Gretch Mary of Coast Guard: The voice that drove away Chinese ships

Published July 11, 2021, 10:07 AM

by Richa Noriega

When a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel spotted a group of foreign ships inside the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on April 27, a commanding voice reverberated in the area to declare that they were in the Philippine territory–a powerful voice that eventually drove the intruding vessels away:

“This is PCG BRP Cabra (MRRV-4409). You are within Philippine exclusive economic zone. You are requested to provide the following: name of vessel, intention, last and next port of call on Channel 16.”

That voice belongs to PCG Probationary Ensign Gretch Mary Acuario.

The PCG ships drove away seven foreign ships believed to be manned by Chinese militias from the Sabina Shoal in the West Philippine Sea on April 27, 2021. (Photo courtesy of the PCG)​

In an interview with the Manila Bulletin, Acuario shared her persevering journey of being the voice in driving away Chinese vessels in the Sabina Shoal in West Philippine Sea (WPS).

Acuario shared that during that time, she was fortunate to be one of the two lawyers in the National Capital Region (NCR) to become part of the PCG’s Task Force Pagsasanay, a unit formed to intensify the capacity building of its personnel and assets as they addressed the heightened tension in the WPS.

“Actually I’m just fortunate that I’m one of the two lawyers that is available sa NCR that time when they asked for available lawyers. First, I was hesitant since I don’t know what will I do at WPS but then maybe I should try,” Acuario told the Manila Bulletin.

On board the PCG’s BRP Cabra (MRRV-4409), Acuario said there was no policy that time as to who among the personnel will conduct the radio communication. However, she said that traditionally the captain of the ship preferred women because of the “impact” of their voice.

“Traditionally kasi sa mga ganyang challenges mas prefer talaga ng captain of the ship na ang mag-radio challenge is babae kasi iba yung impact niya. Mixed yan eh pero hindi siya mag-eescalate ng tension (Traditionally, in such challenges, the captain of the ship really prefers a female officer to conduct radio challenges because a woman’s voice has a different impact. It is mixed, but it won’t escalate the tension),” she said.

During their maritime patrol on April 27, they found seven Chinese vessels at Sabina Shoal in WPS. The Sabina Shoal is located approximately 73 miles from Mapankal Point, Rizal, Palawan.

Acuario was the only female on duty during that time. She was then asked by BRP Cabra’s Commanding Officer Erwin Tolentino to conduct the radio challenge.

A few days later, Acuario’s voice became the symbol of the Philippine’s strong stand in the West Philippine Sea as the challenge was repeatedly played in radio and television stations and even posted and shared several times in the social media.

​​Personnel of the PCG’s BRP Cabra (MRRV-4409) ​conducted radio communications training during their maritime patrol in the West Philippine Sea (WPS)​ from June 27 to July 1, 2021. (Photo courtesy of the PCG)​

Unable to receive a response after three radio communications, the BRP Cabra, and the BFAR vessels MCS-3002, and MCS-3004 approached the Chinese vessels. It was then that Chinese vessels immediately lifted the anchor and operated the engine.

“Actually I’m surprised na hindi sila nag-respond (that they did not respond) we are just asking some information like name of the vessels, intention, and last and next port of call. Nagtanong lang kami (We just asked them) we just challenge them the name yung information lang,” Acuario said.

The law graduate, who entered the PCG service a month after the result of the April 2020 Bar Exam, felt nervous on the possible reactions and feedback after challenging the foreign vessels but reminded herself that, “I have to do my job.”

“Actually, happiness is just an understatement kasi pagnakita ng mga Pinoy na winewave namin yung Philippine flag doon ng mga mangingisda iba yung makikita mong mga ngiti nila ‘uy kabayan’ (because when the Filipinos see that we are waving the Philippine flag there, we can see the smiles of the fishermen, saying ‘fellow Filipino’),” she added.

The legal officer said that the women’s role must highlight specifically in a male dominant organization.

“Women can do anything a man can do but we should highlight our important role especially in the public service, we should raise our voices,” Acuario said.

‘Angels of the Sea’ radio operator course

Last June 25, an all-female class graduated from the first-ever PCG’s radio operator course, dubbed as “Angels of the Sea.”

The PCG said the 81 female graduates of the radio operator course were employed during the district-level training in Basilan Strait and Sibutu Passage in June 2018.

​An all-female class graduated from the first-ever PCG’s radio operator course, dubbed as “Angels of the Sea,” in Pasay City on Friday, June 25, 2021. (Photo courtesy of the PCG)

PCG Vice Admiral Leopoldo Laroya, deputy commandant for operations, said the female operators were deployed to “temper seafarers’ anxieties” at the height of piracy and kidnapping off the waters of Mindanao.

SW1 Sarah Jane Dela Rama, one of the female graduates, felt honored to be part of the first-ever PCG’s radio operator course.

“Looking forward po ako sa organization namin dahil nagbibigay po sila ng equal opportunities sa mga kababaihan po natin and ngayon ang mostly members po ay puro kababaihan (they give equal opportunities and right now mostly the members are females). It is a great honor and once in a lifetime na maging part po nitong (to be part of) first-ever female operator course,” Dela Rama told the Manila Bulletin.

​SW1 Sarah Jane Dela Rama (Photo courtesy of the PCG)

Dela Rama, who came from a military family – father and brother from Philippine Air Force (PAF), expressed gratitude for the armed service’s initiatives on providing equal opportunities for female members.

“Given na po na nagtraining po kami ng ganito (we are doing training) and sooner talaga pong madedeploy po kami (we will be deployed) and I feel more confident and excited as well po kasi I look this an opportunity to help relieve po the anxiety of my fellow comrades po namin na nandoon po naka experience po ng standoffs (who experience standoffs),” Dela Rama shared.

According to Dela Rama, the Angels of the Sea is one of the PCG’s initiatives to “empower women” on technical duties particularly on radio communication.

Dela Rama said after graduation they will still undergo series of training on rules in the use of force and Mandarin courses to add knowledge before being deployed in the tension-filled areas.

“Positive challenge po kasi yung binibigay sa amin and binigyan po kami ng chance para maghandle ng mga ganitong kalaking responsibility (It is a positive challenge because we are given the chance to handle such big responsibilities),” she added.

The Filipina radio operator encouraged all women to take the courage to find opportunities regardless of gender.

“I encourage you all to be strong, to be yourself, and let your heart take the courage to find opportunities regardless sa gender natin to be able for us to serve our country in ways that we feel we can do best,” Dela Rama said.