PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, Palawan, Republic of the Philippines --
Throughout the two weeks of the annual Philippine Bilateral Amphibious Landing Exercise, Marines and Sailors of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit visited four Filipino elementary schools as part of the MEU's humanitarian civil affairs mission here, Oct. 8 through 16.
The group of service members visited the schools to offer assistance with any work that needed to be done and to spend time with the children away from the bilateral military training.
"It's just as important to interact with the local children as it is to build military relations with the local government," said Seaman Heiner Ponce-Martinez, corpsman with Combat Logistics Battalion 31, 31st MEU and a native of Escondido, Calif. "It gives the kids that extra motivation to know that there are other people out there that care about them."
At the elementary schools of Macarascas, Tagburos, Bahile and Santa Cruz, Marines and Sailors found themselves clearing brush and trees for the relocation of one school, teaching math and English classes at others and playing a number of children's games at each one.
"Sometimes our work is playing around with the children," said Navy LT Ankush Jain, surgeon for the 31st MEU and a native of Gaithersburg, Md., during a break in a basketball game. "These (community relations events) are an important piece of our exercises because they build that essential trust and confidence with the communities we operate in."
The whole purpose of COMRELS is to show the local communities that while the MEU's visit is focused on conducting bilateral amphibious exercises in their country, the visiting forces can contribute to the people as well.
From musical chairs and duck-duck-goose to patty--cake and volleyball, each school was left with a lasting impression about the MEU forces.
"The children have so much fun with the troops, they are always smiling and laughing around them," said Nestor Loren, principal of the Bahile Elementary School. "They always ask when they'll be back to play, because they're influenced so much by the U.S.'s selfless visits."
PHIBLEX, now in its 29th iteration, is an annually-scheduled bilateral exercise between the U.S. and Philippine forces, aimed at increasing interoperability and strengthening a long standing relationship. The 31st MEU is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU and is the Marine Corps’ force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region.