WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Through community trauma, combat stress, and civilian oversight

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/16 July) — We had gotten off to a rocky start.

In mid-2006 when the Philippine Army founded its 10th Infantry Division, I was reluctantly starting my doctoral studies in clinical psychology. It was not exactly a perfect fit. I was a social psychologist by heart and it still was second nature for me then to view the clinical cases I found through the lens of social psychology. I looked at the influence of culture and the workings of the organization in examining how bad situations come to be and cause problems for people.


In April 2007, I found a family in distress up there in the mountains of New Bataan. I got to a house and there I found a white coffin. Beside it sat a mother, thin and brown like me, her eyes drowning in sorrow. Her six-year-old son sat by her side. He hadn’t spoken since three days before when he ran and ran from bullets suddenly flying everywhere in that patch of the river that used to be his playground. That was when he’d lost his sister. They’d found her hours later. That was her in the coffin. Nine years old and dead.


Back home I had a nine year old waiting for me. She was sassy. God help me if she’d suddenly turn mute.


And that was how it turned rocky. That my daughters can be sassy is because they got it from me. I argued and pleaded and later turned angry. I wanted 10ID to do right by that mother who could have been me. I wanted my soldiers to do right by that nine-year-old who couldn’t in life and in death could speak for herself. It ate me up inside to imagine what unspeakable horrors could render a happy country lad speechless. It just was not right.


Happily enough, the 10ID and I worked out our differences. It didn’t exactly end the way that I had intended for that family. I lost them, snatched from under my nose by people who had more interested agenda than rehabilitating them from trauma and setting them back on the road of recovery from grief and loss. The family would eventually find me two months later for a chance at closure. And then I would never hear from them again.


I was glad that when they eventually came, the concerned soldiers gave us that window of opportunity for healing. Despite the confrontational atmosphere under Oplan Bantay Laya, there were soldiers who understood the trauma of grassroots communities caught in the insurgency wars. My soldiers were not all robots or hawks. They, too, were reasonable people and some of them were doves.


These past years, I have become a familiar visitor to the various camps of the 10th Division, helping with lectures and workshops or doing research and psychological debriefings. I take text messages at all hours from officers and men of the Agila. Sometimes, I hear from their wives and children. Other times, I invite the soldiers to come down to my lab for trainings, dialogue, or coffee so they could officially get away from the humdrum of the regimented life if only for a few hours.


The 10ID has engaged me and my Center through four changes of command thus far. It was General Joji Fojas who first invited me to take the podium at the 10ID Conference Room in Camp Panacan in 2008. In 2009, General Rey Mapagu gave me leave to do my dissertation on combat stress among his soldiers. General Chay Holganza allowed me to finish it in 2010. He was my special guest at the book launch. General Joji Segovia carried on our partnership for stress management and counseling support, youth development and flood relief all through 2011. General Segovia calls me “Boss.”


Viewing the Philippine military through four decades of my life – starting from my temporary residence in camps when my dad was still in active service to the years when my brothers went to PMA and on up to starting out as a community researcher, a columnist, and a practicing psychologist – has been seemingly about watching the changing of the guards. I like the metamorphosis I see.


In particular, I agree that apart from the military option, there are other solutions to conflict that would be worth considering because they are morally and constitutionally right and they are doable. I agree that it is time for the military establishment to focus on its capability to address threats to territorial integrity. I agree that the soldier is a member of the community that he serves, and that there is space for him to connect to the rest of the Filipino people as we move together towards peace and development.


Convening the regional Bantay Bayanihan to monitor the conduct of the military units in pursuit of the objectives of the Internal Peace and Security Plan is the latest commitment our Center has made to security sector reform. No more should I argue and plead and get angry about bad things happening to people who can’t speak out because I know that there would be soldiers who would listen. Like me, they too want what’s best for our people and are prepared to make things right, if not immediately, then at least when something similar comes up for their decision.


So we talk. And then we get to work.


At a forum I hosted at the Ateneo de Davao last June 22, 2012, 10ID Commander Ariel Bernardo welcomed the prospect of a civilian oversight body training its eyes on him and his men. Transparency. Accountability, Human Rights. The Bantay Bayanihan is all those things that a constitutional democracy make.


It looks like going into the seventh year of the 10ID, our partnership for relevant engagement has taken another turn. I’d like to see where it takes us this time. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Gail Tan Ilagan is the director of the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services (COPERS) and the chairperson of the Psychology Department at the Ateneo de Davao University.