherhood of Marines that will continue to be just one of the very many critical underpinnings that defines the very strong foundation of the close relationship that our two great nations have carefully evolved and matured over the past 70 years.”