Soldiers Fix Schools, Smiles in Balikatan 08
February 25, 2008
NUEVA ECIJA, Philippines (Army News Service, Feb. 25, 2008) - Philippine and American Soldiers pounded nails, spread tar and painted walls to fix schools and checked mouths and pulled teeth to fix some smiles during a combination dental and engineering civic action program near Fort Magsaysay in the Philippines Friday.
Soldiers from the Philippine Army's 7th Infantry Division worked in conjunction with U.S. Task Force 294, which comprises more than 100 Soldiers from the Guam and New Mexico Army National Guard, to conduct multiple humanitarian assistance projects in the Santa Rosa municipality of Nueva Ecija, Philippines, during Balikatan 2008. Balikatan is an annual humanitarian assistance and military training exercise between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States.
The Soldiers conducted two dental civic assistance programs and a variety of repairs on three schools in two barangays, or towns, along the newly paved Santa Rosa Highway, according to Lt. Col. Kenneth Nava, a New Mexico National Guardsman who was in charge of coordinating the event. "Last year it was paved," he said. "(So) in order to show some goodwill to the people along this road, these two barangays were picked for this (community relations) activity."
Philippine and U.S. Soldiers got some sun, perched on the tin roof at one elementary school as they spread tar to patch up some holes. On the ground, local kids peeked through the slatted windows of the building to see more Soldiers tearing out and replacing rotting ceiling panels and wall pieces while yet another group of Soldiers repainted the room next door.
The Soldiers took their task here seriously, "The money for the repairs came from the Family Readiness Group of the Guam National Guard and from the Soldiers themselves," said Nava. "The Soldiers of Task Force 294 donated more than $1,000 that has been used for the building materials for the repairs that they're doing."
Down the road at the annex to the elementary school, Soldiers worked together to repair an outdoor bathroom, cover some exposed sewer pipes, repair a fence and clear away trash, brush and overgrown grass. "It's great, really great, (to be able to help out in these communities)," said U.S. Army Spc. Philip Escribalo, with the Guam National Guard. "I know they appreciate it. The moment you're here helping out, they really appreciate it."
Between the two schools, Soldiers ran around the Liwayway Hall courtyard playing with kids, bringing smiles to their faces as they tossed out new basketballs, footballs and t-shirts to the children, while an American and Filipino dentist worked on the stage to fix some youngster's smiles and pass out toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss.
"I enjoy coming out here and helping them out," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Gerson Valles, a dentist with the State Medical Command, Guam National Guard. "I know sometimes, especially out in these provinces, they don't have the capabilities of visiting health professionals [that] they would like to."
This cooperative effort between the two nations gave the Soldiers a break from training, but also offered them the opportunity to get to know each other on a more personal level. "The Soldiers are having a great time laughing and finding a lot of common ground with culture and food," said U.S. Army 1st. Lt. David Afaisen, assistant coordinator for the projects.
A Philippine Soldier agreed, "The Filipino and American relationship is actually better [because of this event]," said Philippine Army Sgt. Nelson Regaspi during a fence-mending break. But it also improves the relationships with the local communities by showing the citizens that the Filipinos work hand in hand with the Americans, he said. "The Armed Forces of the Philippines feels closer to the community and to the Americans during these projects."
The Soldiers are planning to spend at least two more days working in the community on similar projects to help foster the long-standing friendship between the Republic of the Philippines and the U.S. "(We want everyone) to understand that we're really shoulder to shoulder and we're here as friends," Afaisen said. "And sincerely that's why we're here... to help each other out."