Thursday, April 16, 2009

Essex Arrives for Balikatan 2009

Forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) arrived in Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines, April 15 at the request of the government of the Philippines to take part in exercise Balikatan 2009.

Balikatan, an annual Republic of the Philippines-U.S. bilateral military humanitarian assistance and training exercise, will take place in the Philippines April 16-30.

"It's an honor to be part of Balikatan; I look forward to furthering our relationship with this year's exercise." said Capt. Brent Canady, Essex' commanding officer. "For 25 years now, our countries have worked together to accomplish great things during Balikatan, not just militarily, but in terms of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well.

During the exercise, Essex Sailors will participate in a series of community relations projects and support the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which will conduct various cross-training and field training exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

On April 14, Essex and Assault Craft Unit (ACU) 1 off-loaded support personnel assigned to the 31st MEU's Aviation Combat Element (ACE) and dozens of vehicles and ground troops. In addition, Essex' Sailors hosted a small group of Filipino marines during the week leading up to the exercise, and welcomed dozens more aboard April 14 to familiarize them with the ship. Many of those marines took advantage of the opportunity to learn from, and with, their U.S. counterparts.

"Over the past five days, we've learned lot about the way the U.S. Marines operate," said Philippine marine Capt. Hermolino Etusi Jr. "We've worked together on a variety of combat training scenarios and it's been quite an experience."

While Etusi Jr. said both countries' marines learned a lot about each other in terms of combat, he said the most surprising aspect of his stay was the respect shown by Essex Sailors.

"Even though we are a foreign contingent, the crew has treated us as equals," he said. "They've truly shown us tremendous respect and I'm very thankful for that."

During the exercise, Essex Sailors are scheduled to participate in four community relations projects. The projects are a tremendous opportunity to reach out to those in need, said Cmdr. Chin Dang, Essex' chaplain.

"The main goal is to be ambassadors of good will and friendship," said Dang. "That goodwill works both ways. When a Sailor goes out and does something good for someone in need, it makes them feel good about themselves, too."

For many Essex Sailors, like Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) Airman Ezekiel Graham, of Rose Hill, S.C., this will be their first community relations project in the Philippines.

"I grew up in Philadelphia and had a chance to see a lot of very unfortunate people," said Graham. "There are so many people out there who don't have a chance and I want to do whatever I can to help them. Participating in projects like these are great opportunities to help."

In addition to the community relations projects, Sailors will also have an opportunity to experience local customs and scenery through 15 different tours offered by the ship's Morale, Welfare and Recreation department. Tours range from half-day to full-day expeditions and feature everything from metropolitan shopping sprees to safaris in the jungles of Olongapo.

"We always try to get the Sailors out to experience the culture in every port we visit," said Mick Hultz, Essex' afloat recreation specialist. "Hopefully our tours give them an opportunity to get off the ship and do some things they wouldn't normally have a chance to do."

Essex is commanded by Capt. Brent Canady and is the lead ship of the only forward-deployed U.S. Amphibious Ready Group and serves as the flagship for CTF 76, the Navy's only forward-deployed amphibious force commander. Task Force 76 is headquartered at White Beach Naval Facility, Okinawa, Japan, with a detachment in Sasebo, Japan.