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Saturday, July 25, 2009

JSOTF-P Vet teams with AFP, veterinary students to help Mindanao farmers

PIKIT, North Cotobato, Philippines – Nearly 25 University of Southern Mindanao veterinary students received hands-on practice in the care and treatment of livestock July 18 during a Veterinary Civic Action Program in Pikit, hosted jointly by the Armed Forces of the Philippines 7th Infantry Battalion and Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines.

After two two-day classroom training seminars with the JSOTF-P Vet and representatives of AFP’s 7th IB, the students conducted a VETCAP in Barangay Kulambog, Pikit, Cotabato, providing assessments and treatment for the area’s livestock.

“For some students, this was the first time they’ve ever done field work,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Stephen Goldsmith, the JSOTF-P veterinarian. “You can watch them during the day. They’ve never had the experience but as the day goes on, they get it and gain confidence.”

“We showed them what they needed to do and the students did the rest, from administering the medicine to restraining the animals,” he added.

Farmers in rural regions such as Pikit depend on the health of their livestock for the livelihood and wellbeing of their families. Keeping their animals healthy is key to their prosperity.

At this VETCAP, students provided treatment to about 500 animals, including cattle, goats and carabao. They administered deworming vitamins and medicine to the animals and provided farmers with instructions on how to better care for their animals. The experience gained by the students will allow them to continue to conduct similar VETCAPs on their own in the future.

“Our students benefitted, by receiving training and assisting in the treatment of animals and the knowledge they got during the lectures,” said Dr. Elizabeth Molina, Dean of College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Southern Mindanao. “The community benefitted because they got free treatment for their animals.”

The involvement of AFP in the VETCAP shows the residents that the AFP is concerned about their welfare and livelihood and will continue to protect them and their livestock.

“This activity will foster friendship and camaraderie…so that they will feel that the Philippine Army is behind them, supporting them all the way in terms of development, in terms of whatever assistance we can give them,” said Lt. Col. Domingo Gobway, 7th Infantry Battalion commander.

Friday, July 24, 2009

International cooperation brings new smiles to Jolo

CAMP BAUTISTA, SULU, Republic of the Philippines -- An international team gathered on the island of Jolo July 20-25 for a week-long effort to bring life-changing medical treatment to children living with cleft palates and cleft lips in an event called ‘Operation Sumbing’.

Organized by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Knightsbridge International and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines, ‘Operation Sumbing’ (‘Sumbing’ is the Tausug word for ‘cleft palate’) brought together doctors from Operation Smile Philippines and Johns Hopkins University to perform free corrective surgeries for 37 children on the island.

The surgeries are being conducted at the AFP Trauma Center on Camp Bautista with post-operative care being provided by AFP and U.S. medical personnel from Bautista as well as AFP nurses from nearby Camp Asturias.

At a brief welcome ceremony for the participants Tuesday, Brig. Gen. Eugenio Clemen, 3rd Marine Brigade Commander, thanked the participants, saying, “Your generous concern for the poor and indigent is clearly evident in what you are selflessly doing today -- restoring the faith, hope and confidence of our less fortunate citizens.”

Although research has yet to prove definitively what causes the birth defect of cleft lips and palates, the end result is a failure of a fetus’ head and face to finish developing in the womb, leaving a gap in the upper lip and roof of the mouth, according to Dr. Jaime Flores, one of the Johns Hopkins surgeons. It’s a very visible deformity that can affect a child’s health, self-esteem and overall well-being.

For some, the difficulties associated with cleft lip or palate can be minor. “[My daughter] is an honor student in her school, but her speech is somewhat affected,” said Jolo native Majieda Nurmiddin, whose 13-year-old daughter Nurhinda was treated at Operation Sumbing.

For others with more serious forms of the condition, daily life can be a struggle. “They can have trouble eating or speaking,” said Dr. Jonathan Cohen, one of the surgeons visiting from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. “They’re often marginalized or shunned because of their deformities.”

Considering the impact on the child’s future, the surgical process itself is fairly simple. All in all, it’s less than 48 hours from the time a patient arrives at the clinic before he or she is released to go home with a brand new smile.

“When they arrive, we screen the patients, looking for colds or upper respiratory infections that may affect the anesthetic,” said Lt. Jayson Bulanadi of the Philippine Military Nurse Corps.

“The patient and one guardian stay the night to allow for recovery and are discharged the next day,” he added.

The operation itself can be as quick as an hour and a half, during which the surgeons piece together the “puzzle” of the patient’s lip or palate. That’s how long it took Dr. Flores and his team to repair the cleft lip of Shermina Singkay, the 3-year-old daughter of Jolo native Muhila Singkay.

“Now her future will be very bright,” Singkay said.

“She probably won’t even remember when she looked like this,” Dr. Flores said referring to Shermina’s pre-operation photos.

For the doctors who donated their time to perform these surgeries, it has always been about giving kids a chance at a better life.

“This was neither a military event nor a political event, but a show of how we can come together to help,” Dr. Cohen said.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

JSOTF-P Civil Affairs Teams partner with AFP to deliver hope in Mindanao

Petty Officer 1st Class Fletcher Gibson
Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines Public Affairs

Sergeant 1st Class Marcus Smith, team medic for Civil Affairs Team 735, challenges the students of Ungkaykay Elementary School in Midsayap to a foot race June 17, 2009. The Joint Special Operations Task Force - Philippines works with the Armed Forces of the Philippines to fight terrorism and deliver humanitarian assistance in the southern region of Mindanao.Working with the AFP, the team had helped facilitate the construction of a new two-classroom schoolhouse for Ungkaykay. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Fletcher S. Gibson/Released)

COTABATO, Philippines -- For seven years now, the U.S. military has been quietly assisting the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to fight terrorism and deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Mindanao. Unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. service members assigned to the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) are playing a strictly supporting, non-combat role. And on the frontlines of this “non-kinetic” fight are U.S. Army and Navy Civil Affairs personnel.

In central Mindanao, Civil Affairs Teams 733 and 735, drawn from the Army’s Charlie Company, 97th Civil Affairs Battalion, and Maritime Civil Affairs Team 103, of the Navy’s Maritime Civil Affairs Squadron 1, have been working side by side with their AFP counterparts to identify areas vulnerable to terrorist influence and to deliver humanitarian assistance to the people there.

The type of assistance varies, depending on the needs of the population in a particular area. For some villages, the teams might coordinate with the AFP and local agencies to conduct short-term projects such as day-long medical and dental clinics, veterinary projects with local farmers or books distributions at local schools. For other villages, the teams initiate major long-term projects such as construction of roads, wells and schools.

“The Civil Affairs Team is the one that decides on the CA activity, but it is the AFP and the local government units that ‘hold’ the activity,” said U.S. Army Maj. Tad Gilbert, the CA manager for Task Force Mindanao. “Everything is ‘by, through, and with’ them.”

In Mindanao, the patchwork of geography and ethnic groups isolates large portions of the country. Education, medical treatment, and economic prosperity can be hard to come by in areas that can only be accessed through a marsh or across a mountain range. Culture, religion, and even language can change from one valley to the next.

Each CA team is assigned to a particular area of Mindanao, forming relationships with the local governments and the AFP units operating in their area. Because each team only numbers four people, they rely heavily on the networks they establish to help identify the areas most in need of assistance, whether it be a doctor’s visit or a new water well.

“Our area is pretty robust,” said Staff Sgt. Willie Battle, a member of Civil Affairs Team 735. “With a four-man team, it’s a challenge just to cover that area, but working with the AFP makes our lives much easier.”

According to Gilbert, being able to work with established governments and an active military is a real advantage in the Philippines. Whereas many CA missions are conducted in countries where those sorts of institutions have collapsed, the presence of these agencies here means the government is involved in the activities from the start, helping to promote long-term sustainability.

“Sustainability is a major key to our projects,” Gilbert said. “We focus on joint production: the AFP, local government units, and the community all working together to build the project. When they do this, they have a sense of ownership and will take care of it in the future.”

Identifying problems and developing solutions for local populations not only calls for the flexibility to operate in the variety of environments and circumstances, but an ability to see things without American pre-conceptions.

“On a CA team, you have a lot more freedom to interact with the locals and you get a better impression of their views,” said Battle. “Instead of coming at it from a U.S. perspective, you see things as a local. It’s an enlightening experience.”

The sheer scope of possible scenarios the teams are faced day in and day out, from helping plan infrastructure projects to conducting medical clinics for hundreds of people at a time, present great challenges and great opportunities.

“We’re out there on a day-to-day basis in a very unpredictable environment,” said Navy Lt. Joe Wurtz, the team leader of MCAT 103. “We’re meeting with people from the friendliest AFP leader to rebel fighters on the verge of surrender.”

To the CA team members, though, that unpredictability of the environment and the flexibility required to operate in it are part of what makes the job so satisfying.

“I think [this assignment] is the pre-eminent CA mission out there,” said Wurtz. “You’re hitting all aspects of a traditional civil affairs skill set and combining that with unconventional warfare.”

“I’ve had other jobs in the Army,” added Battle, “but you’ll never find anything with this kind of job satisfaction.”

AFP, JSOTF-P partner with community to build new classrooms

Petty Officer 1st Class Fletcher Gibson
Joint Special Operations

NORTH COTABATO, Philippines -- Members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines were on hand July 14 to help open the doors of a new elementary school building in Sitio Sarmiento, Alamada in North Cotabato.

Using construction materials supplied provided by JSOTF-P, the citizens of Sarmiento working alongside members of the AFP’s 68th Infantry Battalion performed all the labor to complete the new two-classroom building.

“The local community really came together,” said U.S. Army Capt. Janette Kautzman, the team leader for JSOTF-P’s Civil Affairs Team 735. “Working with the AFP, they took ownership of it and as a result, the students and teachers of Sitio Sarmiento will benefit.”

The fact that the local residents stepped up to help with the project kept overall costs down, which ultimately enables the AFP and JSOTF-P to spread resources around and help more people in the area.

“The cost of labor can be up to one-third of the price, including transportation of materials,” said U.S. Army Capt. Isaac Hubbard, JSOTF-P’s lead engineer in central Mindanao.

It took the volunteers three weeks to complete construction, building the new school house next to the previous one which will remain in use. Together, the new building doubles the classroom space for the school, providing a more comfortable learning environment for the more than 150 first through fourth graders who attend the school.

With the construction complete, school supervisors have plans to give back even more to the local community. The school’s teacher-in-charge, Rogelio Orejudos, is planning a series of adult education courses for the parents of the students, many of whom never had an opportunity for formal education when they were young.

Kautzman said she hopes to see more community involvement like this in other locations. Previous community-built construction projects, such as the new high school in Ginatlan, Pikit which opened last month, have proven successful at creating a stronger sense of ownership between the community and the completed project.

The day prior to the turnover ceremony, the 68th IB and JSOTF-P, in cooperation with the Alamada Municipal Health Office, conducted a Medical Civic Action program for local residents, treating a total of 278 patients

Sunday, July 5, 2009

AFP, JSOTF-P and Sulu residents unite July 4th at “Walk for Peace”

CAMP BAUTISTA, Philippines -- Residents of Sulu joined together with members of Joint Task Force Comet, local civil society groups and the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines Saturday, July 4 for a “Walk for Peace.”

Between 1,000 and 2,000 people turned out in the early morning hours for the event which was organized by JTF Comet as a way to commemorate Philippine-American Friendship Day and promote peace and solidarity in Sulu. Many of the walkers donned white “Walk for Peace” t-shirts created especially for the event.

The six-kilometer walk began at the end of the runway at Camp Bautista and concluded in front of the shrine of the first Sultan of Sulu, Rajah Baguinda, which is located at Camp Bud Datu. According to JTF Comet Commander, Maj Gen Juancho Sabban, another purpose of the walk was to encourage local residents to feel free to visit the shrine.

“The significance of this occasion is first of all to celebrate the Philippine-American Friendship Day,” said Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban, JTF Comet Commander. “However, we decided that we should open the burial site of Rajah Baguinda to the public. We would like to tell everybody that this is a public park.”

After the walk, the AFP treated the walkers to ice cream and other refreshments, and participants had the opportunity to view the shrine and enjoy the fresh air at the park.

For the people of Sulu who participated in the event, it was a chance for them to show their desire for peace in the province.

“We want peace. We want peace for development so that we will prolong the culture of Muslims of Sulu,” said Myra Cadir, a social worker with the Department of Social Welfare and Development who participated in the walk.

Another participant, Patricia Amblan, summed it up by saying, “I came here today because we are all one.”

About 25 members of JSOTF-P’s Task Force Sulu participated in the Walk for Peace.

“We were excited to be a part of the event and to celebrate Fil-Am Friendship Day alongside our friends in the AFP and in the local community,” said Maj. Lawrence Daley, commander of JSOTF-P’s Task Force Sulu.

General Sabban said he hopes that the event encourages the local people to visit the shrine more often, and he believes that it will one day become a popular tourist destination. Ultimately, he wants people to understand that Sulu has much to offer.

“We would like to show the public that the whole of Sulu is a very beautiful place. And all we have to take is to attain peace so that everybody can enjoy the beauty of Sulu,” said Sabban.