US, Philippines Conduct Perhaps Their Last Joint Drills

U.S. and Philippines Marines land on the island of Luzon in assault amphibious vehicles on Oct. 7. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)
U.S. and Philippines Marines land on the island of Luzon in assault amphibious vehicles on Oct. 7. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

CLARK AIR BASE, Philippines -- U.S. and Philippine Marines stormed ashore Friday on Luzon island in a joint military exercise which President Rodrigo Duterte has said will be the last between the two longtime allies.

Hundreds of troops landed on the west coast of the Philippines' main island in 13 assault amphibious vehicles launched from the dock landing ship USS Germantown as part of this month's annual PHIBLEX exercise.

Each of the floating armored vehicles transported six Filipino and six American Marines to the shore. As the personnel carriers emerged from the surf and advanced on their tracks across the sand, explosives detonated inland to simulate support fire.

The vehicles drove on through a swamp and engaged an imaginary enemy with blank rounds, while hundreds of Philippine sailors and Marines watched from the beach.

The cooperation among the two countries' troops contrasted with the increasingly sharp rhetoric between the governments in Washington and Manila after Duterte took office June 30. Duterte has pushed back angrily at complaints by the U.S. and the European Union that his anti-drug campaign, the signature issue of his election campaign, has produced widespread human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told Filipino reporters Friday that plans for joint U.S.-Philippine patrols and naval exercises in the disputed South China Sea have been put on hold.

It marked the first concrete break in defense cooperation after months of increasingly strident comments by the country's new president.

President Barack Obama canceled a meeting with Duterte in September after the Philippine president responded to U.S. complaints with a Filipino expression that translates as "your mother's a whore." He also lashed out at the U.S. military role in the Philippines, demanding the withdrawal of U.S. special operators from southern Mindanao island and vowing to cancel future exercises after the current PHIBLEX maneuvers.

Filipino troops watching the training said they were not authorized to talk to media, and U.S. forces did not facilitate interviews with senior commanders at the exercise.

As Friday's training ended, however, Brig. Gen. John Jansen, commander of the Okinawa, Japan-based 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, saluted and shook hands with several smiling Filipino officers, including Navy Rear Adm. Narciso A. Vingson Jr,, commander of the Naval Education and Training Command, and Marine Lt. Gen. Romeo Tanalgo, chief of the Northern Luzon Command.

The friendly display took place only a few feet from a tent where 45 members of local and international media had gathered to watch the beach assault.

"It would be unfortunate if it was the last," said Maj. Roger Hollenbeck, a 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade spokesman, said of the exercise. "PHIBLEX is in its 33rd iteration, but we have been working together for 70 years side by side as partner nations."

Marines from 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., worked with their Filipino counterparts for several days before the beach assault.

Capt. DeWayne Papandrea, 37, the 2-4's air officer, stood on the beach in driving rain with a radio ready to coordinate simulated air raids during the exercise until the rain and fog convinced commanders to go ahead without planes and helicopters.

Papandrea, an F-18 pilot who flew missions against the Islamic State group in Iraq last year, said the Marines have been learning about Filipino culture from their counterparts.

"They offered us balut (chicken embryo in an egg, a local delicacy). Ten of our Marines shared it with them," he said.

U.S. personnel can learn a lot from their Filipino counterparts, who have experience calling in close air support against Islamic rebels in the country's south, he said.

Another 2-4 Marine, Sgt. Jacob Hunter, 25, of Easton, Pa., said he and his buddies have been working closely with the Filipino troops.

Hunter said he wasn't aware of Duterte's recent comments. He described the Philippine Marines as "squared away and fun to talk to," and said the troops aren't talking politics in the field. Instead, the Marines are swapping hats and badges, he said.

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