SAN ANTONIO, ZAMBALES, Philippines -- Born in Bulacan Province, Philippines, and raised on a farm, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Marie Lanoza returned to her homeland in March to participate in Balikatan 2011, a military exercise between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and United States military.

Balikatan 2011 marks the 27th anniversary of the annual combined, joint bilateral exercise between the AFP and the U. S.military. The exercise includes humanitarian assistance and training activities that enable the service members of both countries to train together, improve readiness, and provide help to local communities.

Lanoza's Filipino heritage is an asset in both her duties as a chaplain assistant, and her ability to interact with the Filipino population. Her knowledge of the culture and language skills have enabled her to build positive relations between the U.S. military, members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the local community. During this exercise, she has often acted as an interpreter for Chaplain (Maj.) Dave Shoffner, speaking in her native Tagalog at the ceremonies and events, as they mingle with students, teachers and local civic leaders.

Although most Filipinos also speak English, seeing an American Soldier who looks like them and speaks their own language serves as a bridge, bringing both sides closer together. When locals see the nametape on Lanoza's uniform and hear her speak Tagalog or Ilacano, smiles immediately appear on their faces as they nod in recognition and appreciation.

In garrison and during the exercise, Lanoza works with Shoffner, the chaplain for both the 130th Engineer Brigade and the Combined Joint Civil Military Operations Task Force for Balikatan. Her regular duties include assisting the chaplain as he provides religious support. During the exercise, the chaplain regularly provides invocations and benedictions at ceremonies held to mark the beginning of construction of classrooms at local schools. The construction initiatives, known as engineering civic action projects are combined efforts by AFP and U.S. service members working together to assist local schools. The ENCAPs are occurring at multiple locations throughout Zambales and Tarlac provinces.

Lanoza's ability to communicate and relate to the local populace has been vital to the exercise in a number of ways.

"I've been used as an interpreter for everything from instructing logistics for the drivers, to making sure major supply orders are correct," she said.

In many ways, it was Lanoza's upbringing in the Philippines sowed the seeds that would drive her to help others in her adult life. Growing up on a farm in rural Mindoro, she watched her grandmother help neighbors in need. Her grandmother's acts of kindness made a distinct and lasting impression on Lanoza, and set a pattern that she has followed throughout her life, and carried over into her military career.

"I would see my grandma helping neighbors who needed food. Even when some said they would pay her back, and she knew they couldn't, she would help anyway not expecting anything in return," she said.

In 2001, after finishing college in Mindoro province with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Elementary Education, Marie deGuzman (her maiden name) boarded a plane for the United States. Her father petitioned for her to join him and her sister in New York. On her 21st birthday, Marie left Manila for New York, where her life would take an unexpected turn.

After a few months in New York, she moved in with her sister who was serving in the U.S. Army and stationed at Fort McPherson, Georgia. Although she was contemplating a career as a teacher, Lanoza was inspired by her sister's military service and began to consider enlisting in the U.S Army.

"I saw how my sister was traveling and enjoying the military so I wanted to join too," Lanoza said.

The events that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, inspired Lanoza even more than her sister's example.

"After 9/11 I really wanted to join and serve to help people and do my part," she said.

Lanoza joined the Army in November 2001. When it came time to choose a job, she selected chaplain assistant. This job would allow her to continue to practice two strong life-long themes: the Catholic faith she had been raised in and her desire to help others.

"I like serving and taking care of people, especially the enlisted Soldiers. The enlisted feel more comfortable talking to another enlisted person," she added.

On the 4th of July, 2002, while stationed at Fort Benning, Ga, then Pfc. deGuzman, meet Pvt. Jaymar Lanoza, who was there attending advanced individual training. It was love at first sight, and they were married six weeks later on Aug. 16, 2002. The Lanoza's have been married nine years and have two active little boys.

When Lanoza learned that her unit would be participating in Balikatan 2011, her first response was "Can I go'" As a Filipino-American, she was eager for the opportunity to serve both her native and adopted countries.

"I was so excited to be coming to help out fellow Filipino farmers," said Lanoza. "I understand how hard life is here."

Speaking with the local people in their own language has been the most rewarding experience for Lanoza at Balikatan.

"I can relate to them and they open up more to me; they feel happy seeing a female Filipina in the U.S. Army," Lanoza said.