There is meaning in a name, as Australian forces deployed on Exercise Balikatan 2019 learned firsthand when they worked alongside, partner forces.

The exercise brought  Australian Defence Force (ADF) and US personnel to the Philippines from April 2-12 to train with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and build upon shared knowledge.

The Australian contingent commander, Wing Commander Sean Ahern, said Balikatan – the Tagalog word for ‘shoulder to shoulder’ – aimed to build capabilities that enhanced readiness and response capabilities during real-world challenges.

“The US, Australia and the Philippines have a longstanding relationship dating back to World War II."

ADF members were spread across the country; engineers supported building projects, a medical team delivered training and community health, chaplains provided spiritual support and a special forces team trained AFP peers.

 “The exercise allows us all to plan, coordinate and conduct operations that can be applied to a range of military capabilities,” Wing Commander Ahern said.

“It enhances our military relationships and interoperability with our regional partner forces, as well as supporting the AFP modernisation efforts.

“The US, Australia and the Philippines have a longstanding relationship dating back to World War II that has strongly contributed to regional security and stability.”

Sapper builds a future for the Philippines

Three Australian Army sappers lived with local communities for a month to help build classrooms and health centres in the Philippines during Exercise Balikatan 2019.

“This kind of work is what I signed up for, so Balikatan was a really rewarding experience."

The engineers worked with Americans and Philippine personnel in hot, tropical conditions as part of the community relations program during the exercise from April 2-12.

One of them, Sapper James McLennan, was awarded the US Army Commendation Medal by US Army Colonel Brian Horton and Lieutenant Colonel Mike Tucker for his dedication to the project.

“When I got called up I still didn’t really know what was going on, so it was a really nice surprise,” Sapper McLennan said.

“I’ll definitely look back on the team I worked with in the Philippines with some fond memories.”

Counting it among the most satisfying projects of his career, Sapper James McLennan helped  construct a one-room special education classroom at the Victor O De Guia Jr Memorial Elementary School in Laguna province.

“This kind of work is what I signed up for, so Balikatan was a really rewarding experience,” Sapper McLennan said

“Being able to see something tangible at the end and seeing the kids who would be using the classroom at the closing ceremony and how happy they were was a really special moment.

At the official opening ceremony of the new classroom, school principal Feliza Ambrocio said the community was grateful for the efforts of the entire building crew.

“Thanks for your hard work, even over the weekends. We’re all very glad for your efforts,” Ms Ambrocio said.

“Your efforts have left a legacy not just for the school, but also for the whole town.”

Colonel Horton said the team had provided a place for children at the school to be “given an opportunity to learn”.

Mr Fuzz delivers a health message

Delivering training in disaster management, basic life support and health, hygiene and sanitation to rural communities in the Philippines was a key task for health professionals during Exercise Balikatan 2019.

Personnel from the Philippine, Australian and US militaries conducted sessions at multiple locations around Luzon Island for emergency services personnel and volunteers, as well as families looking to pick up some tips.

Flight Lieutenant Victoria Love-Rainbow and "Mr Fuzz" talk to students during a community health engagement activity at Pagasa Elementary School, Orani, Philippines. Photo: Corporal Seb Beurich

Providing clinical and technical support to her Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) counterparts was a fulfilling experience for Flight Lieutenant Victoria Love-Rainbow.

“We got a lot of mothers and their kids coming to our presentations and they were always quite full with 30 to 40 people sitting in a small classroom,” Flight Lieutenant Love-Rainbow said.

“I love this sort of stuff – teaching basic hygiene and seeing people respond in a positive manner.

“I particularly like training children because they are the ones who will take the information back to their families and try to help the overall community, which I think makes a real difference.”

“We tried to incorporate a lot of props into our presentations to make our topics more exciting and engaging to children."

The team was ably assisted by “Mr Fuzz”, a puppet brought by Flight Lieutenant Love-Rainbow.

“We tried to incorporate a lot of props into our presentations to make our topics more exciting and engaging to children,” Flight Lieutenant Love-Rainbow said.

“We used the ‘Germinator’ – a UV light that you shine onto a gel on your hands to see dirty spots – to teach the kids about proper hand-washing technique.

“And we had Mr Fuzz, who we would ask questions of during the presentations. He was kind of like Harold the Giraffe, which I’m sure most Australians know from their own childhood.”

Rank structures disappeared during the training, according to Royal Australian Navy Lieutenant Christian Aca-Ac, who said the Philippine and American personnel were easy to work with.

“We had a major doing compressions and a captain who was acting as a training dummy – it was more about delivering the proper way of training to hopefully save lives,” Lieutenant Aca-Ac said.

“Everyone in the community health engagement team were subject-matter experts in their own fields, so it was really good to bounce off each other while we were teaching.”

Lieutenant Aca-Ac also has a deeper connection to the Philippines.

“I grew up in Australia, but my parents are from the Philippines, so I feel like I have a special connection to this country,” he said.

“I think the Filipinos were very comfortable around me and, because I can speak Tagalog, I could act as a translator when required as well.”

Lieutenant Christian Aca-Ac (centre) assists with a demonstration of basic first aid during a community health engagement activity at Pagasa Elementary School, Orani, Philippines. Photo: Corporal Sebastian Beurich

When it comes to cleanliness, United States Navy Hospital Corpsman Grade Three (Fleet Marine Force) Simon Rodriguez said everything mattered, especially in rural areas that did not have access to the same resources as cities.

“Our audiences had a fair bit of prior knowledge about how to handle situations with unhygienic practices, but being able to go into detail and explain why they should do certain things was really helpful to them,” Hospital Corpsman Grade Three Rodriguez said.

AFP Reserve Command Captain Henedino Vergara said it was important to undertake disaster preparation and basic life support training to be prepared for anything that may happen.

“Part of the AFP Reserve Command mandate is to serve in our communities, in our case by conducting medical and dental missions for our fellows here in Bataan,” Captain Vergara said.

“I think the townsfolk got the importance of the lectures we shared with them, so in the future if we have disasters or calamities we’re ready to respond to them.”