American Forces Press Service
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines, July 18, 2012 – The senior U.S. commander in the Pacific capped off his visit to the Philippines yesterday getting a firsthand view of the fruits of a decade-long partnership between the two allies that has helped make solid progress in countering terrorism.
Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, toured the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines at Camp Navarro and the site of one of its three task forces operating in the southern Philippines.
JSOTF-P, stood up 10 years ago at the Philippine government’s request as it struggled against radical extremism, includes just over 400 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, explained Army Sgt. Maj. Charles Beebe, a Special Forces soldier who serves as the task force’s senior enlisted advisor.
The U.S. forces here advise and assist the Armed Forces of the Philippines, boosting their capacity to conduct offensive counterterrorism operations primarily against two al-Qaida affiliated groups: Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiya, Beebe said.
“But at no time are our forces on the ground with them conducting operations,” he emphasized.
Beebe said his troops work in the background, helping the Philippine forces to improve their tactical skills, staff and planning procedures, intelligence operations and other capabilities so they can be more effective in the fight.
“Because the U.S. military, in particular its Special Forces, have a significant amount of experience dealing with these types of things, we were able to provide them that assistance and training that allows them to be able to very effectively deal with the counterterrorism threat in that region,” Locklear told American Forces Press Service.
To a lesser degree, the U.S. forces here also help fill capability gaps, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, transportation and to a diminishing degree, medevac assistance.
For example, Army Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Wright, the task force’s maintenance manager, is part of a team helping the AFP develop a preventive maintenance culture and identify efficiencies that will make a lasting impact on their maintenance processes.
“We are the overwatch, doing assessments and giving feedback,” Wright said. “It’s all very positive. They really want to learn through this.”
Army Col. Eric Miller, the task force commander, said the arrangement has gone a long way in improving the Philippines’ capability to deal with the terrorist threat. “They’ve always been pretty good in the counterinsurgency fight,” he said. “But they have truly advanced. They are now ready to move forward.”
Meanwhile, the Philippine military is building confidence in its own capabilities and winning their countrymen’s support, said Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Pete Foster, the task force’s senior enlisted advisor.
“People want a better life for their kids. And they know that the only way to have that is to get rid of the violent extremists and lawless elements,” Foster said. “So we’re seeing huge increases in that trust and confidence [in their forces]. That’s huge, and it’s growing and growing.”
The task force members work hand in hand with Philippine military units and government agencies to conduct civil-military operations that deepen that support through quality-of-life improvements ranging from medical and dental clinics to school, well and road construction projects.
Army Capt. Jason Tebedo, civil affairs team leader at the remote Task Force Mindanao site, told Locklear about several of these projects for young children and the elderly. As older Philippine citizens get receive cataract surgery, the third Operation Smile campaign will kick off on Aug. 1 to repair children’s cleft palates.
“We do different things in our military careers, but these are the kind of things that you remember,” Tebedo told the admiral.
More importantly, these projects have an impact on many people who may have felt disenfranchised from their government, he said. “They demonstrate that their government cares about them,” Tebedo said. “And that’s how you tie people back in.”
Locklear said he was particularly impressed by the scale and scope of the civil-military outreach.
“It is not just about addressing the counterterrorism threat in these areas,” he said. “It is about helping [the Philippines] address the issues and conditions that create an environment that allows terrorism to grow.
“And this has a lot to do with the quality of life and the quality of the prospects for the people who live in those areas,” the admiral continued. “So I am seeing good opportunities that have been realized between the Philippine military and the U.S. military to actually add value and add quality to the lives of those people who are in those remote areas. And that, in itself, adds to the overall security.”
The support U.S. forces are providing the Philippines is helping to create conditions for peace, stability and prosperity, Locklear said. “It is helping to give them a security environment where they don’t have to worry about terrorists dictating their future,” he said, “and gives them that lift that allows them to start realizing better potential in the area where they live.”
Reflecting on his visit, Locklear said he was impressed by the close relationship that has developed between the two militaries. “At every step I saw great coordination and communication between our forces and those of the Filipinos,” he said. “I saw opportunities s where they not only learn from us, but we learn from them.”
In doing so, he said, “we also built good friendships and relationships that will help us as we address future security challenges.”
Walking through the camp yesterday and meeting with the service members deployed here, Locklear said he was struck by their commitment to the mission in such a remote, austere location.
“I appreciate what you do and your country appreciates what you do,” he told a group of task force members. “You have tough work here, and I promise to make sure that you are supported.”
Recognizing that those serving here are among the U.S. military’s most elite -- Special Forces, Rangers, SEALs and the forces that support them -- Locklear said he wasn’t surprised to see them thrive in such difficult conditions.
“Where they saw an opportunity to improve the training or the overall relationship or to improve someone’s lives, they jumped in there and did it without being asked to do so,” he said. “As I have repeatedly said, we have the very best force we have ever had.”
Wright, deployed here from the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii, said the chance to work directly with a host-nation military in a joint environment was “much more positive than I ever imagined.”
“They really want to learn,” he said of the Philippine troops. “I think this is going to be one of my best deployments.”
For Army Staff Sgt. Ethan Verozola, the chance to return to his native country as a U.S. civil affairs soldier was a dream come true. “It’s a huge honor for me to come back to my home country and to be able to take my knowledge and experience in the military and share it” with the Philippine military and national police, he said.
Miller said the sharing and collaboration taking place here will have a “long-term impact that is going to be huge,” particularly as the United States engages increasingly with the Asia-Pacific region.
“Those relationships are going to be key,” he said.