SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

At Los Angeles International Airport, a tape played over and over on the public address system reminds members of the US military and their families that they have free use of a facility on the lower (arrival) level of LAX that is equipped like first class airline lounges.

The 4,000-square-foot “Bob Hope Hollywood USO” at LAX includes a nap room, secure storeroom for luggage, showers, and even an outdoor patio and barbeque.

Similar USO facilities are available at Ontario and Palm Springs international airports, both in California.

The LAX announcement ends with an expression of pride and gratitude for the soldiers’ service. I first noticed the message at LAX as America grappled with the terrorist threat in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the message continues to be aired at the airport, which is a port of entry to the continental United States for many soldiers flying in from the Pacific including Hawaii, home of the US Pacific Command.

Uncle Sam takes unusually good care of his soldiers, and Americans have a keen sense of appreciation for anyone willing to risk life and limb in defense of their nation.

I have seen a similar attitude toward the military among South Koreans (technically still at war with their northern neighbor), among Israelis and several others.

It’s an appreciation for military service that I don’t see in our country. Perhaps it’s an ugly vestige of martial law, aggravated by continuing reports of corruption, human rights violations and organized crime activities involving soldiers and even military academy graduates who are now with the national police.

In my work I have had the chance to tag along with the armed forces of several countries in routine patrol operations. In comparison with their equipment and supplies, it can be disheartening to watch our troops in conflict zones. From food to medicine and weaponry, the Pinoy soldier’s supplies can be so limited it is pathetic.

We’re equally lousy at showing appreciation for our war veterans. They will be remembered during Philippine Veterans Week from April 5 to 11, but the gestures of appreciation rarely go beyond the annual commemorative activities.

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I was reminded of the USO message, which I again heard recently during a long layover at LAX from Mexico City to Manila, as I looked at video footage and photographs of Philippine Marines stationed on the Navy ship BRP Sierra Madre.

Our soldiers on the vessel, marooned on purpose on Ayungin Shoal, looked like a scruffy bunch of bandits. Obviously sanitation facilities are primitive on that rusty tub.

These days the Marines’ limited options for good grooming have been compounded by the uncertainty of supply replenishment. Chinese ships marked coast guard (but with soldiers on board?), a long way from their homeport, keep shooing away Philippine boats that try to bring food and other supplies to the Sierra Madre.

If our troops on the ship starve to death as a result, perhaps we should file a complaint for crimes against humanity against Bejing before the UN, on top of the arbitration case we have filed to define our maritime entitlements.

In August last year The New York Times sent a team to the Sierra Madre. Two months later, NYT ran a long article in its magazine with photos and video of life on the “post-apocalyptic military garrison” and Ayungin. The article, titled “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” placed Ayungin’s location in the South China Sea at “105 nautical miles from the Philippines.”

That’s well within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone as defined under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which both the Philippines and China are signatories. Beijing, however, says UNCLOS does not apply to its maritime claims, which cover nearly the entire South China Sea. It’s a good thing no part of China juts out into the Indian Ocean or Beijing would claim those waters, too, all the way to southern Australia and Madagascar.

Yesterday the Chinese embassy’s chargé d’affaires (the new ambassador-designate is waiting to present credentials to P-Noy) sounded conciliatory, saying they have not closed the doors on negotiations with Manila. But maybe the conciliatory tone is just my imagination. Messages and sentiments tend to get lost in translation when dealing with the Chinese, and Beijing has just summoned our ambassador about the arbitration case.

So we can presume that our Marines who are posted on the Sierra Madre will continue to work in a high-risk environment, under the watch of foreign intruders, where everything is scarce, including clean water for a regular shave.

If that rickety ship, grounded on the shoal since 1999, is going to serve as a rampart in our territorial claim, we should invest in its modest improvement before one of our Marines nicks himself in protruding metal and develops tetanus.

The situation on Ayungin should make us wonder what we are willing to do in defense of national territory. Are we prepared to fight water cannon fire (China’s weapon of choice) with water cannon fire?

Are Filipinos ready to risk life, limb and creature comforts to defend national territory?

Probably not the average citizen at this point, but military personnel have been doing just that, in Ayungin and elsewhere. The nation must do more to show them that theirs is not a thankless job.










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