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NEWS | April 21, 2015

Building Schools 'Shoulder-to-Shoulder' during Balikatan 2015

By Staff Sgt. Cristina Porras, I Marine Expeditionary Force

Sweating under from the tropical heat, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew Sprouse pauses from mixing cement to introduce himself to Philippine Navy Seaman Apprentices Arturo Arandela and Raymond Baclason in the province of San Rafael, on the island of Palawan, Philippines, April 16. Although an apparent language barrier exists, the three share a few laughs and get back to work.

Sprouse is a combat engineer with 9th Engineer Support Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, III Marine Expeditionary Force, and Arandela and Baclason are Seabees with the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ 2nd Naval Mobile Construction Battalion. The three men are building classrooms for the elementary school-aged children of San Rafael, as part of a larger effort of humanitarian civic assistance projects occurring in conjunction with exercise Balikatan 2015.

Exercise Balikatan, in its 31st iteration, is an annual bilateral exercise involving AFP and U.S. service members. The HCA portion of the exercise helps improve military-to-military relationships while assisting the local community.

“Our goal is bigger than just building new classrooms for the community,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Tyler Akers, commander of the 673rd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron. “We are building relationships in working with the AFP for six weeks, increasing our ability to perform combined operations in the future. It enables us to increase language proficiency, learn each other’s force structure and build mutual trust.”

Akers emphasized that both sides have been learning new things from each other as they build a two-room classroom at San Rafael High School, right up the road from the elementary school. He explained how their AFP counterparts taught them new ways to use excess materials that would otherwise have gone to waste, helping them be better stewards of government money that funds such projects.

The mission of building classrooms that many generations will benefit from is a gratifying one, said U.S. Navy Builder Second Class John Hart, a Seabee with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5.

“To me personally, as a Seabee, this (is) one of the best projects to be involved in. We can build any building, but these are going to be classrooms that will make a big difference in this community,” Hart said. “Most of the time we’re building facilities for military use, but this is helping the locals. It’s a good feeling.”

From the early morning hours into the evening, the service members work diligently to ensure the classrooms are completed. Meanwhile,  finding  common ground despite language and other barriers.

“We are literally eating, sleeping and bleeding with these guys. We are gaining valuable experience and knowledge we wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Akers.

The classrooms being built in San Rafael are two of five construction projects taking place across Palawan. The classrooms are tentatively scheduled to be completed April 28.

As Balikatan 2015 ramps up, the AFP and U.S. militaries will continue to build upon their longstanding relationship, continuing to contribute to regional security and stability in the region.


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