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Face of Defense: Soldier Serves in Family’s Homeland

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

MARAWI, Philippines, March 9, 2010 – When he was a child, visiting the Philippines was all about vacationing and fun with the family for C.J. Rueda. But now, at 25, the U.S. Army sergeant views his time in the underprivileged nation as an opportunity to improve his ancestors’ country, he said.

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Army Sgt. C.J. Rueda poses for a photo with health-care providers at the Mawari City Health Office, Feb. 22, 2010, in Mawari, Philippines. DoD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

“Being here now, I have a job and mission, and it has a very emotional and deep impact on me,” said Rueda, a Filipino-American soldier with 5th Psychological Operations Group from Fort Bragg, N.C. “This is where my family’s from -- my heritage, my origins. I want to help everyone here as much as I can.”

Rueda arrived here in November. His psychological operations team is part of the American military task force charged with training Philippine counterterrorism forces and providing humanitarian assistance in the southern Philippines. The San Diego native said he expects to be deployed here for at least eight months.

Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines has maintained a U.S. presence here since December 2001, advising and assisting the Philippine armed forces in their fight against terrorism. However, the U.S. military here is prohibited from engaging in direct combat against would-be terrorists, according the Philippine constitution.

Therefore, the majority of the U.S. military focus here works on quality-of-life improvements for Filipinos in the south. American troops help local governments and security forces with infrastructure projects, the development of anti-terrorism education programs and coordination for much-needed health care services. The goal is to gain support for the Philippine government and its security forces, Rueda said.

“The goal is to increase support for the government in areas known to be heavy in terrorist recruitment and in drug trafficking,” he said. “Poor countries are a breeding ground for terrorists, and that’s why we’re here -- to enlighten the population, support security forces and educate the children to make their country better.”

Rueda said he longed to be a part of the mission here for many years. He has tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but rather than possibly going back to the Middle East, he wanted the opportunity to serve in the Philippines, he said. In fact, he enlisted in the Army six years ago as an artilleryman, but changed his military occupation to psychological operations three years ago primarily to improve his chances of deploying here, he said.

“I was in artillery for a while, but wanted to come to [psychological operations] because I knew there’d be a chance to deploy to the Philippines,” he said. “I wanted to experience something new, plus, this is my family’s heritage.”

Rueda, who wasn’t fluent in Tagalog before switching to psychological operations, was selected to learn the native language. Following his initial training and language school, he was assigned to a unit that specializes in support for military operations in Southeast Asia, he said.

Because of his ability to speak Tagalog as well as his understanding of the culture, Rueda said, his team’s deployment has gone very smoothly. He noted his relationship with Philippine national police in Iligan City here, describing their partnership as “equally committed.”

Rueda works closely with police in their outreach efforts to promote good citizenship among the local school children and educate them on the negative effects of terrorism. Security forces, government officials and even local residents seem to be more supportive and trusting because of Rueda’s background, he said.

“Being a U.S. soldier, the Filipinos respect you,” he said. “But being Filipino and being able to relate, speak to them in their language and know their culture means a lot to them. The relationship with my team and the Filipinos here is much stronger because of that.”

Rueda admits that he’s often troubled by the poverty and lack of opportunity for the population here, he said. He described his formative years growing up in San Diego as a blessing that he once took for granted.

“People here walk five or six miles to get water just to take a shower or cook,” he said. “The effort many people take here just to live their lives is far beyond how we live in America. It’s difficult sometimes to be here and see how hard life is for some of these people You want to do so much, but you can only do a very little.”

Still, Rueda said, his dedication to the mission keeps him motivated. As he and his team continue to aid the Filipinos, they’re still focused on the main reason for their efforts here, he added.

“We’re here to help, and it’s easy to get caught up in the humanitarian aspect of the mission,” he said. “But you just can’t forget about the environment we’re in. Terrorists are here training recruits and planning for bad things. Helping [Philippine] forces bring security and eliminate terrorist safe havens is the best way we can really help the people here towards a better future.”

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Related Sites:
Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines

Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. C.J. Rueda sits with students during an Operation Junior Heroes program Feb. 23, 2010, at Francisco L.L. Laya Memorial School in Iligan City, Philippines. DoD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden  
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