WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: War Wounded. By Gail Ilagan

DAVAO CITY (MindaViews/27 June) —  [Author’s remarks during the launch of her book, “War Wounded” at the Ateneo de Davao University on Saturday afternoon, 26 June].

A few days back, in Mawab, Compostela Valley, a detachment commander apparently lost emotional control after figuring in a domestic dispute with his wife. He took his government-issued M14 and opened fire on non-combatants, some of whom were his neighbors and some of whom were just unfortunate to have been passing by. As a result, there were several innocent people who suffered gunshot wounds and one of them died, not due to the wound, but because he went into a fatal cardiac arrest after realizing that he had been shot. I am told that while the soldier fired at many people, he did not shoot his wife.

It is senseless.

Arguably, it is also rare. Highly stressed soldiers do not indulge in indiscriminate firing everyday. But one case like this is one case too many.

Cases like this that lent me the impetus to try and determine the vectors to combat-related stress. We trust soldiers to be the legitimate bearers of arms for the sole purpose of protecting our country and our people. But when soldiers lose emotional control, they have the potential to lose judicious judgment over the use of the firepower that we had issued them. Obviously, this has dire consequences on their domestic relations, on the communities they come in contact with, and on the image of a professional Army that other soldiers try so hard to preserve as professional, competent, and pro-people. It takes only one case of a lapse in judgment on the part of an emotionally unstable soldier to render wasted the collective effort of the rest that make up the military establishment. Cases like this erode community trust and give us the irony of the protector we come to fear.

In my old age, I have come to realize that I am just about done shaking the tree. As our university president, Fr. Antonio Samson, had publicly admonished me during the commencement exercises last April 30, he expects me to do more to help solve problems in our community, problems in our country. More than the desire to troubleshoot what was wrong with the system, my work on this book had been motivated by my bigger desire to help make the system work. I had hoped to turn up ways to help the military institution become more responsive to the needs of the soldiers. I had hoped to explore workable means to connect soldiers-at-risk of bearing the psychological costs of combat exposure with the resources that are at hand within the military organization. I hoped to do this because there are no winners when a soldier goes out of control. We all lose.

And so, I am especially grateful for the emerging climate of openness in the military institution that has allowed me to undertake this study. In all the years that I have been putting the AFP and the Filipino soldier under my microscope, this is the first research I had done when it seemed that everything I needed was at my disposal.

Lt. Gen. Rey Mapagu, Commanding General of the Philippine Army, Lt. Gen. Ding Ferrer, commander of the Eastern Mindanao Command of the AFP, and Maj. Gen. Chay Holganza, 10ID commander do not always agree with me. When we disagree, we try to do so in private. But as some of you know, our disagreements have on occasion gone public, with much bitterness and animosity. They are all very circumspect officers and gentlemen, however, so I am constrained to be a gentleman also.

We do disagree, but on the matter of addressing troop welfare these commanders have time and again demonstrated their concurrence to my view that the foot soldier is the most precious resource of the AFP. They have demonstrated their agreement by allowing me to test my psychological applications in their turf. For this research in particular, I had been well-supported by Dodoy Suerte – this long-suffering man who has so far put up with thirty years of my extended juvenile delinquency; unflappable Rolly Bautista and the battalion commanders – Ted Llamas if the 2nd Scout Ranger Battalion, Bob Ancan and Manny Sequitin of the 66IB in New Bataan, Boogie de Leon of the 73IB in Sarangani, and Ferdinand Lazaro Budeng of the 28IB in Lupon… as well as the men and women in their command. I also worked with the staff of the Tactical Operations Center of 10ID, as well as offices of the G1 and G7 and the Eastern Mindanao Command Headquarters.

I thank my mother institution, the Ateneo de Davao University, especially Fr. Samson and Dean Jessie Manuta, for allowing space for my untraditional community engagements and research interests, for supporting my professional growth and my inclination to weigh in on the public discourse on matters affecting our community. Elvi Tamayo, the assistant dean for the undergraduate programs of the SAS had been instrumental in the birthing of this book with his insistence that the ADDU should have first dibs at publishing my work.

I thank my colleagues in the Psychology Program – especially my mentor and friend Dr. Orencita V. Lozada, Hadji, Eric, Nellie, Raf and Ann – for the spiritual and collegial communion and the climate of a nurturing home. I value belonging to the faculty of the Division of Social Sciences and Education and that of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for the generosity of my colleagues in sharing their expertise and learned opinion. Such had constantly pointed me to new research directions, much to my husband’s dismay.

I also should not forget to mention MindaNews and how being a part of it has allowed me a guided tour into the crucial issues confronting this island I now call my home. The MindaNews is a cooperative of journalists bonded by an inordinate sense of social responsibility and we proudly banner: This is OUR Mindanao. All told, it would be fair to say that it is MindaNews that defines Gail Ilagan the writer.

About this book, well, as with any initial foray into a new landscape, I wanted to do so much all at once. Not only did I want to address mental health management for the frontlines, I also wanted to address the whole slew of issues related to it as I may never get another chance. So here the reader is going to find a lot of background information, as well a something on my personal context as a researcher, my biases as a practicing psychologist, my theoretical orientation, and the form of psychological data that I find most comfortable to work with – the introspective narrative.

Going into this book project, I wasn’t too clear myself how to present my data, but I had been most aided to put order to the anarchy of my right brain by the comments of Ricky de Ungria, Margaret Udarbe-Alvarez, Marlina Lacuesta and Kris Mortela. Whatever failings this book has, those are entirely my fault, not theirs, for I am sure they are all left brained. May I just say that faults and all, I am quite happy with how this book turned out and that if I don’t ever get to write another book, I am quite okay with this one. For now.

Thankfully, Melotte de Castro of the Research and Publication Office and Cols. Kurt Decapia and Boy Faustino of the Army Headquarters willingly pulled together to make this book happen for me, with the blessings of Gen. Mapagu.

I owe much thanks to the soldiers who trusted me with their stories. As any trained helping professional knows, truth-telling has the most crucial role in the healing process. The stories the soldiers told me are stories that need to be told. These are stories that need to be heard.

On page 144 of the book, please allow me to read…

“…Men who come back from war are never the same again.

Recognizing this, warrior societies, tribes, and nations often incorporate purification rituals for their homecoming soldiers before allowing them to rejoin the community. These rituals appear to serve the health of both warrior and society. Gabriel writes that purification rituals in primitive societies involve some form of ceremonial cleansing to rid the warrior of stress and guilt. The ceremonial ritual allows fighting men to decompress and relive their terror without feeling weak, vulnerable, and exposed. It is also a way for the community to tell the soldier that what he did was right, that the community he fought for was grateful, and that the community welcomes him back. Gabriel proposes that when soldiers are denied these rituals they are unable to purge their guilt or be reassured that what they did was right and often end up emotionally disturbed and unable to fully integrate back to a peaceful society.”

Let this book then be symbolic of that purification ritual. Let the narratives here allow the soldier a voice to purge his guilt and the venue to relive his terror without being rendered weak, vulnerable, and exposed. Let this be the venue of the warrior’s truth-telling. Let the reader, especially those among us lucky enough to never know war, who will never know war, understand what it means for the soldier when we ask him to go to battle for the rest of us. May this understanding of the psychological costs of combat exposure generate empathy and compassion for the good soldier and lend to the reader the inclination to bring the good soldier where he rightfully belongs, back here among his people.

These are my humble intentions and this book is my humble offering. (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).