WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: My worlds colliding. By Gail Ilagan

Two hundred forty-six hours to go before I can write finis to the mandatory internship that would get me nearer to earning my PhD. Two hundred forty-six hours more of digging up trauma and childhood hurts that have deeply wounded the psyche, or – as the birthday boy in Lipa said – raising demons and ghosts. 

Most times, those horrifying specters stubbornly refuse to be laid to rest. Sometimes, they turn around to haunt me. I’m drowning, desperate for a lifeline to be thrown my way.

Then on one especially ghostly day recently, my cellphone vibrated as a text message came in. It said: Hello, Gail. I have the honor to request your presence as my special guest on my assumption as division commander of 10ID at 9am on 10 February 2009 in Camp Panacan.

That was no ghost I summoned, although sometimes with a soldier it does feel that way. Every time I am with a soldier, I think of it as perhaps the last time I would be with that person. So when a soldier I know turns up to connect, it does feel like being touched by a ghost sometimes.

My texter, MGen. Reynaldo B. Mapagu, is not a ghost. He is, among his other accomplishments, the proverbial officer and gentleman that professional soldiers aspire to be. He is also a Mason who dedicates his every endeavor to the Great Architect of the Universe, who holds most dear the values of family and good citizenship. I call him Papa Rey when he’s not within hearing distance. 

I got to know the good general when he was still the regimental commander of the Philippine Army’s First Scout Ranger Regiment. I had written a paper on the socialization to the military rebellions of the 1980s, which I contend to have been the political warfare model later coup attempts would try to recreate. The paper provided an analysis of the organizational dynamics that led to the mass politicization of the FSRR troops. 

My findings were among the things Papa Rey and I would talk about on those occasions when we sat down to have coffee. We also discussed my sometimes critical take in this column on concerns affecting the Mindanao war theater, counterinsurgency and military reforms. Mostly, we just got to know each other as a professional and came to like each other as a person.

It could be remembered that three years back, former FSRR (First Scout Ranger Regiment) regimental commander BGen. Danny Lim was detained on charges of rebellion and the FSRR itself continued to be high on the shortlist of the likely suspects to rumored destabilization attempts against the Arroyo government.  For his pains, the FSRR would remember Papa Rey’s stint with the regiment as the time when successful efforts were made to depoliticize and reorient this elite combat unit. As an academic observer, I had been all admiration for the way discipline held during politically precarious times under Gen. Mapagu’s watch.

Apart from birthday boy, Papa Rey is the only person I know whose text messages, coached in his signature Old World courtly language, could pass grammar and spelling check every time.

So how does one reply to such an invitation? Gen. Mapagu has yet to come up with a textiquette manual to guide the re
st of us.

“Thank you, sir. I accept. And the honor is mine,” I texted back. I really wanted to say “Thank you, kind sir” but that would have sounded over the top.

Tuesday morning at 8:27, my screen lit up with a message from a friendly major: Text me when u get to Panacan. I will escort u. A minute later, a snappy sergeant presented himself at my gate and ushered Prof. Ilagan into a waiting car. We traversed the CP Garcia Highway from end to end. At 8:58, he dropped me off the edge of the Camp Panacan Parade Ground and pointed me in the direction of the grandstand where the friendly major was waiting to have me seated. I couldn’t resist whispering “Honor guard, thank you” to his uniformed sleeve as I went past.

I was not seated five seconds when everyone was requested to stand for the entrance of colors. The ceremony was about to begin. Military precision. Things happening when they should. Oh, God. How I miss that.

I was in that parade ground some weeks before covering the turnover of the Eastern Mindanao Command. Before that, I can’t remember the last time I sat at the grandstand to witness the troops parade in review. All these had been part of my past that I had decided to leave behind when I got married. But, it looks like the past is where people head to when they’re not looking.

Today, when I am not constrained to raise demons and ghosts, I prefer to be an educator and a scribe. I try to be a serious academic, and I end up writing a paper on what makes soldiers rebel. I try to provide substantive analysis of events that impact on our lives, and the Joker Up There gives me old friends playing the field close to home. Uh-oh.

Seated on the grandstand, I felt distinctly schizoid. Shouldn’t I be among the journalists covering this event? I caught myself maneuvering to get out of camera range. What was I doing on the grandstand? Oh, right. I’m here to celebrate this remarkable milestone in the career of a most respected friend. No wonder I don’t have my notebook with me.

At the reception, Eastmincom Commander MGen. Ding Ferrer caught up with me and indicated his willingness then to answer the questions I raised in an earlier column. Damn. I wasn’t a columnist on that occasion. “But, Sir, Major Mortela and I are thinking of writing a book on Basilan. Permission to interview you someday, sir?” I joked. That got him to nod agreeably.

Minutes after I presented the Philippine Army Commanding General, LtGen. Victor S. Ibrado, with Bob Timonera’s Mindanao calendar, the chopper flew him out. Last Christmas, I had sent him a MindaNews shirt that was our bit for constitutional literacy. The shirt said: “The Philippines renounces war as an instrument of national policy…” I forgot to ask Gen. Ibrado if I got his shirt size right. Now, Gen. Ibrado is another officer who understands the media’s concern for human rights and the rule of law. I have no doubt that he’ll have no problem being seen wearing the shirt in public.

The scrappy outgoing 10ID commander MGen. Jogy Leo Fojas surprises me with an avuncular farewell peck on the cheek.

“Are you happy, sir?” I asked.

“Of course, I’m happy. I’m going home!” he chuckled. He gave me a lightning squeeze and jauntily breezed away to parts unknown.

I stayed a bit. It was a reunion for me with some of my foster brothers who were there for the turnover. Most of them are senior officers now assigned in various units all over Mindanao. For some, it had been 25 years since we last saw each other. It was confounding to one or two to find that the shrewish MindaNews columnist is actually someone they remember as the hellion bunso. Peace be with you, my brothers.

In particular, today’s command roster at 10ID looks like someone peeked in my diary. This might be the last time in a long while that I would devote column space on that unit, peopled as it is by some of our soldiers that I personally respect. There are two or three there that I would trust with my life and who would, in turn, probably trust me with theirs. That means that whatever they do, I would be schizoid and biased and that would in no way serve public interest.

“Sir Rey,” I said to Gen. Mapagu, “when my favorite soldiers are in my town, what is God telling me?”

Amusement crinkled the corners of his eyes. “You’ll see, Gail. You’ll see,” he promised.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail.ilagan@gmail.com. "Send at the risk of a reply," she says.)