Balikatan

So the point of the last month has been to support the Marine Corps in one of their exercises.  This one has been held in the Philippines, on the island of Luzon, in a place called Crow Valley.  Crow Valley

 

Here’s a picture of the valley up above.  Interestingly,  the valley has changed over time.  Can you see how there are the mountains and then see how flat, like a table top, all the land between them is?  That is because of what is not pictured, Mount Pinatubo, which is a volcano.  About 20- 25 yrs ago it went off and dumped lava and ash everywhere.  One of the U.S.M.C. officers remembers 25 yrs ago prior to this and  he described the valley being a normal valley, and when we spoke to some of the locals they described what it was like to be there when it erupted:  they were running for their lives when it happened.   You can absolutely see how the valley filled up with liquid lava, which then changed phase into a solid as it cooled off.  Also there’s ash everywhere.  Geology in action. Pretty interesting.

What really is a military exercise?  It’s a staged practice ground in which one military visits another (and there might be other, maybe many, nations involved), and they practice shooting weapons, landing on beaches, navigating through mountains or whatever.  Nephew 1st Lieutenant (name intentionally left blank) just finished an  exercise in Norway in which they practiced cold weather ops. This one, called “Balikatan,” has been held in the PI where we’re practicing hot (95 degrees + 95% humidity), humid, buggy ops.

The participating militaries do a dress rehearsal of sorts for real events, and also familiarize themselves with their old weapon systems, practice with new ones, and importantly they get to work together with the militaries of other participating nations and become tighter, more functional allies.  They do these every year here, in Australia, Thailand, Korea, and loads of other places around the world and around the calendar.  Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, they go from exercise to exercise and train up for trouble in case it ever visits.

Our relationship with the Philippines is of great strategic and political importance.  It’s in a key area of the world, adjacent to shipping lanes as well, and the nation itself is important to us.  As a country it’s pretty unique:  7,000 islands, many different cultures and influences.  It’s got an elected, representative form of government, and economically and infra-structurally it would probably be classified as an “emerging nation” status.

The Navy and the Marine Corps are like fraternal twins… very tight.  Marine corps has Infantry, Logistics, and Aviation, that’s it; no medical, dental, nursing, etc.  That’s where our group came in.

We initially staged in Okinawa because that’s where 3rd Medical Battalion is housed (ref: last update).  We were supposed to take this contracted vessel 1,500 km over the South China Sea from Oki to the PI.  The boat is called a “High Speed Vessel” but the troops have nicknamed it “the Vomit Comet” because unless the seas are very calm it is a rocky ride, but the seas were too rough for that and so we had to fly over instead.  Rather than a 36 hr ride on a shallow-hulled boat we got a two hour ride on a Boeing 767.  The change in transpo offers me a lot less to write about with respect to the trip out, but I’ll take the deal.  Plus, as a “Captain” I got to sit in one of the first class seats, which was tres bonne.

We landed at Clarke AFB (Air Force Base) which is now a Philippine Air Force Base and I don’t know if they’ve changed the name or not.  Of course it had to be in the middle of the night.  Why does it always have to be in the middle of the night?  It’s useful to think of ourselves as so many pieces of gear, and pieces of gear don’t care if they’re flying in the day or in the night or whenever it might be.

ClarkeAFBhangar.jpg

We grabbed our real gear and loaded it into the trucks you see on the left of the photo up above, which were parked for us right outside the hangar.  Then we took a bus for a two hours’ journey out to Crow Valley.  The first hour was highway, the second hour was a road to the military base.

That road was a two-lane jobbie with a shoulder on either side of at least ten centimeters, and a sidewalk.  It had the usual assortment of third-world sharp turns and we had a third-world bus driver who negotiated the turns at a decent clip.  The street was for everybody, not just busses and cars but bikes, pedestrians, stray dogs, and people up at all hours.  It was a lifeline, kind of how a river might be, and there were small storefronts all along the way selling anything from chips and fruit to bicycle parts and auto repair shops.

We got to the camp and de-bussed, married back up with our gear, got our brief specifying the usual behavior expectations such as no drinking no etc, etc, and lugged our gear into our tents and by this point it was 0400  hrs.  We were up by 0630 hrs or so, the sky brightening, the roosters crowing (they don’t just crow once like in the movies, they do it over and over, and over, and over), trucks driving outside our tents, radios blaring with philippine radio announcers and music.  Time to brush my teeth, have a breakfast (a prepackaged thing called an “MRE” which stands for “Meals, Ready to Eat” in military parlance), lay on my mat again for a short spell, and be up again and ready to muster at 0900.

For the first few days the camp was busy getting set up.  Literally, they had finished bulldozing the area maybe a week or two prior and all the white  tents were erected by contractors after that and before our arrival, but all the gear that the U.S.M.C. and the Army (U.S.A.) were going to use, the trucks, light armor, tanks, ammunition, supplies, that all needed to be brought in.  So day and night trucks were arriving, unloading, and departing, snorting and beeping like it was a shipyard.

There are about 1,200 people here now so for the most part quarters are pretty tight.  At first I was alone and also had no cot (none of us did) and so slept on the plywood floor.  Being tired enough it wasn’t such a problem.  I strung a bit of 550 chord across the corner to hang clothes and blankets on to dry out, and did not snack in the room as that would bring bugs which would bring mice which would bring snakes which would scare the crap out of me.  No communication with home at all the first five days, and only a very brief text with them about once a week since.  Every day I take my malaria tablet.  Fortunately I’ve not seen any female anopheles mosquitoes (the kind that deliver malaria) but there’s also Dengue Fever, chichumunga, Typhoid fever, leishmaniasis, amebiasis to keep an eye out for (we haven’t had any snakes or rats or anything else, so far).  The biggest risk is the heat and the humidity of the air, and the E. coli of the water.

Our medical tents arrived the day before the exercise was to start, actually it was the evening, so we were up most of the night setting them up so as to be ready for business in time for the next day.  We did it!  (I’m there in blue)

Fortunately, no major injuries throughout the whole exercise, just some heat-related illness and one water-buffalo that got accidentally blown to smithereens.  Did I mention it’s hot?  Yes it’s hot. Tropical hot.  Latitude we’re 15 deg north of the equator (and 120 deg east of Greenwich line longitude) and right across the South China Sea from Viet Nam.  Anyway we sweat like beasts (up top is a pic of a beast – it’s a water buffalo, lots of those around these parts).  Base had no showers the first five or so days, so it got pretty funky.  However you get used to it.   We have an ER tent, an OR tent, a Patient Holding tent, and a Dental tent.  They’re all connected to one another and we have power and A/C.  All the gear comes in pre-arranged boxes, called AMOL’s, and these are loaded into big Conex boxes, and we unload the AMOLS and in them are all the  gear we  need for operating and seeing emergency patients. The medicines are in cloth suitcases that unzip and we hang off 550 chord strung around the circumference of the inner aspect of the tent.  The OR table is a metal frame upon which we lay the stretchers and then can operate, stabilize and transport.

We did a number of drills to get everyone ready and build up our team, and they’ve gone better every time.  I’m impressed with our “OIC” (Officer in Charge) and how well she’s organized this entire thing and got all 33 of us working together, and with our fellow officers and especially our Corpsmen.  I cannot tell you how great it is to get to know them and to work with them.   The photo below is just a MEDEVAC exercise we did in conjunction with some Army medics.  The “patient” will be flown out in the Army helicopter (photo up above).

After about four days the cots finally arrived, more people arrived, and then for a few days I shared my tent with a few Marine Colonels and one Sergeant Major who were really interesting, pleasant guys, affable, gentlemanly, I can’t say enough positive things about them.  What I found most interesting was listening them speak with one another and within the context of their conversations they habitually wove in references to all their junior officers and enlisted consistently making mention of their juniors’ professional development.  Their culture of continuous attention being paid to the development of their juniors is second nature with them.  It’s unlike anything I’ve  ever seen in other aspects of the professional world and one of my favorite aspects of the Marines.

Anyhow, that’s probably about enough on the exercise for now.  Will update later, as needed.  All the best,

PBR