POSTSCRIPT / December 5, 2021 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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‘Sierra Madre’ unit to miss Christmas?

FILIPINO marines posted on the decrepit BRP Sierra Madre grounded at Ayungin Shoal west of Palawan will have to endure more harassment by the Chinese coast guard intent on driving them away – unless President Duterte acts quickly to protect “my (his) soldiers”.

The marines are holding their position against a superior force trespassing into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. On Nov. 16, the Chinese intruders even blocked and fired water cannons on Filipino boats delivering provisions for the soldiers.

Although trained to fight under the harshest conditions, the marines cannot chase intruders as they are stuck on the Sierra Madre, its rusty remains now only a sorry shadow of the LST (landing ship, tank) that it was once under the US Navy.

The feeling of being under-equipped and held back by higher authority must be frustrating for men trained to fight for the country. Compounding this is helplessness, the feeling one experiences when he cannot move beyond his spot in the sea or count on backup.

The weariness can be magnified by exposure to foul, at times stormy, weather. Then there is the feeling of having been detached from family and the rest of the boys in the camp back in the West Command in Puerto Princesa, Palawan.

How would Christmas be for these soldiers on the Sierra Madre, which by the way, has not been decommissioned? Although grounded and somewhat listing, it maintains its military presence in the naval force.

This means that if the ship or the marines are fired upon by an attacking foreign force, the incident could trigger a military response from the United States under its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines.

Seeing photos of past deliveries of provisions, the last one on Nov. 23, one wonders how life is in that rusty tub. Where do the men sleep? How do they cook their meals when they want hot meals? Ssh…Where is the head (toilet) or do they just relieve themselves on one side of the vessel? Do they use toilet paper? Do they have wi-fi for occasional texting/calling… a generator perhaps, or do they use rechargeable batteries? When the winds and waves grow stronger, do they get drenched, and does the ship feel like it might roll to one side and take everybody down with it? And, with that rust all around, have they had tetanus shots? How about for COVID-19, or they don’t need it since there’s no way (we suppose) the coronavirus or its variants can drift in from afar or survive in the forbidding surroundings? They must have loads of assorted (not expired?) medicines and toiletries. Has the ship taken in water since it ran aground in 1999? Its engine must be dead by now. Even if it still works, can they transport fuel from the mainland and play chase with the Chinese? How will Christmas be for these men who, we understand, are rotated only every three or six months? Their number and their weapons are a secret. But based on photos we have seen, we guess they might be one squad, which can be from seven to 14 men. The squad leader may be a master sergeant. Headquarters may not want to “waste” a lieutenant to lead them.

 An American viewpoint

A READER who gave her name as Rosemary Funnell sent this email (edited for brevity) on the subject:

I read your column of Dec. 2, 2021 (“US alerted on AFP repairs at Ayungin?”). Apart from geopolitics, naval tactics, diplomacy, treaties, etc., simply on a personal level, even though I am an American permanent resident in the Philippines, I am very concerned regarding the welfare of the Filipino marines on the Sierra Madre as we approach Christmas.

They will not be able to join their family and loved ones for holiday festivities and traditions, but must remain on a rusty, decrepit ship not under the most amenable and sanitary environment as our frontliners maintaining a Philippine presence for us in what is rightfully ours in the West Philippine Sea despite storms, sun, wind, rain, and Chinese harassment.

They should not be forgotten during the greatest Philippine holiday of them all, Christmas. I would like to see Filipinos from all islands, religions, politics, classes, languages, etc., unite and flood those marines with holiday cheer, Facebook, Twitter, Messenger, Instagram, emails, letting them know we are thinking of them at Christmas, that we appreciate and support their presence defending us in the West Philippine Sea, that we are praying for them.

Even coordinate with the military and try to send Christmas gifts. Perhaps they could be dropped by helicopter. I feel we should do something, but it should come from Filipinos. As an American, I would be willing to lend my support, but I do not know how to go about it. I am hoping that you, in the media, may personally care, and have some contacts in the armed forces.

I would think the Marine Corps should have a public relations or public affairs officer and that is whom we should contact, but I do not know who he or she is, where their office may be, email address. I have not been able to pick up anything about this from the computer or the site is not available. We need to know the names of the marines, if they have internet and email access or just their lieutenant in charge.

I have reached out to your fellow columnist regarding this matter, but I have not received any reply. I have also personally spoken to representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, the Guardians, Fraternal Order of Eagles, texted a priest of the Episcopal Church, but I have encountered little interest, and no followup, or no response at all. Does anyone care? Do you care?

(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 5, 2021)

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