Gutsy officer in bungled raid found guilty, demoted

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“I fell here, I’ll rise here.”

A bemedaled Army officer kept up a brave front on Tuesday as he was found guilty by a general court-martial of bungling an operation against renegade guerrillas in Al-Barka town, Basilan province, two years ago, causing a clash that left 19 Special Forces soldiers dead.

The military tribunal demoted Lt. Col. Leonardo Peña, former commander of the 4th Special Forces Battalion, and banned him from handling a command for two years.

Peña’s punishment effectively derailed his stellar military career, as he cannot be promoted along with his classmates from Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class 1991.

The class has, in fact, been grooming Peña to become Army commanding general.

Peña told reporters he accepted the decision of the court-martial.

He vowed to redeem himself.

“I just did my job. If that was their decision, I accept that. I leave everything to God. I will continue with the (military) service. As I said, I fell here, I’ll rise here,” he said.

A graduate of the US Special Forces school in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Peña is likely to be stuck doing administrative work for the Armed Forces of the Philippines while he serves his sentence.

Peña, one of the military’s known warriors in the field, said he would accept any job that would be given to him.

“I will just do my best to serve the people because I am a public servant, and since I have always dreamed of [becoming a soldier] from childhood, I will continue [serving in the military],” Peña replied when asked what the military could still expect from him.

Unanimous decision

The military tribunal, led by Brig. Gen. Teodoro Cirilo Torralba III, convicted Peña for violating Article of War 97 (Disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and military discipline).

“By unanimous decision [the court] finds the accused guilty of the charge in all three specifications through proof beyond reasonable doubt. Furthermore, the court sentences the accused and imposes the following: to be reduced in rank 200 files below in the seniority and lineal list of officers… to be suspended from rank for two years, to be suspended from command for two years, and to be reprimanded,” Torralba read the tribunal’s decision.

Peña’s demotion means members of PMA Class ’92 and ’93 would overtake him in promotion.

Peña was motionless and did not show any expression as Torralba read the guilty verdict.

He was acquitted of the charge of violating Article of War 84 (Willful or negligent loss, damage or wrongful disposition).

The decisions were made through secret balloting among the seven members of the military court following 14 months of trial.

For chief’s approval

Peña’s lawyers, Elmer Triad and Col. Julius Agdeppa, tried to convince the tribunal to make the punishment retroactive, noting that Peña has already been on floating status for two years.

But Torralba said that the rules of the general court-martial specifically stated that “the sentence will start upon the approval of the convening authority,” referring to AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista.

Col. Feliciano Loy, the lawyer of the court-martial, said Peña’s two-year suspension was “preventive in nature and was not yet the decision of the court.”

The court-martial’s decision will be forwarded to Bautista for automatic review. The AFP chief of staff has the option of reducing the sentence but not increasing the officer’s punishment.

Asked what soldiers, especially officers, can learn from Peña’s experience, Torralba said: “We should be more conscious of the decisions we make because they can lead to mishaps and lives of people are at stake.”

Col. Rafael Sera Jose, a member of the court-martial, said Peña had been recognized for his achievements in the field and developed a good reputation in the field such that his PMA classmates were grooming him to become commanding general of the Philippine Army.

Impact on career

The debacle in Al-Barka and the decision of the court-martial will greatly impact on Peña’s career, Sera Jose said.

“But we had to make a decision based on the evidence presented to us,” he said.

Asked what he had to say to the relatives of his men who perished, Peña said: “Deep in my heart, I am not bothered by my conscience because I had been with those boys for quite a long time in Basilan. I believe they themselves knew that we were only doing our jobs.”

Different versions of what happened in Al-Barka that led to the deaths of the 19 soldiers, including a young lieutenant, have made the rounds within the military, particularly in the Special Forces.

Ultimately, it was Peña who took the fall as the direct commander of the slain soldiers who were taking a scuba diving course when they were tasked to take part in the operation for the arrest of MILF subcommander Dan Asnawi and Abu Sayyaf leaders Furuji Indama and Long Malat on Oct. 18, 2011.

Three others charged

Aside from Peña, three other ranking officials were charged for the debacle.

The court-martial found Col. Amikandra Undug, then the commander of the elite Special Forces Regiment Airborne, guilty of violating Article of War 97. His rank was downgraded 50 files down.

Undug was the most senior among the four officers who faced trial for the Al-Barka incident. He is best known for arresting Abu Sayyaf leader Galib Andang or Commander Robot in 2003.

The court-martial cleared the two other officers, former Commandant of Special Forces School Lt. Col. Orlando Edralin and former Commander of Special Operations Task Force Basilan Col. Alexander Macario, for “insufficiency of evidence” in their involvement in the bungled mission.

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