Ensign Maria Veloria looks through binoculars in the pilothouse aboard USS Blue Ridge as the ship arrives in Manila. 
MANILA, Republic of the Philippines (March 23, 2012)-  Ensign Maria Veloria looks through binoculars in the pilothouse aboard U.S. 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) as the ship arrives in Manila for a port visit. Blue Ridge and embarked 7th Fleet staff Sailors and Marines will strengthen ties between the two countries through community service events, combined military training and cultural exchanges during the port visit. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexandra Arroyo/Released
USS Blue Ridge Visits Manila 

MANILA, Republic of the Philippines - The 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) arrived in Manila March 23 for a port visit.

Blue Ridge and embarked 7th Fleet staff Sailors and Marines will strengthen ties between the two countries through community service events, combined military training and cultural exchanges during the port visit.

With more than 100 Sailors and Marines on the ship with Filipino backgrounds, many members of the crew will use the port visit to see their families. It's an exciting time for these crew members, some of whom have not been to their homeland since childhood. For one crew member, a special ceremony awaits her third visit to Manila while on the Blue Ridge.

“My fiance and I are having a commitment ceremony,” said Machinist's Mate Fireman Joangela Tanilon. “Ericka and I have invited more than 50 family members and friends to witness our ceremony at a church in Quezon City. I'm ecstatic and have been keeping myself busy on the ship so the days go by fast.”

Tanilon said that aside from seeing her fiance and family, she is excited to show her shipmates the sights and tastes of Manila that she loves.

“I love Filipino street food, especially fish balls, balut, and dried mango with shrimp sauce. The ambiance of Manila and how happy people look makes me smile. Manila is a romantic city, everywhere you go you will see people holding hands.”

Sailors who do not have family in the area, have a multitude of options to choose from while in port. The ship's morale, welfare and recreation committee sold tours throughout the week that many crew members signed up for. There are also scheduled basketball games and soccer matches between crew members and their Filipino counterparts.

U.S. 7th Fleet Sailors and Marines have a long and close history with the people of the Philippines. Two decades after the closing of Subic Bay Naval Base and more than 65 years after the end of World War II, U.S. service men and women continue to strengthen bonds through community service projects, building friendships on liberty, and sharing their unique cultures.

Since 1947, the United States and the Republic of the Philippines have had a mutual agreement allowing the United States to recruit citizens of the Philippines for voluntary enlistment into the United States Armed Forces. Up until it closed in 1992, the majority of the recruitment of Filipino sailors in the U.S. Navy was done at Subic Bay. Lt. Jerry Belmonte, Blue Ridge's damage control assistant, was one of the last Sailors to come from the Subic Bay recruiting center.

“The process I went through to enlist in the Navy, it was tough,” Belmonte said. “They would choose among 200 people in one day. We'd be lined up at the main gate next to the recruiting station and from there, we'd begin by taking tests, going through background checks, having our English comprehension graded and then validating our tests. By the time the process was completed, out of 200 people, I was one of only four left.”

Belmonte said the day he stood in the recruiting line at Subic Bay was the hardest part of his Navy career. Despite having to spend his first two and a half years in the Navy as an undesignated deck seaman, Belmonte prepared himself to take full advantage of the opportunities a military career would provide him. Within 11 years of standing in the recruiting line, Belmonte was commissioned a Naval officer.

“You grow up with a certain mindset when you are born and raised in a Third World country,” Belmonte said. “You work hard to make it and there are not a lot of opportunities available. The U.S. Navy gave a lot of Filipinos like myself an opportunity to have a lot of career options. For myself, enlisting in the Navy was a life saver, a real life saving event.”

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