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Exercise Balikatan Engineers Build Classrooms and Friendships

By Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Peter Reft
United States Department of Defense

May 19, 2017 - U.S. military and Philippine army engineers at Don Carlos Elementary School, on the island of Leyte, worked nonstop to build not only a new classroom for local children, but also friendships that will last for years to come.

Despite sweltering heat and torrential downpours, curious children and villagers passing by might not have been able to tell how exhausted military engineers were when they gathered as friends to laugh and smile.

"I see them all around to say hi to us every morning," said Marine Corps Sgt. Lance Escobar, site foreman. "They're happy to see us working hard, and whenever they see us tired they come by to talk with us for a bit and it makes us forget the fatigue in our bodies."

The engineers worked hard because they dedicated their effort to building a classroom that will benefit the community not only for education, but also for shelter.

Withstand Super Typhoon

"One of our objectives was to build this structure to withstand a super typhoon, so, the community would be able to utilize it when that happens," said Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Dusti Doss, construction site commander. "We do this to make a difference for the community and for everybody involved."

Local contractors of the Ormoc City community also became involved in the project.

"Everyone from the barangay to the armed forces of the Philippines captain has made a huge effort to integrate and build friendships with us," Doss said. "For instance, we got to know the local contractors on a first-name basis, and that has been a really big help in this project."

"I am proud to say that our relationship here is very effective since we are already at about 100 percent accomplished," said Philippine Army Corps of Engineers Capt. Armando Moncayo, Jr. "We still have two days before the turn over, so we have ample time to check on our project if something needs to be done."

The unit effectiveness at Don Carlos can be attributed to how quickly site leads integrated U.S. and Philippine forces, according to Doss.

"Every day we woke up, we knew who we were training with, what their goals were, their different skillsets were, and that is something that really set this site apart," Doss said. "We knew immediately what teams would be grouped together, and they stuck together the entire time. So it made it go a lot quicker."

At the end of each day, those groups gathered together for a meeting to adjust and improve tactics for the next day.

"We have a project review every day after work where we talk and communicate, and if there are certain ideas coming from either the U.S. or [Philippine armed forces], we listen to them and they listen to us," Moncayo said.  "Then we balance everything so we can work together and accomplish the mission."

Those balances achieved among various engineers became a valuable lesson in overcoming differences.

"It has taught us a lot about going back to the basics, such as communication [and] project planning," Doss said.  "There are a lot of things that you tend to assume when you only train with your own forces, and bridging that culture gap helped the teams grow in maturity."

Careful management, good communication, and in-depth project planning helped develop everybody as engineers.

Working Hand in Hand

"It's all about bilateral training, hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder, as well as exchanging knowledge that made everybody grow a lot more," Escobar said. "We just get better."

The importance of knowledge exchange is just as vital to the educational needs of Ormoc City students, around which the entire project revolves.

"This is a big help to the community since we managed to produce two classrooms, because education is very important in the Philippines," Moncayo said.

Future communities will benefit because of better educational tools at their disposal, added Moncayo.

"Balikatan is important to show that not all U.S. forces just train for war, but we also train to better the lives of the people we work with," Doss said. "The [engineering civic assistance project] for Balikatan is the biggest key, because it reminds people that we're here to help, we're here to make things better, and we're here for the kids."

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