US eases restrictions on visiting soldiers to PH

By Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 05 2015 05:42 PM | Updated as of Aug 06 2015 01:42 AM

MANILA - Months after the death of Filipina transgender woman Jennifer Laude allegedly in the hands of US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton, American soldiers have now been allowed once more to leave their ships during port calls in Subic Bay, but with some restrictions.

Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) Roberto Garcia said that when Admiral Harry Harris assumed command of the US Pacific Command (PACOM) last May, he allowed US troops to again enjoy off-duty recreational activities in Subic.

They can go to Subic Freeport's malls, restaurants, and beaches, but Garcia said unlike before, they are no longer allowed to leave the Freeport.

The US PACOM is the mother unit of all US forces operating in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, including the Philippines.

"Dati-dati habang nandun yung Pemberton case, di sila pinapababa, dun lang sila. Ang paalam nga sa 'kin baka daw pwede mag-barbecue sila sa tabi. Kahit man lang daw sa pantalan makababa sila," recalled Garcia.

"Pero with the change of command, they've been allowed to come down. Pero they've been restricted to the Freeport."

According to Garcia, SBMA was requested by US PACOM to enforce this restriction. "Mga gates namin di sila makakalabas. That's under our orders. Kasi yun ang instruction sa amin."

Garcia has also observed changes in the US forces' movement when they are not on their ships and not on duty.

"They have their own rules. Pagkaalam ko ang buddy system dati nila dalawa, ngayon apat. Kung lalabas sila kailangan apat, so that they can look out for each other. Pag ang isa malasing kaya kargahin ng tatlo," he said.

The crew of the USNS Mercy is exempt from these restrictions because they are a non-combatant force.

But Capt. Christopher Engdahl USN, Mission Commander of the Pacific Partnership 2015, said they are aware of the Pemberton case, and that they too are abiding by rules set forth by US PACOM.

"We acknowledge the incident, and the tragedy that happened to all the folks involved," Engdahl said. "On that note, we are following the Pacific Command guidance for all of our off duty activities."

Engdahl said the USNS Mercy's medical and civilian personnel, however, will be allowed to go where they please.

"Those guidelines that the local government has given are not restrictive in the sense that we can't leave the ship and we can't enjoy the culture that Subic provides us. The beaches, the tours. I know sailors are going as far as Manila on shopping excursions I think."

Garcia welcomes the increased presence of US troops in Subic, saying it serves both as a counterbalance to China's creeping assertion, and a boost to Subic's economy.