Military News

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Face of Defense: Airman Comes Home During Operation Balikatan

From an Exercise Balikatan News Release

CLARK AIR BASE, Philippines, April 29, 2015 – Air Force Staff Sgt. Andre Garrucho, a C-130 Hercules aircraft flight engineer, has a knack for surprising people.

Garrucho’s ebony black hair is laced with just a few traces of gray, despite a nearly 12-year career ensuring C-130s take off, land and fly safely. Now nearly 40 years old, Garrucho’s jovial nature and youthful complexion might mislead one to thinking he is 10 years younger.

“I look so young, people would think I don’t have the maturity to be a flight engineer,” Garrucho said. “Whoever doesn’t know my background, … how many kids I’ve raised, would definitely be surprised at what I’m capable of doing.”

Also surprising are the circumstances of Garrucho’s job. He sits in the center of the flight deck, elevated above all others, despite his certainty that he will always be outranked by the pilots and navigators with whom he shares the aircraft’s metallic perch.

“I need to see what’s going on everywhere, … how the pilots are performing, and have a feel for the flight,” he said. “If something goes wrong, an engine shuts down, we strike a bird, et cetera, you will definitely feel something. Sitting in that chair, I like to think of myself as [Star Trek’s] Captain Kirk.”

Hand-selected for Balikatan Exercise

It was no accident Garrucho was hand-selected to participate in the Balikatan exercise, making the relatively short flight to the Philippines from his home unit, the 36th Airlift Squadron at Yokota Air Base, Japan. His selection was based on his unique skill set, not only inside the aircraft, but outside as well.

Garrucho is a Filipino-American. He is from Manila, the country’s capital. He speaks fluent Tagalog and English, two of the most widespread languages in the Philippines. He married his high-school sweetheart and has four children ranging in age from 16 to 21.

His oldest son, also an American airman, works on avionics for the F-15E Strike Eagle. His oldest daughter attends college in the Philippines, his second daughter lives with him at his home in Yokota and attends high school there. His youngest daughter was unable to travel with him to Yokota due to being diagnosed with Turner’s syndrome -- a chromosomal condition that affects development in females. She lives in the Philippines with his parents, where she can receive treatment.

A Homecoming for Garrucho

That is why, in contrast most others who traveled to the Philippines for Exercise Balikatan 2015, it was a homecoming for Garrucho.

“I’ve gotten to see my mom and kids a lot, and my other family members have come to visit me while I’m here. It’s such a great opportunity to see family members who have driven to see me from my hometown two-and-a-half hours north of here,” he said. “Since I’m here, I’m in a position where I can clear up any misunderstandings between the two forces during Balikatan. … I can relate to them both.”

Balikatan is an annual bilateral exercise between the U.S. military and the Philippine armed forces in which the two forces team up to share best practices, strengthen relationships, and reinforce cooperation in the spirit of the Filipino term “Balikatan” -- the “shoulder-to-shoulder” mentality for which the exercise is named.

“I’ve talked to pilots in the Philippine air force since I’ve been here … they were wondering how I got into the [U.S.] Air Force,” Garrucho said. “Now that I’m back, I get to show them what we’re capable of doing. We can learn from them side by side and help them learn what they can do with the things they have.”

Pre-flight Checklist

For now, Garrucho sits alone, perched on his metal throne. The harsh noonday sun shines through the flight deck windows, enveloping his silhouette in a blinding halo. Undeterred, Garrucho continues to go through his pre-flight checklist, ensuring that Balikatan and his aircraft’s role in it continue undeterred toward success.

As he calculates engine performance data and inscribes landing and takeoff distances, an American flag sits comfortably alongside a Philippine flag on the left shoulder of his flight suit. He can operate in both worlds concurrently, and those around him say he is predisposed to professionalism, diplomacy and amicability.

This amicability was on display a half hour earlier, as Garrucho relaxed in the shade under a sparsely leafed tree on the outskirts of the tarmac here, postponing entering the heat of an unpowered C-130 until the last possible moment.

This time was not wasted, however, as he took care to gift a warm, enthusiastic wave to passing helicopters, colleagues and even strangers, all of whom were sharing in the Balikatan experience.

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