MANILA, Philippines - Preserving the decrepit BRP Sierra Madre and keeping it habitable for a handful of soldiers guarding the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal may be costly, but the stake – the country’s sovereignty – is priceless.
This is according to the Marines assigned to the remote outpost, which of late had been a target of harassment by Chinese vessels enforcing Beijing’s claim over numerous islets, shoals and sandbars in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippine Navy deliberately grounded the former World War II transport ship in 1999 to serve as garrison for troops tasked to guard or defend the country’s maritime borders.
The STAR, which joined resupply and troop rotation operations last March 27 to 31, learned that a small ship traveling to and from the site of the grounded vessel consumes on average 83,000 liters of diesel fuel.
Ships carrying supplies for Sierra Madre usually come from the headquarters of the Naval Forces West (Navforwest) in Ulugan Bay in Palawan.
With a liter of diesel costing P44, every re-supply operation thus costs the government P3.6 million.
“I have ample provisions. Even if it will take me one month, I am not returning. I am bringing in fresh troops and bringing home our colleagues who have been deployed at BRP Sierra Madre for almost five months,” said LtSg. Ferdinand Gato, who led last Saturday’s successful delivery of supplies to the Sierra Madre garrison.
A Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessel was used in the operations. “It is my order and I will carry it out,” Gato said.
Two previous attempts to rotate the troops from Ayungin were blocked by Chinese coast guard vessels, which have been guarding the shoal since May last year.
“We are also spending aviation fuel for our air support as well as thousands of liters of fuel for other ships mobilized as backup each time we conduct our resupply and troop rotation operations. But it’s worth it. Our freedom, territorial integrity and sovereignty are priceless,” a Wescom official who asked not to be named said.
There are other expenses apart from fuel, officials said.
Soldiers deployed to areas being claimed by China are entitled to extra “loneliness pay.”
Outgoing Ayungin Shoal detachment commander, 1Lt Mike Pelotera, said troops assigned at Ayungin are receiving extra allowance equivalent to half of their monthly base pay, or much higher than the P500 combat allowance their land-based colleagues are entitled to.
While the extra perks are measly compared to those received by their Vietnamese counterparts, Pelotera said he and his men don’t mind it at all.
“We are soldiers and as such it is our duty to follow orders and perform our assigned mission,” said one of Pelotera’s men.
Pelotera and his men were each given a bronze cross and a two-week furlough.
A Vietnamese official, meanwhile, told The STAR in Manila that their soldiers assigned in disputed areas are hailed as heroes and treated differently from ordinary soldiers.
Vietnamese soldiers assigned in the South China Sea receive higher pay and their families back home are entitled to preferential treatment by the government.
The soldiers’ families, according to the official, get free housing and education, as well as comprehensive medical benefits.