Tuesday, February 23, 2010
By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
COTABATO, Philippines : Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Stutzke looked over the rock quarry from a distance as three explosions boomed. Gathered around him was a team of Philippine army explosive ordnance disposal soldiers gleaming with pride from their work that briefly charred the clear afternoon sky.
Just minutes before, Stutzke completed a training session for his Philippine counterparts and some U.S. Army soldiers on how to properly construct dynamite for an electrically charged remote detonation. For the Philippine troops, the Feb.20 exercise was a rare opportunity to conduct hands-on training with real explosives and basic EOD tools.
Though the Philippine troops train frequently to learn new techniques to dispose of roadside bombs and unexploded ordnance, they seldom have the tools to do so safely, Stutzke said. The Philippine military, including its EOD units here in central Mindanao, lack sufficient funding and fundamental equipment such as bomb suits, detection robots or expendable explosives to train with, he explained.
"I think we need to better equip [the Philippine forces], Stutzke said. "If you don't have any of the basic tools to work with, you can't do your job. Well, you can't do your job safely."
This is especially true for the Philippine EOD teams, as they are among the busiest and most at-risk soldiers in their force.
Forgotten ordnances -- or remnants of war, as U.S. troops from Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines here describe them -- are abundant after years of terrorist actions and past wars on Philippine soil. For this reason, competent and properly trained EOD troops are vital to the nation's decade-long counterinsurgency fight.
Philippine EOD teams have found terrorist cache sites of explosives used for roadside, motorcycle and car bombs. Two U.S. Army Special Operations soldiers lost their lives to a roadside bomb in September, which was the deadliest attack on the American military here since 2002. Philippine troops are targeted on a weekly basis, however, often resulting in injuries or death.
"[Improvised explosive devices] are a significant threat, because they're easy to make," Stutzke said. "And training [the Philippine EOD soldiers] is very important, because there's so much ordnance available in the region for insurgents to get their hands on. The best way to get rid of that threat is through joint training and disposals."
U.S. EOD troops spend as much time as possible assisting and training their Philippine counterparts, and often lend them equipment such as metal detectors, which has led to some recent successes in the area.
Both militaries also work together educating the local populace on how to identify and report bombs and unexploded ordnance, said Stutzke, a native of Midland, Ga.
Stutzke recalled a recent situation that could have been fatal to the Philippine EOD troops. A grenade was reported in a public building, and the Philippine soldiers disarmed and disposed of it without a bomb suit or protective gear.
"They went up and did their job, and that's how good they are," he said. "That's one thing not a lot of people realize: They're very confident and efficient, and they have the knowledge. But they could be better and much more safe if they had funding for equipment."
Filipino army Capt. Francis Senoron echoed Stutzke's sentiments.
"The problem with the Philippine army is we have very limited resources," Senoron said. "We have limited supplies and must come up with our own creative ways to disrupt IEDs."
Senoron and his troops have encountered more than 100 bombs and pieces of unexploded ordnance since 2008, he said. He and many of his comrades have been injured multiple times, he said, but he added that security and protecting innocent civilians is more important than his own safety.
"The local populace is very supportive to our efforts," he said. "We've conducted awareness programs for our civilians, so they know what to do if they find an IED. Because of our civilians, we're able to accomplish our mission, and I hope this will continue in the future."