Michael's Dispatches

Green Beret Loses Race and Wins a Battle


10 June 2009
Mindanao Island, Philippines

After one week of close access to some key players in this conflict, I can make one certain statement: This is a complex war. As for the complexity of the human terrain, the Philippines is the “Afghanistan of the Sea.” There are great differences, of course. The Republic of the Philippines is a functioning democracy with a professional military and it’s not bordering Pakistan and Iran, yet the human terrain here is far more complex than that of Iraq or even Afghanistan. Physical terrain shapes human terrain. Afghanistan has deserts, mountains and valleys, while this place has the sea, thousands of islands, and mountains and valleys. Physical barriers create separate languages and cultures.

So far, I’ve been to three islands and met with dozens of Filipino and U.S. commanders and troops. We’ve visited villages and gone deep into enemy territory on two islands. Though I’ve seen no combat here – or even any signs of combat other than one IED hole and a blown-up bridge – pitched battles are unfolding on a regular basis. Some writers have come for short embeds and made large-picture summaries of the situation, but the reality is that it would take many months of hard study and travel just to get a reasonable feel for the war.

Serious battles involving artillery and aerial bombings continue to rumble on some islands, such as Mindanao, but Civil Military operations are gaining successes that cannons and jets have failed to deliver. For instance, on 20 April 2009, 34 members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) surrendered to the Armed Forces Philippines (AFP), not because they were beaten in battle, but because Civil Affairs teams and others lured them out of the jungles with offers of peaceful and more prosperous lives. The story of this war is probably more about Civil Affairs and deal-making than combat. With that in mind, a series of short dispatches with photos and initial impressions will follow. It would be most helpful to see veterans of this war, and the Philippines in general, weigh in with their own impressions.

The following are just a handful of photos from one mission. These images were made in what had been deep enemy territory just a few months ago. The kids never begged for candy, never were brats in any way -- which happens in Iraq (especially when our troops act like Santa Claus and pass out candy, making perfectly sweet kids into incredible brats). Despite the fact that their fathers had been enemies, the village kids grinned whenever our folks looked their way. The guerrilla leader actually seemed to like the Americans and it showed in the kids. Their fathers and mothers were all around.

One Green Beret named (… actually I am not allowed to give his name, despite the fact that it was okay with the soldier to publish his name and photo, and the rules allow publishing the photo and he was wearing a nametag… His name for this dispatch will be “X7”) played marbles while I talked with the former guerrilla leader of this small group. Luckily, I had handed over a camera to Navy Lieutenant Lara Bollinger and she was out there shooting many hundreds of photos. If not for LT Bollinger we would have missed the moment. Turns out that LT Bollinger has a great eye for photos, and some of the images that will later be published were actually shot by her.

Green Beret “X7”, from the 1st Battalion 1st Special Forces Group, throws down with the marbles.

Soldier X7, like most American soldiers, was very good with the kids. This characteristic of our combat troops is sort of an accidental secret weapon that money can’t buy. The British have it too, but many militaries do not treat kids well. I’m not sure that soldiers can be trained to be like this. There were many Iraqi kids who loved American soldiers and Marines but the children were sometimes fearful of Iraqi soldiers. Some Iraqis were great with the kids, but it only takes one bad apple -- and they have plenty of bad apples.

Most American and British soldiers just naturally like children. During World War II, the Japanese had reputations of being brutal toward kids, which of course angers every mother in the world, and then you are in for a serious fight.

X7 is a kid magnet.

Later in the day, sons of former enemies held races.

So these are the faces of the enemy. The girls were precious. Not one single kid asked for candy. Thankfully, this war is mostly being fought with Civil Affairs and not rockets. General Petraeus has told me several times in regard to Iraq: “Money is ammunition in this war.” Send more money and more Civil Affairs teams, please!

Private citizens, such as “Books for the Barrios” are making a demonstrable difference. The respected Philippine Major General Juancho Sabban praises the group, as do American soldiers. I’ve seen their handiwork and am told that “Books for the Barrios” will soon deliver their 13 millionth book! The tiny citizen groups at home, usually with little or no recognition, are helping to save the lives of children and our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now I can confirm the Philippines. But their generosity comes at a cost. I contacted Nancy and Dan Harrington who run Books for the Barrios, and Nancy wrote back immediately, “our dear neighbors wonder why our lawn does not get mowed on a regular basis….we are two very tired people just trying to keep things afloat around here….” Nancy and Dan Harrington are heroes to these children.

They raced to the outhouse!

After maybe a dozen races, Green Beret Captain X6 challenged the overall winner. The stones were jagged and may have been volcanic, but X6 ripped off his boots and challenged the boy, who lined up and GO! Off to the races! X6 ran hard but had to throttle back a couple times when he accidentally pulled too far ahead. The boy won by a nose. All the kids swirled around X6 and there were high-fives and then we drove home.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gil · 12 years ago
    Mike, this was another fantastic article. As I was reading and looking at the Captain and the boy race, it brought back to mind something my dad used to tell me. Kids are Kids the world over, it's the adults that corrupt them.

    Looks a little like the Captain is remembering his childhood to. Great shot.

    Keep up the good work,
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dave · 12 years ago
    Mike, tremedous insight about how well our soldiers treat children in this war compared to the domestic forces and other foreign armies past and present. This is a great piece of information probably only to be found in your dispatches.

    Btw, fantastic pics also.

    Great Work,

  • This commment is unpublished.
    J.H. · 12 years ago
    Just want to say thanks!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Paul S. · 12 years ago
    "being brutal toward kids, which of course angers every mother in the world, and then you are in for a serious fight." A parent's wrath is like no other! Thanks for a wonderful story, Michael.

    For more on the bond between Americans and Filipinos, I recommend the Filipino-produced "The Story of the Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor."
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bill C · 12 years ago
    Great work Michael,
    You were right, the photos were very good and the story is spot on. I am glad to see that Lara did a good job on the photos, I will probably use some of her shots to update the walls around the JSOTF-P. Thanks again for a great visit mate.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dave J · 12 years ago
    My dad that served with the 5th group in Thailand and the 1st Group out of Okinawa in the '60s would have enjoyed this article.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sean Dougherty · 12 years ago
    If you're around New Jersey or New York, the area is lit up with Filipino Independence Day celebrations. NYC was last weekend. Passaic Park is this weekend and Jersey City is the week following. My wife is from there and she tells stories passed on from her grandmother about the Japs bayonetting babies during the occupation. There is always a salute to the Filipinos who fought with the U.S. against the Japanese at the celebration in Passaic Park - last year was the first when none of the veterans were healthy enough to attend. I hope they find some new ones for Sunday.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    C.G. · 12 years ago
    You know what would make an utterly fantastic book? A collection of photos and stories of American military members interacting with children around the world.

    Nice big glossy photos, for a coffee table-sized book. You could call it something sappy like "Young at Heart" or some such.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Barb Love · 12 years ago
    I loved seeing these photos. We were medical missionaries for fifteen years during the Marcos -Aquino years., living in Leyte, Panay, and Metro-Manila. The kids there are so easy to love In fact in general the adult people we knew were loveable, too
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Merlyn Manos · 12 years ago
    Hi,i am a journalist from this area,i happen to know X-7 and X-6,you are right in there they are so lovely,green berets here are gaining the hearts of our Muslims brothers and sisters,my salute for this guys! and to the past green Berets here,you did a good job guys! hope to see you some other time,keep up the good work,and may God bless you all!

    Kids are always a kid,its very nice to remember our past being a kid,hope the kids in Mindanao can play forever like this in the future,i recently interview an 8 year old boy in the same place in this picture,they cry for peace in Mindanao and have more school buildings and teachers in the area. he practically says that! "We need Food not War"

    Good Job Micheal,

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bruce in Iloilo · 12 years ago
    I love the photos. I think that it is the big smiles.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Amy Macavinta · 12 years ago
    I always enjoy your writing, and as a journalist, I appreciate your honesty. My grandfather was born in the Philippines in the early 1900's, so I enjoyed this story even a little more.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    DagneyT · 12 years ago
    A couple of things have me confused. One is "and it’s far easier to live here than in Iraq." The other is a contractor saying they preferred Afghanistan over Iraq. From the pictures I've seen, it would seem to be the opposite. If you could speak to the reasons...or maybe I didn't read far enough, and you already have, but it really grabbed my attention.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    JSOC · 11 years ago
    Blur them.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ray · 9 years ago
    Mike, we need more stories like this one. If the news agencies would focus on more good news. they might actually make a difference. Keep up the great work.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gary · 9 years ago
    I don't even tell people that I served in the Philippines in the mid-70's, because they can't wrap their heads around an insurgency that has been active for decades. Back then, it was the NPLA, or NPA that was active. A Maoist group that was fighting the Marcos regime. They are largely inactive now, with the occasional assassination or kidnapping of political figures. back then, the fighting was intense, with air and gunfire support from offshore ships. I spent 1 months there and was in as many or more engagements than my brother was in the nam. I grew to love the Philippine people, especially the elders and the kids. I was always wary of the military age males and females. I currently have a close friend how lives there, as his wife was transferred to the islands (she is employed by a major contractor), and I tried to school him on the danger, but he insists on staying out past curfew, and travel without his fixer.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Yon author · 9 years ago

    Does not pay to be a know it all. I was there at invitation and with their full knowledge and agreement that photos would be published.

    This is the normal "OPSEC violation" from the crowd that becomes tiresome, and snaps back on the accuser. (As in the nutty Master Sergeant CJ Grisham, who claimed I committed OPSEC violations. Later he publicly complained about his mental problems, and then was mysteriously sent home early from Afghanistan after having seen zero combat, and having never left the giant base called Kandahar Air Field. The Grisham guy actually committed an OPSEC violation by spilling the beans about the deployment of his intelligence unit. Later he published a photo of a mouse he mangled. We cannot win wars when we stuff guys like that into uniforms. At minimum, they create ill-will toward the uniform and the United States, all while fertilizing mistrust in the leadership who keeps them around.)


    Michael Yon

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