2nd of three parts
GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/17 July) – A trail of abuses on the one hand, and on the other, a string of humanitarian services such as the medical civic action programs in Sarangani and Sultan Kudarat provinces, and book and shoes-giving for schoolchildren.
That sums up the decade of United States military presence in Southwestern Mindanao (Region 12), which comprises the provinces of South Cotabato, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat and North Cotabato and the cities of General Santos, Koronadal, Tacurong, Kidapawan and Cotabato.
Deployed under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in 2002, US troops had remained, although by rotation, continuously in Mindanao since then.
In Southwestern Mindanao, a number of US soldiers were spotted several times in various malls, hotels and bars in the region, and as far as the remote coastal town of Palimbang in Sultan Kudarat, about five hours from General Santos City. The US government, through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), built the city’s airport which opened in 1996. The airport raised questions from critics in the early 1990s that it was designed to accommodate the largest aircraft at the time.
The USAID also built sturdy roads for Sarangani province, spanning an estimated 150 kilometers from Glan to Maitum, cutting through General Santos.
But while US troops came visiting in the region between 2002 and 2012, they had no permanent camps in the area. They moved around in tinted pick-up trucks and slept in hotels rather than in the barracks of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), in this case the 73rd Infantry Battalion based in nearby Maasim town.
A US Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) fact sheet showed that as of July 2011, the mission comprised some 500 and 600 personnel from all four military services, including Army Special Operations Forces, Navy SEALs, Air Force special operators and a host of support personnel from all four US military services.
The troops operate across Mindanao “by, through, and with” their Philippine Armed Forces counterparts in a “strictly non-combat role” to “bring humanitarian assistance to conflict-affected communities and to share intelligence data and other information to assist the AFP in planning future operations,” it added.
Although not as frequent as five years ago, the US troops conduct intelligence data sharing and medical civic action programs (Medcaps), moving around with Philippine soldiers but are apparently not supervised or controlled by the local military.
They would move around in vehicles bearing no plate numbers but plates with the initials “VFA.”
“What they are coordinating with is when they go on outreach projects, like medical missions, or construction of bridges and farm-to-market roads,” 1Lt Rio Anthony Gammad, 73IB spokesperson and chief of its Civil Military Office, told MindaNews late last year
Most often, he said, US troops would ask for risk assessment before going to the area for these missions.
Because they are not restricted to AFP barracks, some US soldiers have figured in brushes with the locals and the law.
In early 2007, Henry Araneta, then a correspondent for radio station DZRH (he was among 58 victims killed in the November 23, 2009 massacre in Ampatuan, Maguindanao), complained that Master Sergeant Steve Saunders, who was allegedly drunk, manhandled him in one of the bars at past midnight.
Saunders had a gun tucked in his waist despite the election gun ban imposed in the run-up to the 2007 mid-term elections.
The American soldier was reportedly brought to the 6th Infantry Division headquarters in Datu Odin Sinsuat in Maguindanao, but the case was unheard of again.
The US Embassy later said that Saunders had issued an apology.
Months later, five US soldiers stirred controversy in the city after they flaunted their firearms in a local restaurant, again with local journalists witnessing the incident.
The American soldiers were then reportedly part of a contingent deployed in Southwestern Mindanao for the joint PH-US Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) military exercises.
They were in US military uniform and armed when they entered the restaurant.
Irked by the incident, Sarangani Gov. Miguel Rene Dominguez called for the expulsion of the abusive US troops from the country.
Days after war broke out between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) following the botched signing on August 5, 2008 of their peace panels’ Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, a MindaNews team saw US troops in one of the conflict-affected areas in North Cotabato.
The team chanced upon the soldiers on August 17, 2008 in the village of Baliki in Midsayap, a combat zone that had turned into a “ghost town.” The American troops were in an inconspicuous military detachment, their two pick-up vehicles with “VFA” plates parked just outside the hillside detachment.
Moments later, an American soldier emerged from somewhere to get something from one of the parked vehicles. The Filipino soldier accompanying him quickly said no taking of photos.
The American was part of a team of four said to be helping Filipino troops recover unexploded bombs fired from an OV-10 bomber plane, according to the Filipino soldier.
MindaNews was later told to move out because they would detonate the unexploded bomb. A loud explosion was heard a few minutes later.
American soldiers were seen again that evening and the next morning in a downtown hotel in Midsayap . (Bong Sarmiento/MindaNews)
[Tomorrow: Post-blast investigations and trainings on high-tech weapons]