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US-Philippine force wraps up on Panay

Story by Chief Petty Officer Lowell Whitman

TAPAZ, Philippines - The Combined-Joint Civil-Military Operations Task Force on the island of Panay celebrated the completion of two new classrooms with a ribbon cutting ceremony at Don Joaquin Artuz Memorial Elementary School in Tapaz, Philippines, during Balikatan 2015, April 27.

The ceremony was attended by over 100 people and a number of military and local civic leaders including the Honorable Victor A. Tanco Sr., governor of Capiz Province; The Honorable Rosemarie F. Gardose, mayor of Tapaz Municipality; Dr. Miguel Mack Aposin, Capiz division superintended for the department of education; Armed Forces of the Philippines Vice Adm. Alexander Lopez, Balikatan 2015 exercise director; U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Bret Muilenburg, commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific; Capt. Erich Diehl, commander, Task Force 75; and Capt. James Meyer, commodore of the 30th Naval Construction Regiment and Balikatan CJCMOTF commander.

Engineers from the AFP Army’s 552nd Engineer Construction Battalion, U.S. Navy Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5, and U.S. Marines from the 9th Engineer Support Battalion, worked “shoulder-to-shoulder” for 19 days to complete the modified Philippine Department of Education one-story, two-classroom block and concrete building. The school, with a student body of 500, saw 14 of 22 classrooms damaged during Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.

“I believe that there is no better investment that the individual parents and teachers can make than an investment in quality education,” said Glenda Gervero, the school’s principal. “Rest assured that we will take great care of this memorable and great building and we are determined to make a difference.”

The construction represented a challenge to the engineers, with the average time to complete this kind of project around 60 days, according to Capt. Larry Camacan, the AFP’s lead engineer for the project. The AFP engineers broke ground on the project March 16, and were joined by the full complement of U.S. engineers April 8.

The engineers were employed on the parts of the construction they were most skilled and worked into the night throughout the project to ensure completion, Camacan said.

“For the ENCAP in particular, the Navy and Marine Corps team were able to capitalize on each other’s strengths. Along with the AFP and their tremendous strengths, their experience, and their knowledge, the team was able to identify those long-lead items, pay attention to those and make sure that they got done ahead of time,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Catherine Eyrich, assigned to NMCB 5 and CJCMOTF forward officer-in-charge.

The ceremony also marked the end to other CJCMOTF activities on the island of Panay during the exercise.

The AFP, along with a U.S. Marine civil affairs team, conducted humanitarian assistance and disaster relief surveys of airports in Roxas City, Caticlan, Kalibo, and Iloilo, as well as seaports in Iloilo, Culasi and Caticlan in order to determine the facilities’ capabilities to assist in the event of a disaster. The information will be used by the AFP to plan response efforts.

“The assessments allow for more accurate information to be presented to the higher elements - the command elements - so that if a disaster arises, they will be able to make a …decision based on facts,” said U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Alan Tirol. “That decision might mean the difference between saving lives in a shorter time period or a longer time period.”

The civil affairs team also conducted civil-military exchanges with the AFP to share experiences, ideas, and best practices in civil-military operations between the two militaries. Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief seminars were held for barangay leaders to assist in local disaster preparation and planning.

Cooperative health engagements were held by U.S. Army and Air Force medical personnel at the AFP Army’s 3rd Infantry Division headquarters in Tapaz, training over 160 AFP Army soldiers and local barangay health workers. The engagements taught life-saving first responder skills to use in the event of a natural disaster or everyday emergency.

The CJCMOTF’s operations were the first to occur on the island in the history of the exercise.

“We’ve incorporated from the top on down to the kids in taking ownership of the school building and the humanitarian and disaster recovery planning,” Eyrich said. “All of the interactions were easy, they were seamless. Obviously the AFP taking the lead on the project - we fell in line and followed their lead and together we were able to have mission success here in Panay.”

The Panay CJCMOTF is a forward element from the main CJCMOTF efforts taking place on the island of Palawan during Balikatan 2015. The CJCMOTF efforts are being led by the U.S. Navy’s 30th Naval Construction Regiment.

Balikatan, which means “shoulder to shoulder” in Tagalog, is an annual bilateral training exercise aimed at improving the ability of Philippine and U.S. military forces to work together during planning, contingency, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.

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