There's something to be said for being at the right place at the right time. And I'm glad the cosmos came together for my first photographs of the US military. Though it wasn't the most exciting shoot in the world, a C-17 originating in Fort McChord, Washington landed to drop off supplies 30 minutes after my plane arrived in Zamboanga. About 500 US soldiers, many of them Special Forces stationed in Japan or Hawaii, are rotating out of their 6-mont stint in the southern Philippines. The old guys want to get back to their wives and McDonalds, the new guys need fresh supplies, weapons, MREs, and briefings on how best not to get jock itch in the jungle.
Major John Redfield, a friendly information officer from Chicago, had made plans to meet the plane on the tarmac. Just before getting on my Air Philippines flight for Mindanao, he sent me a text that he'd be there at 3p.m and suggested I walk over to the air traffic control tower. As soon as I got there the plane arrived. Men who work for the private military contractor named Dynacorps began unloading metal boxes filled with miscellaneous items. Once the last container was lowered out of the back of the supply plane, three US soldiers walked out carrying their packs and weapons. There weren't too many compelling moments to capture. But after spending three years documenting the local army and insurgents, I finally met some of my own countrymen sent to fight this murky war on terror.
About 100 US soldiers, half of them Special Forces, are stationed at Camp Bautista in Jolo. Since Feb. 2006, they've built schools, pulled teeth off locals who had never been to a dentist, and distributed sacks of rice. Aside from trying to win hearts and minds with humanitarian projects, the Americans periodically train elite Filipino military units in weapons and counterrorism tactics. Most of the tactical training takes place back up in Zamboanga and Basilan-the traditional homeland of Abu Sayyaf. Anyone going to Jolo on assignment is supposed to be battle-ready.
A recent Altantic article by Mark Bowden asserts that American forces used their advanced military hardware to track militants in the jungles of neighboring Basilan. CIA involvement, bags of reward money, and a spy satellite or two helped pinpoint the location of the Abu Sayyaf's formers spokesman Abu Sabaya. After years of kidnapping people and then killing many of them, Sabaya bit the bullet in a surprise sea-borne gunfight off the coast in June of 2002.
Many other members of this extremist organization have been killed in shoot-outs with the Army or Marines, including Khaddafy Janjalani who led the group since 1998 and was responsible for all sorts of nasty kidnappings, murders, and bombings across the country.
Whether or not US soldiers are involved in the current operation against the MNLF's Habier Malik and remnants of Abu Sayyaf remains unclear. Mostly like they continue to provide satellite intel on the movements of both group. Major Kevin Brown, a National Guard officer from Utah who commands US forces on Jolo, would not comment on the specifics of their mission there outside the civil affairs program.
Local laws prevent them from directly engaging in combat. However, they are allowed to return fire if under attack. "We will always have the right to self-defense and so we're going to carry weapons," Major Redfield told me. "There are people who would like to kill us (in Jolo)."
Like in Iraq, the rules of engagement and the overall US military presence could be a potentially sticky issue. Fearing that America would seek to re-establish permanent bases and turn Mindanao into a second or third front in the grandiose Operation Enduring Freedom, leftist groups and some Mindanaon Muslims at first vehemently opposed the reentry of US soldiers on Philippine soil. They claimed the American presence in Zamboanga City would also generate a huge spike in prostitution and recreate the old vices once found near the former US bases at Clark and Subic near Manila.
That was back in 2001. Six years later, Americans have yet to fire a single round against locals. It's definitely a strategic front for the war on terror, but it is by no means a mini-Iraq or Afghanistan. They haven't set up permanent installations, and as far as I know, prostitution here is about the same as it was before the GI's arrived. It does take place, but behind the closed fences of the main military base in town. In fact, as soon as I sat down to chat with Major Redfield in Zamboanga, a woman appeared out of nowhere and asked if we were waiting for girls to be brought inside the base. We declined her offer of course, but it was an interesting revelation about how some things never change when it comes to old paranoias and the lifestyles of traveling soldiers.
I definitely hear the term "Hey Joe" on the streets more often, and get waived at by more city residents who assume I am a GI too. "Joe" is the term for foreigner which was coined by Filipinos during the post-WWII period when American soldiers started using the islands as their refueling and R and R spot. Now all white foreigners are called "Joe" even if they aren't American. And more kids aggressively ask for $1 dollar than they did before. The going rate used to be 5 pesos.
When asked how long US soldiers will be stationed down south, Major Kevin Brown said as long as the Philippine government wants them there. That could be quite awhile since Abu Sayyaf always has a way of resurrecting itself.