CAGAYAN DE ORO (MindaNews / 22 June) — When President Donald Trump addressed the graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point on June 13, a family in Kalilangan town in Bukidnon watched the ceremony closely on a TV screen.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Jose de la Cruz Peñaflor and his wife, Jeralyn, strained their necks to get a glimpse of their son, Cadet Jesson Cawaing Peñaflor, who was among 1,107 newly minted graduates who marched during the commencement rites at the Plain Parade Field of the US Military Academy at West Point in New York.
The Filipino cadet from Bukidnon earned a Bachelor’s degree in Nuclear Engineering from the prestigious military academy.
As the graduation was held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 13 in New York (10 p.m. in the Philippines), Jesson’s parents, cousins and aunts kept vigil into the wee hours of Sunday, some sitting on the floor, to watch the graduation rites.
The house of the Peñaflors in the Kalilangan poblacion is small and its walls suffered cracks during the April 2017 magnitude 6 earthquake that rocked the southern part of Bukidnon.
The family could barely fit inside the house that the elder Peñaflor had to rig a tin roof outside the door to shelter those who were watching outside.
“We were so proud that our son was there among the graduates of West Point. Any parent would be beaming with pride,” Peñaflor said.
He said his wife, Jeralyn, prepared a simple merienda of hot coffee and biko (rice cake) to keep the family awake as they waited for the graduation rites to unfold on the TV screen that was wired to the internet.
It was in the wee hours of June 14 (in the Philippines) when they finally saw Jesson from the full dress gray line, march in socially distanced fashion up the stage.
“Jesson Peñaflor from the Philippines!”
Peñaflor said he could never forget when his son’s name was called out: “Jesson Peñaflor from the Philippines!”
“I became emotional and wept, seeing my son, after all his sacrifices, fulfilling his dreams,” he said.
Jesson was born on March 7, 1996, the eldest of three children, the younger ones named Jestelle Pooh and Jose Romeo.
He spent his early childhood in places where his soldier-father was assigned, including Barangay Mat-i in Claveria, Misamis Oriental, at the Army’s 9th Infantry Battalion.
“A soldier’s pay was so low in those days that I had to bring my wife and son along to save on food,” Jesson’s father said.
Jesson would spend his carefree childhood playing with other children of soldiers and their neighbors at the military detachment.
The elder Peñaflor recalled an incident where the military jeep where Jesson was playing suddenly sped off without its driver, giving him the scare of his life.
“It must be during those days when Jesson dreamt to become a soldier,” he said.
Elementary and high school was uneventful for Jesson at the Remedios T. Romualdez town in Agusan del Norte, hometown of his mother, Jeralyn.
Jeralyn remembers how Jesson frequented her church, the Assembly of God, during his high school days.
From MSU in Marawi to PMA
In 2012, Jesson won a Science scholarship, allowing him to study Mechanical Engineering at the Mindanao State University in Marawi City.
One night during his summer vacation, the elder Peñaflor said he and Jesson were watching on TV the 2013 graduation of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA).
Peñaflor said Jesson was silent as he watched the Valedictorian of the “Pudang-Kalis” Class of 2013, Cadet First Class Jestoni Armand Lanaja, deliver his speech.
Lanaja is the eldest son of a tuba gatherer from Davao del Sur.
“Jesson might have been inspired by Lanaja because like him we are also a poor family living on the wages of a lowly soldier,” Peñaflor said.
The elder Peñaflor said months later, Jesson called and informed him that he took the 2014 PMA entrance exam and passed.
He said he borrowed 30,000 pesos so Jesson could go to the V. Luna Hospital in Quezon City and have his physical examination taken for his PMA application.
Jesson failed in the physical exam but this did not deter him from taking it again in 2015.
The elder Peñaflor said Jesson made it this time and was among the top 100 cadets of the PMA.
While in the PMA, his father said Jesson and 30 other PMA cadets applied for the Foreign Service Academy for a scholarship program for the Australian Defense Force Academy and the United States Military Academy.
He was accepted in both but Jesson chose to study at West Point.
From PMA to West Point
Jesson had to cut short his plebe year in PMA to study in West Point just like former President Fidel Ramos and the late Defense Secretary Rafael Ileto.
His father said he does not know why Jesson opted to pursue Nuclear Engineering.
Jesson will come home soon as a commissioned second lieutenant of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and his father said Jesson told him he would like to join the First Scout Rangers Regiment or the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear unit of the Philippine Army when he reports for duty.
On June 1, two weeks before his graduation, Senate Majority leader Juan Miguel Zubiri filed Senate Resolution No. 432 commending Jesson, his fellow province mate for graduating at the prestigious military school in West Point. The proposed resolution was immediately adopted.
Zubiri said Jesson is the second Mindanawon to graduate from West Point.
The first Mindanawon and first Filipina to graduate from the American military school was Army second Lt. Christy Achanzar of Davao City, daughter of an overseas worker.
“2LT Peñaflor is the only Filipino citizen in this year’s graduating class and the second Mindanawon to graduate from West Point, the first being Christy Isis Achanzar of Davao who graduated in 2008,” Zubiri said.
Zubiri said that aside from Achanzar, “Peñaflor will join the ranks of noted Filipinos who graduated from the esteemed military academy, namely, Vicente Podico Lim, the first Filipino graduate of West Point, former President Fidel V. Ramos, Brigadier General Danilo Lim, and former Defense Secretary Gen. Rafael Ileto.”
Zubiri said Jesson’s journey to the West Point is a testament to the fruits of hard work, discipline and a genuine commitment to service.
He said Jesson’s story will inspire the aspiring servicemen and women of our nation to aim higher and work harder. (Froilan Gallardo / MindaNews)