The American Legion in the Philippines: part I
“That’s the way things are done.”
I got involved with the American Legion in the Philippines early in 2004. My wife had prepared a home for us in the islands while I worked long hours. Eventually, the time came to settle into the new home. We landed in Manila New Year’s Day early in the morning. My wife and I made our way to our home in the hills above Olongapo City only to find it had been robbed and ransacked in the weeks before we got there. My dream to relax in the tropics had taken a sharp detour.
I retired from the Navy and hoped to be able to spend more time at home. That didn’t happen right away because I took a job at a DOE site near Aiken, South Carolina. We started out on twelve hour days working the 3-2-4 rotation; some weeks you worked a lot, the next you had plenty of time off. That was great—right up to the point they started making overtime available to the subcontractors. There’s no way I could sleep in while hundreds of dollars were calling me from down the street! Compare that to the $56 per diem I made on active duty, you know I jumped into the car every time that phone rang!
That went on for five years. Eventually, even a veteran accustomed to hard work needs a break. Big paychecks become less important when there are no kids at home and the bills are paid off. When my wife completed construction on our house in the Philippines, I left the states behind with few regrets.
I arrived with much anguish. There are few things in life more frustrating than walking through the scattered pieces of your home and castle after the vandals have been through it. You feel violated without being physically touched. I got my first education in Asian culture when I called the police. Americans have certain expectations on how a home burglary should be handled. Toss those in the round file the moment you get off the plane in the Philippines.
While my wife talked with the officers, I watched the way they treated the crime scene. The Navy had a pretty good program for police procedure at Lakehurst where I earned the 9545 NEC, so I had a good idea what should be done. Apparently I had more training than the local chief of police. It took some time to figured out the object of the investigation was not to find those responsible, but to convince us to forget the whole thing and buy new stuff. The more we insisted on seeking justice, the more they asked us to fund the local police department. It started with simple requests for lunch and expanded to include, ink for their printer, ribbon for the typewriter, even coffee and cologne for the boss. “Don’t complain, sir,” the junior officers whispered to me, “That’s just the way things are done here.”
Three days later, I needed a break. Several young relatives escorted me downtown in Olongapo. It looked very different from the raucous days of fleet visits back in the day. Gone were the hundreds of bars, the loud, blaring music and pretty little brown girls spilling out of the doors and their clothing. I recognized some of the landmarks from then. The statue at Rizal Circle where Magsaysay Drive met the Jungle was still there. Many of the buildings still stood containing more conventional businesses. One tumble-down building had the words FLORIDA CLUB in faded paint on the side.
A tall monument stood a few blocks from the entrance to the gates to the old Subic Bay Naval base. Checking out the black, crusty anti-aircraft gun drew me towards a welcome sight. In faded red, white and blue letters was the words AMERICAN LEGION. The young Filipinos escorting me to town needed a break from all the walking anyway so I stopped in for a drink. I hadn’t had a cold San Miguel in years!
Several grizzled old vets sat around the ancient wooden bar. They greeted me on sight and introduced themselves. It was good to talk to Americans again. Even though I had only been in country for a few days, I had already discovered just how badly English skills had deteriorated in the decade since the base closure in 1991. I needed to talk to somebody who understood me! I told them the story of what had happened when we got to our house and discovered how common the story was. Too many guys arrive in the Philippines to a similar shock. The Legionnaires also informed me it was likely an inside job. “That’s the way things are done here, dude.” I signed up for membership that day.
The guys at Adm. Arthur F. Spring American Legion Post number 4 in Olongapo City helped me immensely over the next few weeks. We found out that it was indeed an inside job. My wife’s nephew had helped with the break-in to fund his Shabu (crystal meth) addiction. Our new neighbors had eagerly helped or had purchased my things cheaply. Much of the big stuff came back, but the thousands of dollars in jewelry from our lock box were gone forever.
It soon became apparent the police had no intention of closing the case. I reached the point where I got tired of being shaken down by the police. The first tactic we used was to go with one of my new comrades at the Post. An older Filipino gentleman turned out to be a pretty fair lawyer. Leg. Norberto Dela Cruz wrote up some excellent documents that put the chief of police on notice that I had local connections now. The cash drain stopped, but they still had my things; it was being held as “evidence.” It irritated me to stop by their office and see them watching my television.
The final tactic that worked was finding my wife’s uncle. Actually, he found us. Uncle Fred was a retired Chief Detective for the NPF (National Police Force). In the Philippines, retirement stops your paycheck, but it does nothing to diminish your authority. My new favorite uncle got all of our items released in one day. I usually don’t approve of nepotism, but I had to play by their rules. I had won by doing thing “the way things are done here.”
I could never have gotten that far were it not for the help of the American Legion. They were proactive in getting me started, giving me advice and support through difficult times and connecting me to the right people. I learned that that was one of the primary objectives of the Legion; to assist veterans. This is an organization worth joining. I stepped in fulltime as soon as my feet settled and became Post Adjutant the next month. The American Legion became my primary focus for the next three years. More articles will follow this highlighting the work and assistance lent by these men to the thousands of veterans and their five-fold dependents struggling in isolation in a land so far from home.
Morgan Johnson, Jr.