News: Seabees, Marines Give Youth Tools to Build Future
By Petty Officer 2nd Class Terrence Siren, Mass Communication Specialist
SULU ISLAND, Philippines – Philippine marines and U.S. sailors endured the mud, heat and rain to work side-by-side constructing a new facility on Camp Bud Datu for the past few weeks -- a barracks for some very important trainees.
But these trainees aren’t soldiers; and the training isn’t in military tactics. The new ‘barracks’ is an addition to the Tausug Youth Training Camp, a project organized and carried out by the Marines of Philippine Marine Battalion Landing Team 6. The trainees, for whom this facility is being built with the help of U.S. Sailors from Seabee Squad Two, are young Filipinos and Filipinas from local municipalities. The training will provide youth with tools that – in the hopes of Lt. Col. Robert Velasco – will help them build a better future.
“We have a youth development training program,” said Velasco, Commander, MBLT 6. “The [barracks project for the existing] Tausug Youth Camp is a facility to increase the capacity to teach the youth how to be civic-minded persons; how to be good citizens.”
Velasco points out that one only needs to look at simple statistics to ascertain the reason why he, his marines, and U.S. forces are willing to spend effort on programs to open the window of opportunities for the youth.
According to a survey done by Social Weather Stations, Philippine youth –people between the ages of 15 to 30 years old – make up more than one-third of the nation’s population and therefore play an important role in the future of the Philippines.
Philippine Marine Corps Commandant Maj. Gen Juancho Sabban has said that extremist groups, such as Abu Sayyaf, are quick to exploit poverty, lack of education and minimal government services throughout the Sulu Archipelago.
“Education and opportunities for development are the keys to lasting solutions to end the terrorism problem,” said Sabban, a former field commander on the islands of Basilan and Sulu.
Sulu ranks among the bottom five provinces in the country in terms of civic needs such as education, according to a Philippine Human Development Report cited in the Asia Times last month. In the same article, Lt. Gen. Ben Dolorfino, Commander, Western Mindanao Command, compared groups like Abu Sayyaf to a diseased tree, stating that “military force can only go as far as cutting the branches and removing the leaves, but unless you eliminate the roots, new branches and leaves will grow with time.”
Velasco and fellow Marine commander Lt. Col. Elias Juson, Jr., attest that eliminating the roots of extremist ideologies starts with education.
“Through education, people will think differently, and instead of fighting, they will work to make their community better,” said Juson, commander of MBLT 4. And while many of the civil military operations that the marines are conducting on Sulu include building new schools and renovating old ones, the Tausug Youth Training Camp strives to give young people a different kind of education.
On the surface, it appears that the Marines of MBLT 6 are providing the same sort of skills that one would expect from any ordinary camp: outdoor skills such as hiking, rappelling, building rope bridges, and the like. A closer look shows that these activities are structured to impart vital tools for building a promising future. These tools include environmental stewardship, responsible citizenship, conflict resolution, tolerance, and cooperation.
Through a partnership with the Confederation of Youth Organizations in Angono, which is headquartered in Rizal province in Metro Manila, MBLT 6 has hosted school and student government organizations, the Sanguniang Kabataan (elected youth who are part of the local provincial government), and both the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of the Philippines at the Tausug Youth Training Camp.
“The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, for example, are existing organizations – worldwide – whose aim is to build up the youth,” said Velasco, a former Eagle Scout. “[Like them,] we want to make civic-minded boys and girls… to enhance their skills and their ability to lead other youth.” Camp Bud Datu played host to the Boy Scouts Provincial Jamboree this past February, where more than 600 scouts were in attendance. The Boys Scouts of the Philippines are the third largest scouting organization for boys in the world, according to their official website, phiscout.org andVelasco hopes to host up to 1,000 scouts for next year’s jamboree.
The builders of MBLT 6 and Seabee Squad Two were also mindful that the Tausug Youth Camp projects help bolster the local economy. The materials for the barracks were bought from local venders in the Indanan province. “Everything that we do is in pursuit of the sustainable and equitable socioeconomic development [of our community],” said Velasco.
The community-mindedness of Velasco and his Marines is not only serving to educate and invigorate a new generation of Filipinos, however; the concept of the Marines as seen by local leaders has begun to change as well.
“We look at the Philippine Marines as a friend,” said Diding Hajiraini, a barangay captain from Maligap. “Everything they do today shows the people of the barangays that the Marines are there to help them.”
“We see the marines as more than soldiers,” said Hadji Jamil Harud, president of the Tugas housing community. “We are happy with the help of the Marines and the support they have provided us. We all know the marines and they know us. We are all friends.” Tugas is one of several areas on Sulu where additional joint building projects are planned between Camp Bud Datu Marines and Seabee Squad Two. Seabee Squad Two, a part of U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 11, is assigned to Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P).
“One of the main roles of Seabees is to go in and build roads and schools and bridges to better the community,” said Petty Officer 1st Class (SCW) Justin Metz, builder and team leader, Seabee Squad Two. “Our whole mission here is to work hand-in-hand with the Armed Forces of the Philippines…to be able to make positive change in people’s lives together.”
Over the next eight months, Metz’s nine-man squad will work together as “peace-builders” with Philippine Seabees, marines, and AFP soldiers to rebuild and renovate three schools in Tugas, Maharaja, and Timbangan, all of which are schools that need renovation or, in some cases, have been burned down by lawless groups. The improvement of these schools is estimated to effect approximately 800 students.
“Anything you do for kids, as a group, be it sports or youth camp or anything like that… Those kids usually turn out to be alright,” Metz said. “It’s the kids that don’t have that opportunity, that don’t have any type of education, that unfortunately go down the wrong path.”
“Education is the most important element,” said 2nd Lt. Ian Villeza, Civil Military Operations (CMO) Officer, MBLT 5. “The children who go to school and receive an education will know the difference between the good guys and the bad ones and realize that going into the jungle to fight the government will destroy their future. It will let them know that being a good, local person has a bright future here.”
Velasco believes that the Philippine Marines and JSOTF-P Seabees working together to provide the youth the education and tools for a bright future is one of their most important projects that they will build together.
“We hope that by the end of the year, through the youth program that we are doing here, we would like to gather 20 youth leaders and bring them to Manila to have some interaction at the universities there,” said Velasco. When asked why this is important, Velasco simply responded, “So that they will dream.”
“The only way to win [peace] is to empower the people themselves.”