WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Western Mindanao Wardaddy?

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/11 April) — In my sporadic camp sojourns in childhood, I knew foot soldiers as friendly just-adults who fashioned slingshots for me and taught me how to use them. Sometimes they rescued me when I couldn’t get down from the mango tree. They taught me how to make booby traps and chicken snare. They taught me how to hold a knife so nobody could take it away. They didn’t mind if I commandeered their hammock when I wanted to read a book out there where the breeze flirted against my skin.

It was remarkable to me then how soldiers seemingly understood what I said no matter what dialect I used. They may not know grammatical English very well, but they could speak so many Filipino languages.

It was in camps where the family visited our father that I discovered soldiers to be very good cooks, gardeners, and ditch diggers. It was a soldier who taught me to cook rice over wood fire. No task was too great or too small. A task was something that needed to get done, and done well.

And perhaps this is why I have a soft spot for the foot soldier.

My husband, on the other hand, does not like me having a soft spot for any other male person, and especially those in combat fatigues whom in his youth he had come to recognize as those who sowed terror in his home.

But sometimes he tolerates my fascination for the warrior psyche. I remember, for instance, him coming home one weekend to take me to see Fury, that WWII movie starring Brad Pitt that so realistically played out all that psychotrauma stuff that helped me earn my PhD in Clinical Psychology. He even brought extra hankies so I could, as expected, cry to my heart’s content.

Fury must have inspired whoever micromanaged that Basilan operation that killed 20 of our soldiers and wounded 56 more. That may not be the final count as at the moment there’s a news blackout on the final count.

Nevertheless, Fury must have inspired this notion that tanks are oblivious to enemy fire. So roll six of them into enemy territory and watch the enemy quail in his shoes.

That must have been quite a sight, quite a sound. One could see, one could hear them coming from three miles away. Enough time for the enemy to get the anti-tanks in place.

Never mind. This operation could call in air assets if things got tight. Well, gee, the problem of our planes not having computerized guidance systems is that the Air Force would require a forward observer to call in the target location.

And a forward observer can’t do that when he’s downed along with the rest of the infantry troops he was embedded with.

Aha. Tank commanders never thought the enemy had armor-piercing stuff? Well, surprise! They had 10-hours’ worth of those. Ten hours. Enough to deliver mortal damage to six armored vehicles, mow down the troops where they stood, and send the ambushers crowing in triumph.

No, said the Chief of Staff, Armed Forces of the Philippines. It was not an ambush. It was an encounter.

Yep. One that started with an enemy explosion that immediately killed five of our soldiers. If that was not an ambush, I don’t know what is.

Then there was close quarter fighting – like 10 meters apart. How the enemy could have crept up that close to a phalanx that resembled a WWII convoy is anybody’s guess. Me, I’d wager it’s because WWII ended 71 years ago. Wardaddy’s enemies did not have portable anti-tanks and a selection of assault rifles at his disposal then.

I was sitting at the back of the reception hall at the 2nd Scout Ranger Battalion headquarters in Barangay Tuban, Sta. Cruz close to noon on the Third Sunday of Easter when my phone started vibrating with the first anguished messages about the Basilan rout. We were capping our psychosocial support to the troops with a mass to heal their psyche and hopefully restore their peace with their God.

At communion time, I surreptitiously read the texts, wondering why my phone was being so insistent on a Sunday.

As the enormity of what was going down in Basilan dawned on me, I looked up at soldiers coming back to their seats from receiving the Holy Eucharist, and I couldn’t help thinking that they would soon be sent out there and maybe this is the last time I see some of them with their psychological balance restored, all of their body parts still where they should be.

An incongruous thought popped in my head: On the season that celebrates rebirth in faith, there can’t be prayers for the dead on the Sundays of Easter. Who will pray for the fallen? Can the prayers wait till Monday?

At around 1pm, I called up Dr. Lolina Bajin, the resident psychologist of the Camp Navarro General Hospital in Zamboanga with whom I’d work for trauma event management of the Albarka incident that claimed 19 lives in October 2011. The good doctor was on leave and had no information of the work awaiting her return. When I told her it was 44IB that suffered the most casualties, she cried.

I, too, do not know how Dr. Bajin sustains her passion and commitment in working with traumatized soldiers even as she has to handle the overwhelming task of assessment for recruitment and re-enlistment. Perhaps she too grew up to have good memories of the foot soldier. Or maybe working with soldiers has rubbed off on her that notion that tasks are stuff that had to get done, and done well.

As the day progressed, more anguished messages came in, most from troops in the ZamBaSulTa area. Some were from friends and colleagues who are privy to my concern for the Filipino soldier. Even my mother, retired and barely managing to survive the heat wave in Iloilo, texted to say she was praying to my recently departed father to help the boys out there.

The Chief of Staff, Armed Forces of the Philippines has some explaining to do. So does the wanna-be Chief of Staff, Armed Forces of the Philippines. It better be an explanation my sainted mother would find acceptable seeing as she prayed for the dead on the Third Sunday of Easter. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches at the Department of Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University. She is head of the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services. You may send comments to gail.ilagan@gmail.com. “Send at the risk of a reply,” she says.)