CAMP AGUINALDO, Philippines (Army News Service, Feb. 21, 2008) - The Armed Forces of the Philippines stood shoulder to shoulder with U.S. servicemembers at Camp Aguinaldo Feb. 18, watching the uncasing of the Balikatan Colors, beginning the annual bilateral exercise which continues through March 3.

The next day about 100 U.S. National Guard Soldiers maneuvered through thick jungle brush to eat wild leaves and insects. They quenched their thirst with a little king cobra blood, enhancing their jungle survival skills Feb. 19 at the Philippine Army Special Forces School at Fort Ramon Magsaysay.

The jungle survival training is only a small part of Balikitan 2008, the 24th such exercise, which this year includes dozens of medical and engineering projects.

True to its meaning in Filipino, Balikatan entails Philippine and U.S. forces shouldering the load together to help the greatest possible number of people in need, according to Philippine Brig. Gen. Nestor R. Sadiarin, co-exercise director.

"Our troops are ready to maximize the opportunity to do something that will have lasting benefits for peace and social progress in the mission areas," Sadiarin said. "We'll do that by sharing the load together."

Balikatan 2008 will focus on training both armed forces to provide relief and assistance in the event of natural disasters and other crises that endanger public health and safety.

Medical, dental and engineering civil action projects are scheduled in Luzon, Lanao, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Palawan over the next couple of weeks.

"Joined together in a collective effort, our military medical professionals along with local doctors, nurses, veterinarians and volunteers will provide free medical, dental, and veterinary care to local communities where these services are most needed," said U.S. Brig. Gen. John Y. H. Ma, co-exercise director of BK 08.

Engineering projects are scheduled for numerous schools, including Pang Elementary School in Jolo, St. Juliana Elementary School in Crow Valley and Maragondon National High School in Ternate, which was destroyed in a fire last April.

Philippine and U.S. forces will also conduct combined staff exercises and field training in Luzon and Palawan to improve contingency planning and strengthen maritime security.

The jungle survival training over the weekend involved Soldiers from 1-294th Infantry, Guam Army National Guard and 2-200th Infantry, New Mexico National Guard. The Soldiers killed and cooked up cobras, ate wild plants and tested their strength and endurance under the "jump wings" of Philippine Army Special Forces Soldiers.

"It's great. I have learned so much in the short time we've been out here," said Private Lorenzo Castillo of the 2nd Battalion, 200th Infantry.

Before getting to the survival course, the Soldiers tackled the ropes course, which featured various rope obstacles that weave through the canopy of the dense jungle. The most dominant feature of the course was the slide for life. The obstacle is about 100 feet tall and requires a person to hold onto a thick branch and rope as he or she slides back to the ground.

"Honestly it was kind of scary," Castillo said, "but it's a challenge and I am glad I did it."

After climbing around in the trees, the Soldiers were led down a path which displayed traps built from natural materials, capable of catching a variety of wildlife. Philippine Army Master Sgt. Jaime S. Agonoy, the chief instructor of the survival course who has more than 31 years of knowledge and experience in the special forces field, brought laughter into the hot, muggy day during the trap demonstrations with one-liners and gestures that made up for his broken English.

After learning how to trap game, U.S. Soldiers learned to gather other essential resources from the jungle, such as edible and medicinal plants and insects, as well as water.

The Philippine instructors continued to display their resourcefulness by steaming rice inside a bamboo stick.

Many of the American Soldiers put their stomachs to the test, trying the jungle food, most of which they found to be surprisingly tasty.

"They taste like lemons," said U.S. Army Sgt. Randy Eustaquio, an infantryman with 1st Bn., 294th Inf., after tasting red ants off a tree branch. "They have a little zest to them," he said with a laugh.

Philippine Staff Sgt. Manolo Martin, assistant chief instructor at the survival course then took the stage. Martin brought out the next animal on the buffet line, which was a little more intimidating - a king cobra - that had some Soldiers taking a few steps back. Martin then explained to the Soldiers how to capture a snake with just a stick as it slithered between his boots and occasionally attempting to get closer to the American Soldiers.

A handful of the Americans, with the instructors' help, pinned the snake's head and snatched it up before tossing it back to the ground.

Finally, it was time for the highlight of the course: killing the cobra, cooking it and drinking its blood - a warrior tradition shared by both Philippine and American Soldiers.

"Drinking the snake's blood was definitely the highlight," Eustaquio said. "It was a very different and unique experience."

The Philippine instructors said giving the training to their international guests was a great experience.

"I had a Soldier shake my hand and say, 'thank you so much for your instruction today,'" Agonoy said. "They tell me that they have learned some great things and I'm glad I had the chance to be their teacher."

The American Soldiers felt the same way about the opportunity to participate.

"It's been really good to work with the Philippine Special Forces," said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Piper, a rifle squad leader with 2nd Bn., 200th Inf. "The cohesion has been great."

(Sgt. 1st Class Jason Shepherd and Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kevin M. Knallay serve on the public affairs staff of Joint Task Force-Balikatan. Their two reports were merged to form this article.)