Lieutenant killed in Zamboanga, leaves little Sophie
ZAMBOANGA CITY—In her mother’s arms, little Sophie Andrea Damian reached down to tap her father’s metal coffin, oblivious to the somber mood at the military air base here. She rapped on the coffin playfully, as if she knew her daddy lay inside.
Navy Lt. Aemy Leslie Campos hugged her young daughter tight. Nine-month-old Sophie looks a lot like her father.
Army 1st Lt. Francis Damian was the third military officer to be killed in the battle with Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels that is still not over, 17 days after the insurgents loyal to Nur Misuari supposedly tried to hold a peace rally and hoist their “Bangsamoro Republik” flag at City Hall on Sept. 9.
Beside Damian’s coffin were those of Police Officers Enrique Afable III and Lavin Salisa of the elite Special Action Force (SAF) of the Philippine National Police with their relatives crying over their coffins.
Afable and Salisa had gunned down MNLF rebels in close-quarter combat before they, too, were felled by enemy fire.
In close-quarter combat, fighting takes place within the confines of buildings or on narrow roads where houses stand in tight rows, making it difficult for the combatants to maneuver.
Top government and security officials—Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista and PNP Special Action Force Director Carmelo Balmoria—led the sendoff for Damian, Afable and Salisa on Wednesday at Edwin Andrews Air Base here, saluting the fallen men. The Air Force chaplain prayed for them.
Military choppers flew over the sendoff ceremonies, as fighting persisted in the combat zones.
Life returns to normal
Earlier in the day, the officials attended the flag-raising ceremony at Santa Maria Elementary School where classes resumed after an interruption of two weeks.
The officials later joined the reopening of one of the popular shopping malls here to show the residents that life in the city is returning to normal.
It was not noon yet, but the officials were already in the middle of the striking contrast between hope and grief.
The military spokesman, Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, said Campos had told him that her husband would have been a good father to Sophie, who was baptized a few weeks before the Zamboanga City crisis.
“And then she just cried and cried,” Zagala said, admitting that he was teary-eyed as he consoled the young widow.
Damian and Campos were classmates at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), graduating in 2007.
Zagala learned that Damian, a member of the Light Reaction Company, had just finished his airborne course when he volunteered to serve in Zamboanga.
Some reporters covering the front line remembered seeing Damian and his men while they rested on Sunday after a fierce gun battle with the rebels.
The next day, in close-quarter fighting with the rebels, a high-velocity bullet pierced Damian’s helmet and hit him in the middle of his forehead. He was taken to hospital where he died on Tuesday.
Sons of PMAers
One of the pilots of the Air Force C-130 plane that flew the coffins back to Manila was Damian’s PMA classmate, 1st Lt. Jose Mari Manalo.
Both are sons of PMA graduates. Manalo’s father is still in active duty. Damian’s father is a retired police general.
There is no telling when the battle will be over. “The last phase (of the battle) is the longest and most difficult,” said General Bautista.
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