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NEWS | May 28, 2024

Building Capacity, Relationships in the Luzon Strait

By Maj. Matthew Pargett

Over three months in the spring of 2024, U.S. Army engineers participating in this year’s iterations of Exercises Balikatan, Salaknib and the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center Exportable (JPMRC-X) exercise have partnered with their Armed Forces of the Philippines counterparts, engaging in humanitarian civic assistance (HCA) initiatives, construction projects, and engineer diving operations, showcasing the unwavering commitment of both nations’ armed forces to serve Filipino communities.

Of these diverse projects, developing the humanitarian civic assistance structure on the remote island of Itbayat stands out as the most challenging but also one of the most important. When complete, this structure will provide residents of Itbayat, a region vulnerable to typhoons, with a weatherproof facility to store emergency equipment and provisions and even use as shelter during natural disasters.

The challenges of this worthwhile project do not end with its status as one of the northernmost islands in the Philippines. The exterior of Itbayat is dominated by tall cliffs, which, while impressive, also means that the residents must rely on a lone small harbor that can only manage modest fishing boats to transport goods and people to and from nearby islands. Additionally, Itbayat is prone to seasonal typhoons and earthquakes, making the construction of a dedicated hard shelter not just an imposing task but a critical community need.

Describing the value that this project will bring to the residents of Itbayat, Maj. Nick Yager, the Executive Officer for the 84th Engineer Battalion, said: "With the completion of the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Warehouse, the municipality is able to provide for its people during natural disasters and emergencies for longer periods of time without external support to ease immediate suffering and allow for a national or provincial response.”

At 150 miles north of the nearest major harbor on the island of Luzon and with only one small runway with limited capacity, transportation to and from the island is not always quick or consistent. These were variables construction teams in the 84th Engineer Battalion considered when preparing to get building materials, equipment, and engineers to the island.

"One of the great successes of this area is that there is an exceptional hub from the port in Bosco that meets absolutely all of our requirements to support this project," said Yager. "We learned very quickly that we could rely on the local systems to move equipment much more quickly than we could force on our own systems."

Supporting the project on Itbayat, 1st Lt. Kristina Mackey, a platoon leader in the 84th Engineer Battalion, says she has learned a lot.

"The only other overseas project I've been on was in Papua New Guinea on a base working with the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marines," said Mackey.

"One of the things that I'll take away from this experience is the community involvement. We're in a unique situation where we have the opportunity to meet the people who live here as we're working on this project to benefit the community. The Soldiers have just run with it, whether it's playing basketball with the kids or answering questions from residents about the project."

Serving alongside Mackey is Warrant Officer Elissa Pedelty, who said, "We're the first U.S. Army unit here since the 1960s, and while there's been challenges in getting the right materials and approved permits, that's because we're building something that really hasn't been done here. We are building a weatherproof warehouse for disasters. These projects require very specific materials and very particular specifications that make construction in general a challenge."

"Overall, I've learned that we have more capabilities beyond the reach of the U.S. Army as far as construction efforts go. There are growing pains on all projects, and we've had to relook at how we work out here and learn that sometimes we need to fall in on local processes and networks to get things done. We had all the reasons to believe this project would not happen, but we're here now working on one of the northernmost islands of the Philippines. So, my takeaway is that if someone says we can't do something, I know we can."

Over the last three months, the 84th Engineer Battalion's efforts were not isolated to this project. During the same period, engineers supporting projects across the Philippines constructed a bridge while others cleared underwater debris in a small port to increase safety for transiting boats.

As part of USARPAC’s Operation Pathways, a campaigning model that solves operational and strategic problems linking tactical action - exercises, experiments, and theater security activity - to generate military effects, Soldiers participating in exercises like these regularly train, support, and help build readiness and capacity with allies and partners throughout 21 countries across the Indo-Pacific. In the spirit of partnership, these efforts expose Soldiers to the natural challenges and opportunities that must be negotiated when navigating language, ethnicity, and cultural differences.

Reflecting on his first time seeing Itbayat, Yager knew the project would be unlike any he had supported, saying, "When we first saw the walls of Itbayat, we knew we were going to have some challenges."

"But what is carrying us across the finish line is how welcoming the community is and how much group participation we get from the generous people of Itbayat. Everybody supports us, from the municipality to the mayor, the hostels, and the vendors on the island. This support made what could have been an incredibly daunting project into a very manageable and positive experience."