|Victory pose. Taken after the encounter. The man in front is the surrendered NPA|
I am not feeling that well just barely recovering from a 28-day combat operation. I just realized that yesterday was National Heroes Day after scanning through my Facebook account. Although late, I feel that I should write my own account of heroism I recently saw during the long combat operation I went through
I have been a Commander of an Infantry Company for almost two years in Davao Oriental. My unit was mostly tasked to initiate developmental projects in cleared areas in our area of operation. By cleared, I mean areas that have been declared as insurgency free. With such task, some would comment that my unit is the most “un-warrior” among the other units in my battalion. Nonetheless, the very nature of our tasking provided opportunities that our counterparts did not have. Aside from being the one located in the most civilized part of our battalion’s domain, I had more opportunities to improve my organization in all aspects of what I feel a snappy infantry company should be. Also, having been deeply immersed with communities and helping them out somehow softened the warrior spirit of my troops. I feel that our efforts paved the way to humanize the members of my unit to a point that they have become more caring, more emphatic and more committed to serve the people. This I saw in the most recent test of courage we had during the previous combat operation.
Pursuing an enemy formation that was engaged two days earlier by another unit, I found myself in the advantage position. I was moving from the opposite direction from where most of the troops have begun are and have crossed a very high mountain range for the past two days. Luck favored me as my troops were able to tactically occupy our designated position deceiving the enemy that all troops were on their rear. My Battalion Operations Officer instructed me never to compromise my position which we did by staying at the vegetated part of the mountain side.
In the morning of August 7, a text message arrived from a concerned civilian asset in the area about the location of the enemy encamped just beyond a cornfield. The location, luckily again, was just around two kilometres away from us. We planned our attack dividing my platoon into two with one doing the attack whiles the other conducting blocking at the enemy withdrawal. During the briefing, I explicitly said that I did not want to have dead rebels. I want them captured or surrendered.
An impossible dream.
For some reason, I have always imagined a scenario where instead of a fierce firefight with the enemy, I was able to arrange my troops in such a way that when we finally engage, they will all just surrender. I did not share that idea with others since even I knew that it was ridiculous. But to my mind, that would be the perfect illustration of the IPSP Bayanihan (our present campaign plan) in practice. In my stint as the Company Commander, I have always believed in the greatness of such plan and made it a point that my troops understood its greatness. Somehow, I feel that in the almost two years I have been talking to my men about the idea had some effect.
The actual encounter
Following a dry riverbed from an enemy encampment, we could hear the faint sound of a transistor radio. My lead scout and guide, all Scout Rangers, signalled halt after noticing a trail to the right of the riverbed and conducted reconnaissance towards its direction. The two would later tell me that from their vantage position, they saw one person about five meters away that was unarmed. The lead scout, already aimed at the person, asked the guide,
“Sergeant pusilon na nato,”(Sergeant, let us fire at him) to which the reply was,
“Unya ra dab, tan-awa usa kung nay pusil” (Not yet, let us see if he has a gun).
The fires started when another person stood up with a slinged AK-47 facing them and was in the act of unslinging his weapon.
The exchange of fires lasted for about 45 minutes while the clearing of the encounter site took more than an hour. The initial result were six landmines, 20 backpacks , an AK-47 and one rebel who surrenedered. Later during the night another one who escaped from the encounter site surrendered and the next day when we returned to further scour the area, we discovered additional backpacks and additional three landmines. All in all there were around 47 of those backpacks that were left.
The stories after.
Talking amongst each other, my troops felt some sense of frustration. During the encounter a handful raised their hands as if to surrender only to disappear in another moment. They were frustrated at the fact that they could have just fired at them which meant that we would have piled up more body count and perhaps more firearm recovery. I asked them why they did not fire, their answer would be my crowning glory as commander of this company.
“Ingon man ka sir nga dili pusilon ang mosurrender” (You said not to fire at those who will surrender)
In jest, I would sing to them the popular theme song of the animated movie Frozen “Let it go” just to break conversations on this topic. I would also ask another soldier what is our goal in life, to which they will reply “World Peace.” But when we become serious and really talk about the incident, I explain to them that ours is not a matter of more body counts and more recovered firearms. It is being true to why we are soldiers in the first place. I would later hear comments about why I did not ordered the shooting of all those who raised their hands when we it could all be justified as we were in an encounter. I believe many of my soldiers got the point of my instructions but somehow wanted some validation among our peers who believe that accomplishment is still synonymous to more body counts and more recoveries. I also hope that those rebels that they did not kill will come to their senses and eventually surrender. I pray that they realize that the generation of killing each other is coming to an end.
To my mind, those brave men I fought with in the morning of August 7 are the bravest and honorable soldiers I had the great opportunity to serve with. They are ordinary men who served this country and at the face of danger and adversity, chose to be gentle while it is easier to be harsh. They chose to follow orders even if their mind says otherwise. They are soldiers of the highest form of courage. The courage to do what is right even when it is unpopular.
It will take a while before all the stories will fade down. A few days ago, I sent all of them home for some relaxation with their loved ones. They will come back here after two days, and we will continue doing what we do best, being soldiers for our people. Belated National Heroes Day to all the men and women in uniform out there.