In 2007, I was a graduating cadet at the Philippine Military. The whole Cadet Corps mourned the death of then 2LT Camelon and several other PMA graduates that followed after that series of skirmishes with the Abu Sayaff. I did not understand how it really felt but simply mourned the loss of an upperclass who graduated a year ahead of me.
In 2008, I triumphantly graduated from PMA. I was very eager to be part of something noble as an Army Officer. Shortly after I reported to Davao City together with my other classmates, we saw on the news how the peace talks between the government and the MILF collapsed because of the MOA-AD. I reported to a Battalion that participated in the military offensives after the forces of renegade MILF leader Ameril Umbra Kato attacked Maasim Municipal Hall in Sarangani Province. I arrived listening to very recent war stories and the heroism of one PFC Bayawanon, who was the only casualty of the Battalion in that military offensive. Shortly after that, in October 24, then 2LT Jeffrey Domingo was killed in Barangay Manurigao, New Bataan, Compostela Valley. He was the first casualty of my PMA class and we reported together in Davao barely six months ago. This was the time that I understood the reality of danger in my chosen profession. Unlike the death of an upperclass a year ago, I did not just mourn, I now lost a classmate. About two weeks after that, I will experience my first meeting with death. After we were dropped by three vehicles as we begin our military operation, explosions were heard from afar. The vehicles that hauled us were ambushed. The vehicle that I used was the one that was heavily damaged and the two escorts were killed. I did not remember much of that day only that I knew that those who ambushed our vehicles were already in position when we first passed. I would have been dead have they decided to attack when we passed.
In 2010, I was a team leader during the test mission of my Scout Ranger Class. It was my first time to go to Basilan Province in a municipality called Sumisip. On the third day of our military operation, an improvised explosive device exploded while we were trying to clear a hill that overlooked the road junction where our supplies will pass. Four of my companions were wounded, I was about 100 meters away from the blast. This was to be my closest brush with death.
Today, I hear the news about so many soldiers dead in Basilan, two of which where in my generation of cadets at the Philippine Military Academy, one an upperclass, and the other a constant companion in the discussion and debate society where we were both members. More importantly he was a classmate of my squadmates, he was part of the class that the Class of 2008 groomed to become soldiers. We taught them soldiery. Back in the days when we were cadets, it was hard to teach your squadmates what to expect in the "real" world. Although we had more experience, our idea of soldiery was confined inside the Academy. Maybe this time, I will have gained more of that "wisdom" to tell them something just as how I did it when I was their squad leader.
Dear Class of 2010,
I am writing this open letter because I feel that I have to express my sincerest sympathy over the loss of your classmate in Basilan. In the years that followed after graduation, a lot of my ideas changed out of the experiences I gathered through my years in the Army. After the death of my classmate in Comval Province, I took it as a constant reminder to always be very sure of every decision you make as an officer. In the process, I learned that to be able to decide well requires more than just being a PMA graduate. It means that sometimes we will have to stand our ground even if others will criticize us. It means that you will have to take an extra effort to understand your men so that when you go into the battlefield together your decisions will not just be tactical decisions, rather it will reflect the general well being of the men who follow you. I learned that as an officer, you must constantly persevere to be a better person on the premise that by being better you are giving the men that you lead more years to enjoy their life. I also learned that our motivations and aspirations as a Filipino soldier should be shared to our people. They may not believe you but you will become committed to show them that you are sincere.
I want you to know that I am together with you in mourning the death of your classmate, but I also want to motivate you to take your classmates heroism as your inspiration to be better at what you are doing. By doing so, you are putting value on his death. A lot of you ask questions now. When we had our first casualty, I asked myself why is death so sudden but so difficult to understand?
The media today speaks of the heroism of Lt Khe. You should take this opportunity to stand in front of your men and declare that he is your classmate. A lot of us will never have the opportunity to be heroes like those of them who died in Basilan, but by bringing life to the sacrifice of their death we become heroes in our own right. In our class we have this battlecry, BAGHAWI BUO. Incidentally, this was coined by our first casualty, Lt Domingo. After his death, those words have become so real to each of us in the class. In some way, his death has united us never to tarnish the name of our class, the Academy and the Armed Forces. I also pray that you class will draw the same inspiration from the death of your classmate.
I think I can safely say that the rest of my classmates also feel the same way over this tragic incident. We know the feeling of losing but still we will persist. As our song in the Academy would say: And when the taps shall sung for men, banners drape our last remain; Let singing comrades bury me, to the echoes of the strain.