Thursday, May 13, 2010

Personal Perspectives: A Deployment to Southern Philippines

After assigned to Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) for just one week, on Sept. 27, 2009 I found myself standing in the middle of a massive flooding fiasco in metro Manila, surrounding by thousands of desperate people, watching the city rescue units and the Armed Forces of the Philippines bring their loved ones safely out of the rising water.

Homes were engulfed, people were crying out for rescuers to save their families, and all I could do was watch the devastation unfold in front of me.

At this point, most of the city was underwater, engulfed after Tropical Storm Ondoy came through there with a vengeance, wiping out homes, destroying people’s livelihoods, and forcing people to abandon their animals and cherished belongings.

Standing amongst these people at the end of a water-filled bridge in Cainta, with my large NIKON 40D camera and bulky, detachable flash (which I barely knew how to use at the time) wrapped loosely around my neck, I had trouble moving through the crowd of rain-soaked people. I could see debris washed up at the end of the bridge, which dumped into brown, murky water. Belongings floated in the water alongside rescue boats.

Some of those I saw didn’t even have shoes on, and most people’s clothes were soaked with rain and mud. I could only imagine the sorrow they must have felt for everything they had just lost. But I was grateful military troops from my command, a U.S. Navy SEAL team, were there to do their part and help with the on-going crisis.

By the following morning, numerous media reports confirmed that hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless as the death count began to rise. According to the Philippines National Disaster Coordinating Council, more than four million people were affected by the storm and it was responsible for nearly 700 deaths.

What an introduction to what the Navy calls an Individual Augmentee assignment. IAs are active duty and Reserve Sailors and Marines who leave their assigned commands to fill individual billet requirements for various combatant commanders around the world.

Tropical Storm Ondoy was the first time I had ever witnessed, first-hand how the military performs Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR). During that night I was on that bridge, I watched our SEAL team rescue dozens of people from their flood-soaked homes. At around midnight, they managed to pull a pregnant woman in labor from her home and bring her to a waiting ambulance via two F470 Zodiac boats.

This was my first assignment as deputy public affairs officer for JSOTF-P. I ended up writing a story and shooting pictures that night, which later were uploaded to Navy.mil and appeared in multiple national outlets. It was an unforgettable experience and I was proud to serve in an organization that was doing what it could to help all these people.

I served for a six-month deployment in Zamboanga, located in the southern Philippines, working as the deputy Public Affairs Officer (PAO). Working in this capacity was truly an honor and an unforgettable experience.

At the request of the Philippine government, the mission of JSOTF-P is to work with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and local governments to help counter terrorism and improve conditions necessary for economic stability.

How JSOTF-P accomplishes this goal is done in a variety of ways. One method is to hold information exchanges with U.S. troops and the AFP as well as the http://www.pnp.gov.ph/cms/ (PNP). Another approach is through humanitarian construction projects, such as building roads, constructing schools and digging wells.

JSOTF-P also advises and assists with medical outreach missions, via veterinarian, dental, and medical civic action projects.

My job as a PAO was to promote these efforts via press releases, imagery, video, as well as interacting with local media. Then, our team of two PAOs would share these products with Philippine and U.S. audiences via newspapers, social media and local TV coverage.

Our team coordinated closely with the AFP public information officers, as well as public affairs staff from the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines and Special Operations Pacific, located at Camp Smith, Hawaii.

Besides two public affairs officers, we had a staff of two Marine combat camera troops, who greatly assisted with producing the bulk of our video and imagery products.

As a PAO, I had the privilege to travel extensively throughout the southern Philippines. I went to Marawi, Sulu, Basilan, and Tawi-Tawi. While on the road, I met some of the most wonderful people. In talking with them, I really got a deep sense of their commitment to aiding in the development of a more peaceful and stable region. Relationship-building with the local community was a key component of a successful tour there.

Our team reported on so many types of events, including school and road turnover ceremonies, visits by congressional delegations, medical and veterinarian missions, Navy Seabee construction projects, and relief efforts like the Tropical Ondoy flooding.

I was continually impressed at the Filipinos’ eagerness to learn new ways of conducting missions. Often, as with many of the medical outreach seminars, the Philippine military forces ran the event with minimal assistance from U.S. troops. Many of the volunteers from the villages and the recipients of the services would be very emotional when asked what these projects meant to them. It was very inspiring to observe so many people served directly by community leaders who have such a vested interest in improving their municipalities.

On all of our medical missions, the Filipino community leaders worked side-by-side with U.S. and Filipino troops. One event stands out in particular was at a veterinarian mission in Marawi when the attendees helped us pull the animals in for vaccines and vitamin treatments. Using two Humvees facing each other so we could hold them in a contained area, the locals would help get the animals to the trucks so they could get the much-needed medications.

There were many times when restraining a huge cow or unruly horse would be a bit of a challenge, but we could always count on the villagers to help us reign them in or at least cheer us on as we gave the treatments. Afterwards, our vet was told many of the previous animals that were malnourished and emaciated would gain weight and be more productive for the farmers.

The Philippine forces were dedicated to learning new things and extremely motivated during the information-sharing seminars.

I also witnessed first-hand the pride and professionalism of the Naval Special Warfare, Army Special Forces and Civil Affairs teams.

U.S. forces at the locations we visited always made sure to facilitate our travel to projects and events. Since they knew the AFP and community leaders who were in charge of the evolution, the teams always introduced us to key officials who could explain on a personal level what a particular project meant to them and the local barangay (neighborhood).

Our team worked extensively with the Zamboanga PNP bomb squad and Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal teams on many first-responder Improvised Explosive Device (IED) awareness and response seminars. After a few days of classroom instruction, I covered several live-fire detonation exercises, which would teach participants how to safety diffuse an IED.

This experience opened me up to another culture that has so much to offer, with so much to teach us. The people in the Philippines were some of the most humble and gracious people I have ever met.

Whether they were making a scrumptious meal for us, or offering a positive assessment of my karaoke-singing skills (which are nonexistent), they always were so kind to the U.S. forces. I will forever cherish the friendships that I made there.

From a professional standpoint, the job challenged me to think quickly when I needed to speak on behalf of the command and formulate a response consistent with our commanders intent. I was also empowered by my commander to make decisions regarding what events, projects and subject-matter-expert exchanges to promote.

Our public affairs team could also choose which audiences would most benefit from exposure to our products. This level of decision-making ability was extremely satisfying.

Deploying overseas is one of the most rewarding aspects of being in the Navy. Having the chance to serve in the Philippines with JSOTF-P was an invaluable life-changing experience. I am very grateful for the opportunity and look forward to whatever challenges lie ahead in the United States Navy.

Lt.j.g. Theresa Donnelly


1 comment:

Jim said...

I'd like to communicate with Lt. Donnelly concerning the expererience of serving in the Philippines after Typhoon Ondoy. I run a humanitarian organization, amerICANHELPer, Inc., that works specifically in the Philippines. I need someone with a Public Relations background to help 'market' the needs of the Philippines.

 
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