Michael's Dispatches

The Village

Some of the Navy folks talked about bringing out a veterinarian.

08 July 2009

(Filed from Afghanistan)

The fight in the southern Philippines varies in intensity and technique.  Commanders in the AFP (Armed Forces Philippines) will say that the fight consists of about 80% carrot and 20% stick.  The relationship between U.S. and AFP forces seems good but there are differences of opinion.  Our folks fully understand the 80% part, but on the 20% we often know the whereabouts of the enemy and would like to see faster action.  Nevertheless, my gut instinct after having a tour about the place is that progress is being made.  A guerrilla commander told me that he had been fighting since 1976, but came out of the jungles with 34 fighters on 20 April this year.  Publicly it’s called a “surrender,” but on the ground it seemed more like a mutual agreement to stop fighting and do something constructive.


And so in addition to other tours on Luzon, Sulu, and Mindanao, we flew to this airstrip on Mindanao and were heading to the village where the recent guerrillas lived with their families.  U.S. Navy and a couple of Green Berets picked us up.  I was escorted most steps of the way by Philippine Army Captain Enrico Ileto, and/or U.S. Air Force Captain John Hutcheson and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Lara Bollinger.  All three worked for public affairs.  This practically never happens in Iraq or Afghanistan; many folks think that writers are shadowed constantly in the wars, but this might occur 1% of the time with Americans, more so with Brits.  I didn’t mind the shadowing in the Philippines and found it helpful as an intro; we got things done quicker (such as flights) and the meetings were nearly continuous.  For a short embed, this was fine but for long-term work, it would not work.

During the seven days, I saw no direct signs of fighting other than one small bomb crater and bridge damaged by explosives.  The enemy here is not as clever with explosives as were the Iraqis.

We dove over the smaller bridge while repairs were underway on the larger, damaged bridge.

Around the periphery of Mindanao Island are many Christians and plenty of churches. Before leaving the ring-road and heading into the jungle interior, we stopped in a small community to wait for AFP soldiers to take us into enemy territory.  Hopefully, it was “former” enemy territory.  We had no armor or body armor and wore no helmets, unlike on Sulu where everyone wears “battle rattle” as if they are in Afghanistan or Iraq.   The kids in the area were friendly and never asked for candy but they smiled at us a lot.  They especially smiled at Lt. Lara Bollinger and brightened up even more whenever she smiled at them.  A pretty girl stopped to take photos.  Captain Ileto, whom I called by his first name “Enrico,” had lost a number of his men nearby during heavy fighting, and I was told that he was awarded a medal for courage under fire.  (I asked for that citation but was told that it’s “classified.”)

While we waited for AFP soldiers, concern seemed to grow on Enrico’s face that we had been there too long, maybe 15 minutes, and he thought we might get hit if we didn’t move out.

So our convoy drove into the interior jungle.  Altogether, the trip would take about two hours, much of which was on the unpaved jungle roads.  The weather was dry and temperature was pleasant.  As we moved further inland, there were more and more mosques in the villages.  The kids, men and women were very friendly.  Laundry was hanging out in every village, and so lots of the little kids weren’t wearing any pants.  Our troops call laundry day “no pants day.”

New Lawyer posters.  The men waving from the window.

The ambush country was as good as you’ll see just about anywhere.  Decent guerrillas could have taken a heavy toll on us.  Luckily, every single village seemed friendly.  The sign’s for “Attorney Muamar Andamama Sarip Guyo,” whose name will forthwith be seen in at least a hundred countries.

They sure seemed proud of their new lawyer.

No pants day at the country store.

Navy Lt. Lara Bollinger waves her arm off.  All of us were waving, but Lara, who does Crossfit, was getting a workout.

Enemy kids playing basketball in village by old sign.

We finally made it to our destination: The enemy village where the 34 fighters had come with their families.  Some of the men here were wearing camouflage and though the people were friendly, there was edge in the air from some of the younger men.  I didn’t feel any danger but this wasn’t a beach party, either.

Far better to be delivering building supplies than JDAMs.

The AFP and our folks helped unload some lumber, cement, and other supplies, and the men expressed much thanks.

Always wave and smile but keep your eyes out.  AFP soldiers with American Green Beret.

The village of Barangy Old Poblacion Munai.  A couple of the younger Moro fighters kept scowls on their faces, such as the man with hands in pockets.

The only true litmus seems to be the kids.  It’s not a 100% thing with the kids, though.  In Iraq, foreign fighters in particular would attack straight through crowds of kids, but the kids seemed to be the truest reflection of the community.

Most of the people seemed welcoming, but some held back.

Moro Mother, Wife of Commander

Enrico and Moro Commander.

At first Enrico was standoffish with the Commander, whom he said might have been involved in killing his own men, but the fact is, we are destined to perpetual war if we drag blood feuds through the decades.

'Che' imitated his t-shirt, until Navy Lt. Wurtz saw the irony and went for the handshake.  After that, Che seemed to lighten up.  It was ironic, however, to see one of ours shaking hands with a Moro guerrilla wearing a Che shirt!

Numerous AFP soldiers extended a hand to the Guerrilla commander and he took each hand with what appeared to be a genuine smile.

Guerrilla Benjie Lucsadato, commander of the '102nd Base Command,' and his wife.  I asked how many wives he had and she burst out laughing.  They chattered for a few sentences and Lucsadato said he only has one wife, and she confirmed, like it was the dumbest question on the planet that only a child would ask.  Commander Lucsadato answered all my questions, saying he had been fighting in the jungles since 1976, and he couldn’t afford to have two wives while he was fighting.  Commander Lucsadato said he has seven children and four are going to school.  He hated the AFP (Armed Forces Philippines) before because they treated people badly and were unprofessional.  He said they were arrogant.  He said that the new AFP is professional, friendly to the people and bring projects.  For instance, in this village, they are helping with fishponds.  Commander Lucsadato said that the AFP treated his relatives well, and this began to persuade him to surrender, and so he came from the jungle with 34 fighters on 20 April 2009.  I asked the Commander if he was in contact with other guerrilla commanders, and if they would also surrender.  The Commander said he was in contact, some would not quit fighting, but others are waiting to see how his village is treated.  If the AFP treats them well, others are ready to surrender, he said.  I asked Commander Lucsadato what he thinks of the United States, and he asked me to send warm sentiments back to America.  His translated words: 'send appreciation to U.S. forces and AFP for support and this is same sentiment of other fighters.'

More thanks to our navy folks.

Since going to British tracking school in Borneo, I pay closer attention to feet.  The Taliban normally wear running shoes that often are not available in local Afghan markets.  One British soldier wrote that he took inventory of all the shoes sold in his Area of Operations (AO) in Afghanistan, and subtly photographed all the men’s shoes so that he could build a library of footprints in his AO.  His men avoided at least one bomb due to his tracking skills.

The AFP soldiers were mixing, too.  Most of the women were fine with having their photos taken but a few avoided the camera.

Since there was a pose going, Enrico and the commander wanted to show again that they were shaking hands.  The village is under death threat from some other MILF commanders who refused to surrender, but Lucsadato also said that other MILF leaders are waiting to see how this village is being treated; they want to surrender too.  If this village is treated well, others will surrender, he said.  Civil Affairs teams probably save more lives than body armor.

Muslim Guerrilla commander Benjie Lucsadato with American soldier.

The AFP troops held themselves like experienced soldiers.  The were respectful and professional, but watchful.  Made sense because I had a camera, but I also had plenty of time alone with the villagers and they could have dropped a hint if this were just a dog and pony show, but none did.  This seemed like 'what you see is what you get.'  The soldiers weapons were immaculate and kept on SAFE.  They could use some better armor, though.  It’s great to win a village, but far greater to win it and tell the world.

The U.S. and AFP rebuilt the village fishponds, and helped with other agricultural revenue sources.

Green of the village. This island can grow bananas because it rarely gets hit by typhoons, which flatten banana trees on many of the other islands.

Fish and rice covered by banana leaves.

Filipinos call these meals 'Boodlefights' because everyone fights for the food, more or less.  The Muslims in the village waited respectfully for the Christians to pray before eating.  Up close, things are often very different.  (Just yesterday an Afghan apologized in advance and asked me if I hate Muslims.)  The fish was scorching hot and burned my fingers.  We often stand up like this in Iraq and the Iraqis usually don’t wash their hands until afterward.  In Afghanistan we usually sit on the floor, but in all places Christians and Muslims can eat together.

The fish was succulent and we went through it like piranhas.

After the feast

Lower ranking soldiers wait for officers and guests to eat, and they finish off the rest.  This would cause a mutiny among U.S. forces where senior leaders often are expected to eat last.  (Depending on the situation.)  But we were in the Philippines and that’s the way they do business.

Accidental Pepsi commercial after the feast.  Naval officer Joe Wurtz, in the middle, was very helpful and is another believer in the great value of Civil Affairs.

Adrian Berghamer, U.S. Navy, also seemed to love her job.  There is something fulfilling about knowing your little part makes a big difference, and all the Navy folks seemed to think like that.  The U.S. Navy has recently started taking Civil Affairs seriously.  The old school Green Berets (using strollers these days) will tell you that Civil Affairs was their secret weapon.  Why fight your way into a village when you can walk in and build a school and have tea?

Lt. Lara Bollinger behind the lens.

This Green Beret seemed intent on winning the next election in the village.  The kids loved him.  An elder woman walked up and he gave a respectful greeting.

What in the world does this guy do with those pretty boots?  He saw the camera and chuckled.

Tom Maxwell was the Navy team leader for Maritime Civil Affairs Team 'DET 103.'  He was another kid magnet.

Photo of the day: The Moro Commander, Benjie Luscadato, introduces this baby to the Americans.

Some women liked to have photos taken.  They were like Iraqi women; some were okay with photos, some not, but if they had a baby they wanted that photo taken!  Some Afghan women don’t mind, either, but I’ve seen Tibetan women run away screaming.

More schools, less bombs: More Civil Affairs teams would be very helpful for us in Afghanistan.

In closing on the Philippines, it was clear during my approximate ten days in country that progress is being made, albeit at a slow and frustrating pace.  Yet even that progress is endangered by potential cuts to the U.S. force structure as more attention is diverted to Afghanistan.  We saw what happened when we ignored Afghanistan to focus on Iraq, and we could do well to remember that the war in the Philippines is a matter of high stakes.  The AFP is doing all the fighting, but they need our support.  Even now, the Armed Forces of the Philippines is running dangerously short on artillery and mortar ammunition, and they may completely run out this summer.

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