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ZAMBALES, Philippines - Philippine and U.S. armed forces members attached to the Joint Civil Military Operations Task Force (JCMOTF) have broken ground on a series of projects in advance of the official start of Exercise Balikatan 2013.
The JCMOTF is a combined U.S.-Philippine task force in charge of managing the humanitarian and civic assistance (HCA) projects to improve the two countries' military civic assistance interoperability. During these events, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and U.S. personnel are conducting multiple medical, dental, veterinary and engineering civic action projects in the Zambales Province.
During this 29th iteration of the bilateral exercise, U.S. and Philippine units will work shoulder-to-shoulder to accomplish eight engineering civic action projects (ENCAP), six cooperative health engagements (CHE), eight community relations activities (COMREL), five subject matter expert exchanges (SMEE) and two medical COMRELS.
"The amount of work we are prepared to do as a joint team can't be overstated," said U.S. JCMOTF Commander Navy Capt. Rod Moore. "My AFP counterpart and I have developed a series of activities that will both increase our abilities to function as a team, and will leave a lasting, positive impression for the people of Zambales. It's our honor to be here, working alongside such wonderful, professional people."
In the coming days leading up to the official start of the exercise on April 5, ground will be broken on the remaining ENCAP construction projects. Work will continue steadfast so that engineers will meet the completion dates for each project. Medical and religious ministry participants will also make several visits to barangays and municipalities throughout Zambales to provide support to the local communities.
"We go out and meet with local health workers and provide training and medical advice where it's needed," said Army Maj. Kate Flocke. "We're also working with the AFP's 24th Infantry Battalion to do some 'train the trainer' events so that we can be a force multiplier and allow them to provide better treatment for their soldiers."
Lt. Cmdr Ron Kennedy, JCMOTF chaplain, has scheduled other community relations activities in the area. He says that getting to know the local citizens and spending time with each other is just as important as the engineering projects.
"Repairing a school or installing a bridge are certainly important and will definitely be appreciated, but many times it's the intangible things like a basketball game between the U.S. military and a local orphanage that can create lasting memories and a tighter bond," said Kennedy.
There is a sharp focus on the engineering projects that help increase quality of life for many, but that is not the only goal of the exercise. "Each Philippine and U.S. servicemember should come out of the exercise better trained and equipped than before," said ENCAP Operations Officer Navy Lt. Javier Lopez-Martinez. "As we go through the process, construction products will be given to the local communities, but the greatest impact will be the increased professional capacity of everyone in our joint team."
For Peter Lim, Mayor of the Zambales municipality of San Narciso whose district is benefiting from several of the scheduled ENCAPS, two of the projects come at an important time of the year.
"The San Pasqual footbridge currently under construction was one of many projects for which we simply could not find funding," said Lim during the official ground breaking ceremony of a 60-meter footbridge that will connect two overgrown and often flooded areas of the community. "Thanks to the U.S. and Balikatan, farmers in San Pasqual will be able to transport their crops to the village center."
Just south of the footbridge, U.S. and AFP engineers are building a new schoolhouse for the Omaya Elementary School and adding a new roof to the existing schoolhouse - more than doubling the current classroom space.
"They had more schools around here that have been flooded out, so they are overcrowded," said the Omaya Elementary School construction site Officer-in-Charge (OIC) Air Force Master Sgt. Benjamin Bone. "The impact is huge for this community. We've had a great welcoming from the local people, children have been looking out from a distance at the job site, where it's safe, and everyone is involved. It's awesome how involved the community has been."
According to the San Pasqual footbridge construction site AFP OIC Lt. j.g. Romel Sotero, the level of teamwork shared between the U.S-Philippine Navy Seabees has led to a lasting relationship.
"We have great teamwork," said Romel. "We are all out on the site working together. It's a great avenue to learn from each other, and share techniques. We've all had a great time, and will be sure to continue learning from each other down the road."
Balikatan is an annual Republic of the Philippines - U.S. military bilateral training exercise and humanitarian assistance engagement. Balikatan in Filipino means "shoulder-to-shoulder" and characterizes the spirit of the exercise and the Philippines-U.S. alliance.