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Ventura County

Seabees on Philippine Mission Come Home to Port Hueneme

Military: Many had been deployed to Basilan Island, the focal point of a U.S. effort to destroy a terrorist organization.

June 20, 2002|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After months of clearing jungle and building airfields in support of American Special Forces in the Philippines, members of the U.S. Navy Seabees returned to a hero's welcome in Port Hueneme Wednesday afternoon.

Busloads of Seabees were met by families and loved ones as they rolled into a parking lot of Naval Base Ventura County. Leis were draped around their necks, children latched onto their legs and wives leaped into their arms.

The 4th Naval Mobile Construction Battalion has been deployed since December with many of its members sent to Basilan Island in the Philippines since April.

The remote island of rubber and coconut trees has been the focal point of America's effort to help the Philippine military crush the Abu Sayyaf terrorist organization, notorious kidnappers said to have ties with Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization. The group has taken Americans hostage, beheading one man from Corona.

Two American missionaries were held captive for a year until Philippine military units raided an Abu Sayyaf encampment earlier this month. One missionary and a Filipino nurse were killed in the attack. The other missionary was wounded, but survived.

Amid this turmoil, the Seabees built bridges, dug wells, cleared and paved an old 1941 airstrip and repaired almost 40 kilometers of damaged roads.

Conditions were so primitive that when Seabees needed gravel, villagers would start breaking big rocks into smaller and smaller rocks. When local women were hired to wash Seabee clothes, some used a nearby river. Conventional telephones didn't work well, so the unit was provided with satellite phones to call home.

"We in the West are used to a certain level of infrastructure that doesn't exist over there," said Lt. Cmdr. Rick Burgess, executive officer of the roughly 600-member battalion.

But their engineering and construction efforts were appreciated by the local population.

"We left behind a permanent reminder of what the U.S. military was all about," said Petty Officer 1st Class Manuel Pulido, 37, of Sacramento.

Villagers, mostly Muslim and Christian, rallied outside their camp in support of the Navy mission.

"They had signs that said 'We stand shoulder to shoulder with you,' " said Petty Officer 2nd Class Frank Kaminski, 28, of Junction City, Wis.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Devron Felder, 24, said the infrastructure work helped villagers realize there was an alternative to groups such as Abu Sayyaf.

In one case, the Seabees bulldozed 600 trees hiding a World War II-era airstrip. They graded and extended it to 3,100 feet, allowing its use by American and Philippine military forces.

A 32-kilometer stretch of road, once so muddy and full of holes that cars could bump along at barely 10 or 15 mph, was repaired.

"They can now drive 55 mph," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Lyle Jincks, 22, of Newport, Ore.

But despite their focus on engineering projects, the unit was keenly aware of the increased security threats against Americans in the region. U.S. Marines helped provide security, but the Seabees also carried weapons and trained constantly.

"We build and we fight," Burgess said.

Shortly after the Port Hueneme group left Basilan Island, its former camp was fired on by unknown attackers, but there were no casualties.

Back home, wives read about the bloody raid on the Abu Sayyaf camp and worried about their husbands.

"I kept in contact with him by phone and letters," said Lisa Pulido, wife of Manuel Pulido. "I cut out all the articles in the paper about what was happening in the Philippines."

Dana Lane nervously watched the news each night to see if anything had happened to her husband Dillard.

"I'm so glad he's back," she said. "I haven't seen him since Dec. 4."

The Port Hueneme unit soon will be replaced by Seabees from Gulfport, Miss.

Unlike the elite fighting units waging war on terrorism, the Seabees, who also have worked in Afghanistan, are often overlooked.

"If we accomplish our mission, that's success," Burgess said. "Our guys don't get in there to get the glory. They are there to work and that's what they do."

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