MANILA, Republic of the Philippines — U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) and the embarked 7th Fleet staff arrived in Manila, Republic of the Philippines for a regularly scheduled port visit March 4.
During the port visit, 7th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin will host bilateral staff talks with officials from the Philippine Navy, and trilateral staff talks with officials from the Philippine Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, to enhance cooperation and strengthen relationships to best provide security and stability in the Indo-Asia Pacific.
These talks take place as Blue Ridge is on patrol in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, conducting military-to-military engagements and cultural exchanges throughout the region.
“The U.S. military has a long history of ties with the Philippines, going back to Subic Bay,” said Lt. Daniel Kohlbeck, Blue Ridge Operations Officer. “They are an important friend in our area of responsibility, and building the relationship is really vital to the security of the region. This is a hugely important visit and I’m glad that it is Blue Ridge going in to make this happen.”
The ship’s crew has a meaningful connection to the Philippines beyond just routine port visits.
During the ship’s 2015 patrol, Blue Ridge Sailors rendered assistance to a fishing vessel that suffered from mechanical difficulties, rescuing five Filipino nationals, who were suffering from hypothermia and malnourishment after three days stranded at sea.
Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Luis Macedo Lopez was part of Blue Ridge’s medical crew that rendered assistance to the fishermen last year.
“My thoughts coming into Manila is remembering how crazy it was to see a small fishing boat, out in the middle of nowhere, stranded,” said Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Luis Macedo Lopez. “And, it just so happened to be Filipino fisherman. Now, we’re heading back to pay a visit. I hope that they’re as happy as we were for what we could do.”
Many service members on Blue Ridge have Filipino backgrounds, allowing them to use the port visit to see their families. Senior Chief Culinary Specialist Ruben Giron was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the United States when he was nine years old.
“My siblings, nieces and nephews are going to pick me up,” said Giron. “I plan on spending a lot of time with them, of course, and I plan on taking time to just enjoy being in the Philippines. It’s a dream for me to come back. It’s a blessing.”
Sailors who do not have family in the area have many other options to choose from while in port. The ship's Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) committee offer tours throughout the week. MWR will host tours to Mt. Pinatubo, Pagsanjan Falls and Taal Volcano, the smallest active volcano in the world.
“We plan to have a lot of participation with these tours,” said Chief Ship’s Serviceman Kevin Zita, Blue Ridge’s MWR coordinator. “A lot of Sailors have signed up and it’ll be an eye-opening experience for everyone to get out there, get out of their comfort zones and experience Philippines in its truest form. I’m most excited for the junior Sailors who have not been here.”
Zita is also a member of the Blue Ridge and 7th Fleet basketball team, which is scheduled to play a basketball game against their Filipino counterparts at the Bonifacio Naval Station Gymnasium March 5.
“Rather than just going in their port, visit their malls, and check out the city, we’re actually going out to interact,” said Zita. “There’s no better way to get to know another person than when you play sports because at the end of the game, you gain each other’s mutual respect. Friendships grow and even sometimes, brotherhoods are bonded for years to come.”
Blue Ridge has been forward deployed to Yokosuka, Japan for 36 years. As the flagship for 7th Fleet, Blue Ridge is vital in maintaining partnerships in the 7th Fleet area of operations.