WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Battle scarred. ByGail Ilagan

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/31 May) — Middle of this week, Dr. Orange Lozada and I were up in the muddy, misty mountains of Mawab in Compostela Valley Province working with newly commissioned lieutenants who will soon be joining the 10th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army.

While we were up there, the 66th Infantry Battalion confirmed that they had gathered that day eleven troops who had survived the 11 May 2010 ambush in Maragusan Valley and that I could do critical incident stress debriefing on them. Dr. Lozada volunteered to help out.

So we slipped and slid down the muddy mountain road and rode off to New Bataan which was about an hour away.

I felt distinctly guilty for dragging Dr. O along to places where the higher concentration of firearms could increase the chances for violence, but she was very determined not to let me go alone this time. Maybe she’s gotten tired of detoxifying me every time I come back from borrowing someone’s encounter trauma.

This time, she took the lead as we helped the soldiers work out their individual difficulties.

In years past, combat commanders were more likely to send packing busybody helping professionals like us who would dare to preach the gospel of psychological first aid to frontline troops. Today, some commanders recognize that combat stress implicates troop morale and effectiveness and that maybe there’s no harm in having professionals do their thing. In their turf.

This summer, for example, we at the ADDU’s (Ateneo de Davao University) Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services were able to deliver two training workshops for mental health management for the frontlines. We were scheduled to do more, but soldiers had more important stuff to do when things started to get heated up again hereabouts. At least, that gave those we trained the opportunity to try out the stuff we hoped to teach. The multiplier effect is what Dr. O is so optimistic about. I’d second that in a flash.

But coming back from New Bataan to again face sixteen fresh, hopeful, and idealistic young men and women who would in all probability go through what the Maragusan survivors did, I found it difficult to bridge the divide that would ease their transition from my classroom to the world they were about to join. Such is the challenge of the classroom. We educators try to arm our students as best as we could. How they survive the jungle out there is entirely up to Divine Providence and the students’ ability to muster their resources.

Well trained these young officers may be. They are also of the generation that grew up with the animated version of Pocahontas. This version told a story that said going to war is not always the answer. It said that if you listened with your heart you would understand.

Unfortunately for these new officers, they’re not likely to meet people out there who similarly benefited from early childhood admonitions from Walt Disney.

Looking at those hopeful, earnest faces, I hoped with all my heart that I had the power to give them a guarantee that they could survive their first year in service enough to learn what it takes to survive the rest of their military career. Get married. Have kids. Have kids who would be proud of them and the job they do, kids who’d probably watch the Pocahontas DVD from their crib.

And as I write this, word gets in about a young officer who got blasted beyond recognition by an improvised explosive device today. He was not so much older than those who sat through my lecture earlier this week.

In fact, he was no older than Zaldy Cañete, that young man who left home at thirteen to be with his brother up there in the mountains. Ten years later, Zaldy ended up with hot bullets stitching up his innards when he got trapped at an isolated kubo somewhere in the hinterlands of Davao del Norte.

I’d wager Ka Jinggoy, as Zaldy is better known, never had the opportunity to watch Pocahontas as a kid. He’s now making up for it by watching Tom and Jerry in between courtroom appearances.

Like some of the Maragusan survivors who have taken over his space at the Camp Panacan Station Hospital, Zaldy still has to heal his physical wounds. Part of his continuing tragedy is the fact that medical incarceration has reduced him to twiddling his thumbs. He has such gifted hands. I would suggest for whoever is taking care of him now to let him work his fingers. It won’t heal the psychic wounds of his lost childhood, but it could give his hands something to do.

Psychic trauma is harder for those who survive deadly force encounters without a scratch. It’s difficult to claim injury when one has nothing to show for it. Warriors seldom get acknowledged for coming through a situation that posed an extreme threat to their lives.

They are expected to suck it up and get back to work. Like, if you lived through it, it shouldn’t touch you. Except that somewhere deep down inside, giving and receiving acts of violence does touch the human person and render him changed forever.

People who return from wars may come back whole but would never be the same again.

In my forthcoming book, I tried to examine how the experience of war changes the psychic topography of warriors.

I don’t know if it would make people who don’t have to go to war understand. My editor Ricky de Ungria did. Marli Lacuesta said my work felt like a big hand took hold of her heart and squeezed it. Margie Alvarez urges me to put it out there. However, she also said that reading my manuscript hadn’t been entirely a pleasure because now she needs a debriefing, too.

In any case, I sent the manuscript to press before school opens and I won’t have the time for it. It’s got to get out there soon. Someone has switched on the battlefields to high gear again.

(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@mindanews.com. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says).