US Army Special Forces commander Col. William Coultrup, who headed American troops temporarily stationed in Mindanao, heads back home soon after a three-year tour of duty in Southern Philippines where his leadership left a lasting impact both on the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and on communities in conflict-stricken areas in the region.
Coultrup relinquished command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) to US Navy Capt. Robert Gusentine during a turnover ceremony last Friday at Camp Navarro of the AFP-Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) in Zamboanga City with US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. as the guest of honor.
Since 2002, some 500 to 600 US military personnel have been temporarily deployed in Mindanao “in a strictly non-combat role to advise and assist the AFP, share information, and to conduct joint civil-military operations.”
Their presence in the region is provided under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), according to an AFP official while the US authorities say that the JSTOF-P is in Mindanao “upon the request of the Philippine government.”
Gusentine, before his assignment to Mindanao, was director for operations at Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC) in Honolulu, Hawaii. Senior AFP and U.S. leaders recognized the exemplary service of Coultrup who led America’s efforts to support the Philippine military in the fight against terrorism in Mindanao. Coutrup’s next assignment will be in Washington, D.C.
“Bill, you are a true hero. It is an honor to be here recognizing your leadership, courage, vision, and sheer tenacity,” Thomas told Coultrup, adding: “You are an extraordinary leader who has developed JSOTF-P into an enabling force for peace, for improvement, and for progress in Mindanao.” said Thomas.
Coultrup, who arrived in the South in September 2007, has overseen the completion of more than 151 developmental projects valued over $19 million.
Implementation of the projects, aimed to create the conditions necessary for socio-economic development, peace, and prosperity in the Mindanao region, were done in coordination with the AFP and local government units in the region.
Among the projects completed by joint JSOTF-P and AFP personnel are the construction of schools, new wells, roads, and bridges; implementation of civic action programs like providing medication for health aliments, vaccinations for animals, and distribution of school supplies to children.
Both Philippine and US authorities admit that newly built schools, new wells, repaired roads, bridges, medication for health aliments, vaccinations for animals, school supplies for the children, or basic education and information are all small steps that allow individuals and families to have hope for a better future.
“By doing so, we are gradually shrinking terrorist safe havens and hampering these groups’ ability to conduct operations in Southern Philippines,” they said.
Col. Jose Johriel Cenabre, Wesmincom chief of staff who has served and trained alongside JSOTF-P forces on the ground and at the headquarters level, praised Coultrup for enhancing the enduring partnership to defeat common enemies in Mindanao.
“Our war against terrorism and lawlessness in the Mindanao region has us (AFP) with the upper-hand,” said Cenabre. “Col. Coultrup’s focus on civic action programs has improved the quality of life for the people and specialized training has increased the capacity of the AFP,” he added.
According to Cenabre, Coultrup’s leadership helped build AFP and Philippine National Police (PNP) capacity through Subject Matter Expert Exchanges (SMEEs) that provided training in marksmanship skills, small unit tactics and explosive ordinance disposal, forward air control, maritime operations and casualty evacuation.
“Assistance has also been provided to the AFP in special operations planning and the sharing of information. The AFP has been successful in conducting targeted surgical strikes, designed to minimize collateral damage while neutralizing the threats, these efforts have led to the execution or capture of 56 known terrorists,” said Cenabre.
“The citizens of the Philippines can be proud of the men and women of their Armed Forces. I know I am,” he said, further stating: “To the AFP, I challenge all of you to continue moving forward in this common cause leveraging the same innovation, ingenuity, and initiative that has brought us to this historic moment.”
Coultrup, for his part, said: “My service here has been one the most rewarding times of my career in the military and in special Operations. I have seen heartbreaking events and things that make me proud to be in the military doing this job.”
His implementation of the “by, through, and with” method of foreign internal defense was key to building operational capacity in the AFP. By integrating all aspects of national power to include military, political, and economic means into a cohesive strategy for engagement, a significant and lasting improvement in the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency capacity in the southern Philippines has been made.
The US Ambassador extended his congratulations to Gusentine and told him the embassy offers their continued support to the AFP/U.S. partnership. “You inherit a thriving command and an excellent relationship with the AFP. You can count on us, and I know we can count on you,” Thomas told Gusentine.