DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/29 October) — I was thirty minutes in the airport lounge in Zamboanga City at 2:15 pm last Friday when the shakes came on. I locked myself in the privacy of a public restroom before someone would mistake me for a drug dependent. My body needed to ride out the waves of adrenaline backlash. I was going home. My subconscious told my body it’s okay now to let go.

I took the 3:20 flight for home, bone-tired and weepy.

Yeah, I know the drill. By now, I could actually time the course of hormonal flow rebalancing. It would have been so much preferable for someone to hold me though this, or just be there, but psychological support for the psychological supporter is hard to come by. We make do. When we educate about stress reactions, we do know what we are talking about.

Carol, kind soul, had the MindaNews van waiting at the airport to pick me up and drop me at my doorstep. Home to Liane’s wordless hug. Real Mother-I’m-so-relieved-you’re-whole tight. Sagey offered her fragrant hair for me to bury my nose in. With a smile in her voice, she gently claims her natural oils will fire my happy hormones. Works for me.

Hubby in China, talking Chinese by now. My mother in Iloilo texted her relief and pride to know I had come home from doing my duty to God and country as she directed. Yes, ma, I abided by the girl scout law, too.

Three days on loan to the Western Mindanao Command to do trauma event management on the Al Barka incident, I should have known better than to go it alone. I had survived soaking myself in the hot tub every night, psyching myself up for the tasks laid out the next day. Pam unobtrusively reminded me every night that I had another life and other commitments waiting. Hubby called before bed so we could tell each other “I love you.”

So many men, so little time.

But maybe, that’s all I could give to remain emotionally uncompromised and do my job. As it was, the horrific images painted by the soldiers’ narrations, the soul-deep pain in their eyes, and the anguish in their voice as they recounted their experience intruded in my thoughts, sometimes when I had already reminded myself to let it go for a bit.

WesMinCom’s resident psychologist Lolina Bajin was happy to see me when I got in. Clinical psychologists are a rare breed in Mindanao. There are, according to the records of the Psychological Association of the Philippines, only seven of them spread thinly in some major cities. We’re always grateful for the extra hand, especially when confronting on our turf something like Al Barka.

She would have gotten to it, she said. Except that she was inundated with routine procedures for processing the unending batches for reenlistment and promotion. The wards weren’t very conducive for critical incident stress debriefing on the wounded. It was hot and the medical staff provided constant interruption. So too did the media horde that, days after the botched mission, descended like flies on the military’s open sore.

Quickly, she filled me in on what psychological first aid had been provided thus far by her and her team of debriefers, which she had trained from among the medical staff. Cued about my preference to do one-on-one interviews, she kindly gave me her office to process the ambulatory survivors. I had thought that would have been unnecessary. In camps, I do my work best under the mango tree, out in the open. But after the muggy heat of the wards, the soldiers did prefer Mrs. Bajin’s airconditioned office. If only for that, the Al Barka survivors would talk to the nice lady some more just so they could stay longer.

On the 28th, ten days after the fateful Al Barka mission undertaken by the Special Forces, Mrs. Bajin and I were sent on the speedboat carrying the DSWD Secretary Dinky Soliman, DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, and OPAPP Secretary Ging Deles to Isabela City. Colonel Ramon Yogyog, sworn in two days before as the area commander in Basilan, had arranged for us to talk to the SF troops in the JSOT-B headquarters in Tabiawan.

Combat missions that exposed operating troops to prolonged intense attack, the suffering of their comrades, contact with the dead and the dying, and overwhelming demands on their physical, cognitive, and emotional resources are harder on those who survive physically unscathed from the ordeal. Unlike the wounded who are sent to the hospital to take time off, settle down, and recuperate, the physically able are immediately sent back on duty, carrying with them the psychic wounds from their exposure. They grapple with grief, guilt, and rage as they relive the terror and try to make sense of their irrevocable loss and their inability to control how things turned out at crucial times.

As the SF Sergeant Major assembled the Al Barka survivors, I was daunted by the sheer number of troops eager to disarm and talk to us civilians. Just Mrs. Bajin and me. We had two hours before the speedboat would take us back to Zamboanga.

“One hundred and three of our men were sent on that mission. The scuba students were not the main effort. It only seems that way because nineteen of them died. They were the main effort,” said the Sergeant Major, pointing to a young lieutenant who looked not old enough to be shaving everyday.

PMA Class 2010. Oh, boy. I worked with some of his mistahs a little over a year ago. Kris Mortela had Dr. Orange Lozada and me do a little pre-deployment psychological education for them in Mawab before letting them out on the field.

Looking at the expectant faces, it almost pained me to say we could work with as many in the time that we had, but that we could not manage everyone. Mrs. Bajin had to reschedule for those who couldn’t be accommodated. We asked for volunteers. It’s so much easier to do this when the soldier is ready to work with his issues.

Coming out from my first session, I found Mrs. Bajin still huddled with her group of ten. She signaled that I was to go in the commander’s office. I entered to find Colonel Alexander Macario waiting for me. No, we did not talk about golf this time.

Long minutes later, Colonel Yogyog was at the door. It was time for me to head back for the boat.

Yogi, my brother from another mother.

Smoke signals, and we’ll be there for each other.

One minute to walk me to the waiting car, we wordlessly shared the weight of the compassion we both felt for warriors in distress.

In the speedboat’s cabin, I barely listened to the press talking to the three secretaries. I just left my tape recorder running on the table for all to see. Soon, I’ll listen to what was being said. Just right then, I had to play catch up with where I was. Entering another man’s reality has a way of distorting one’s temporal flow.

Perhaps tiring of the “Basilan witch hunt” rhetoric he’d invited, Jess Robredo went to lounge by the stairs right behind where I was sitting. We talked a bit. I said I wasn’t a columnist then, so I can’t share here what we talked about.

Before the Impact landed at the berth, I had time to quickly fill in my host, Lieutenant General Raymundo Ferrer, on my initial findings and recommendations. I promised to send in my report within two days.

In the bigger world, the nation tries to make sense. Just how anguished we are at the violent death of nineteen young men, we can glean from Ed Lingao’s frustrated diatribe at how inappropriately mainstream media had covered Al Barka: with a makeup kit and a lot of sunblock lotion, more like. Ed, among the last of his breed of really serious investigative journalists, cries out for a reasonable voice to be heard above the hysterical hubbub.

Here’s one not covered by a confidentiality clause.

On the expectation of the long legal process involved in exacting justice for the SF soldiers who fell in Al Barka, may I quote verbatim, the WesMinCom commander, caught on tape on the boat from Basilan:

“Okay lang magtagal kesa naman atakihin ko na ang Al Barka? Di bale nang tumagal ang justice, basta we exact justice the legal way. Ang masasabi ko lang sa all out justice… on the call to attack Al Barka, silent ako dun kasi as I explain to the public pag sabihin na ‘Bakit ayaw mo pang umatak e namatayan na nga kayo?’, dapat may legitimacy lahat ang ating ginagawa.

“That is why… utos ni commander. That’s how nag-start and problema sa Al Barka. Gusto ni commander. Sinong commander, I don’t know. Hindi galing sa akin yan. Hindi puedeng gusto ng isang commander ‘do this, do that’. Ganyan yan. Siyempre, alam mo yan. E, iniwan ng operations commander, hindi pinagplano ng maayos. Ano ngayon ang basis mo to send people to their death? Ano ang legal order? A telephone call? Maski na. When given a legal order, (you should) put it in writing that reference is a telephone call from somebody directing you to do this.

“If they want me to attack Al Barka now, we can do that any time pero kailangan may legitimacy, hindi yung parang ganti. Kasi kung gumaganti ka lang, maggantihan na lang tayo lahat. Rido na lang. That could not be a legitimate combat operation. That is going to be a rido lang. Ganti-gantihan.

“That is what I don’t want to project – na gumaganti lang ang military. We will exact justice, but we will follow the legal procedure and at the same time we will be protecting the Mindanao peace process. This is not going to be an all-out… gulo.”

Ferrer retires in January 2012. The legal process would take longer than that to find who authorized sending our men to their death. Justice will have to wait for the hundred and three who went genuinely believing the mission to be legitimate. Some of them survived Al Barka.

Or did they?  (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan is a clinical psychologist and author of “War Wounded.” She 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).