After months of quietly defending the Philippine waters, the faceless brave men and women at-sea, who continuously protect Filipino fishermen, and conduct humanitarian missions, have shared their persevering journey amid adversities in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
These brave maritime enforcers belong to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)’s Task Force “Pagsasanay (Exercise)”, a unit formed to intensify the capacity building of its personnel and assets as they addressed the heightened tension in the WPS.
Two commanding officers of PCG capital ships that patrolled the tension-filled areas have shared their heartwarming humanitarian experiences, and hardworking journey in defending the country’s vast waters.
Humanitarian missions at-sea
During their maritime patrols in the WPS, the armed service has focused on carrying out humanitarian activities at-sea by setting up floating food banks, medical missions for the Filipino fishermen, and providing basic necessities for the residents in Pagasa Island.
PCG Commander Marilyn Jaal, commanding officer of BRP Francisco Dagohoy, recalled the warm welcome from the residents as soon as they set foot on Pagasa Island in Palawan.
“Pagdating namin doon sa PCG station sumalubong yung mga bata at nakikipagkwentuhan. One of our personnel dito sa barko tinanong yung bata kung nakarating na ba sila doon sa mainland sa Philippines, ang sagot nung bata, ‘Hindi pa po kami nakakarating doon sa Pilipinas’ (When we arrived at the PCG station, the children greeted us and told us stories. One of our personnel asked a child if he had ever been to the Philippine mainland, and the child answered, ‘we haven’t been to the Philippines yet’),” Jaal told the Manila Bulletin.
On the other hand, PCG Commander Erwin Tolentino, commanding officer of BRP Cabra, felt that it was also their responsibility to take care of the locals, especially the children. After all, their fathers are the same brave fishermen that the PCG personnel now share the country’s territorial waters with.
“Masaya po na makita yung sa mga ngiti nung mga bata doon sa Pagasa Island (Seeing the children smile on Pagasa Island makes me happy),” Tolentino said in a separate interview.
The commanding officers have also formed a special bond with the residents of Pagasa Island in Palawan, which came as a result of the second phase of their capability enhancement training in the WPS. This phase was mainly focused on the humanitarian aspect, rather than the technical.
During the visit of PCG Commandant Admiral George Ursabia Jr. on the island last May 25, he found out that most of the children there wanted to become soldiers, police officers, and Coast Guard personnel when they grow up. He encouraged them “to study hard and be the future” of their community.
The Coast Guard personnel delivered food packs and school supplies to the island residents.
“Yung mga needs nila pag-walang nakakatawid na barko dahil sa masamang panahon, ‘yun po yung mga tinatry namin ma-address. And yung mga naging dati challenges ng mga mangingisda roon so far for the longest time wala na po [Chinese vessels] and yung presence ng mga vessels natin na nandoon it gives fishermen comfort na malaman if ever may mangyari nandoon kami to look out for them (We want to address their needs whenever the ships cannot cross due to bad weather. As for the previous challenges that they faced, the Chinese vessels, they’ve been gone for the longest time and the presence of our vessels there has given fishermen the comfort that whatever happens, we are there to look out for them),” Tolentino explained.
The PCG personnel have also distributed relief packs and hygiene kits to local fishers sailing in the disputed areas. They have also made sure that the fishermen have a radio they can use to immediately call for help and receive information about the latest weather.
“May na-meet kaming mga fishermen dito, so far wala naman naging problema roon, nakakapag-fish naman sila (We met some fishermen here, so far there were no problems, they can fish in the area),” Jaal said.
Jaal bared that, apart from the maritime patrols, they have also responded to medical emergencies at sea, including the evacuation of a Philippine Navy (PN) soldier, who suffered a stroke at Likas (West York) Island in the WPS. The patient was transported to the mainland in El Nido, Palawan for medical assistance.
On April 23, the PCG’s first leg of the maritime exercises was launched in cooperation with Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources’ (BFAR) ships at the Bajo De Masinloc in Zambales, and Pagasa Island in Palawan.
“Pagkassign po sa amin dito sa WPS nandoon na po yung takot ko eh (When we were assigned in the WPS, I felt fear), not for myself but for the sake of my personnel kasi alam natin kung gaano or ano ang mangyayari during the patrol kung makakaencouter tayo ng mga [challenging] instances (because we will never know what will happen during the patrol and the challenges that we will encounter),” Jaal said.
Meanwhile, Tolentino acknowledged the huge responsibility of conducting maritime patrols in the disputed areas.
“It is a huge responsibility po upon our shoulders. We tried to do our part in upholding our mission and we actually tried not to overthink po masyado yung kaakibat na responsibilidad kasi minsan nakaka-overwhelm po siya (we actually tried not to overtthink the huge responsibility because sometimes it can be overwhelming),” Tolentino recounted.
The commanding officers disclosed that before accepting the WPS challenge, they first had to undergo intensive training and a series of lectures under Task Force Pagsasanay.
During their drills in the disputed areas at-sea, PCG personnel conducted ship position determination, cross track bearing using Azimuth circle and nautical chart, publication familiarization, and cathodic protection tests.
They also carried out exercises such as man overboard, abandon ship, life support training, and firefighting exercises while maintaining maritime security and safety chores.
“We need to accomplish stepping up our presence and raising the Philippine flag with a sense of pride in the WPS while conducting intensive training aboard ship,” Jaal said. “For that I feel proud [because] I am one of the officers on board to conduct this mission,” Jaal shared.
Last March, the government raised concern over the presence of 220 Chinese militia vessels at Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the WPS. The mass presence of vessels could only mean that they were engaged in high-volume fishing, and, at the same time, posed risks to navigational safety.
These trainings were key as it gave them the courage and confidence to face the larger Chinese vessels that have been lingering in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
“Training played a big part…especially in conducting the use of force [because] we do po yung showing of our flag sa Kalayaan Island Group in a peaceful and legal way po, kasi any miscalculations or any mistakes [on our part]…will create a very serious implication po [not only for] Coast Guard but for our whole country as well,” Tolentino said.
True enough, they were put to the test soon thereafter.
On April 27, they found seven Chinese vessels at Sabina Shoal in WPS. Philippine maritime enforcers sent out communications to the vessels to inform them that the area was off limits, but there was no response.
It was as that point that BRP Cabra and BFAR vessels MCS-3002 and MCS-3004 approached the foreign vessels to show that they meant business. Shortly after, the Chinese vessels lifted their anchors, fired up their engines, and left.
“Our training kicked in,” Tolentino said of the Sabina Shoal incident. “Hindi po namin naisip masyado yung naging implications noon…but right after po noon nagsink in na po yung nagawa namin (We didn’t think too much about the implications at that time…but it did sink in right after we did what we did).”
“We were proud that we [did] our part in protecting po what is ours,” he added.
The PCG commanding officers said they would continue to defend the country’s vast waters even if the odds are against their favor.
“We will defend what is ours no matter what it takes and no matter how difficult it is kasi sa atin po ito (because this is ours) and I want my children to know that despite all the difficulties and the challenges…we will not back down. Not on our watch,” Tolentino underscored.
Jaal expressed the same resolve as her fellow PCG official, saying: “Let us continue what we have started, never step back as long as we have the support of our government. We will make history and we are part of each other’s endeavor.”