Never too young to go to war for peace
ZAMBOANGA CITY—They were all visibly excited at their arrival here. Some immediately began surveying the surroundings, taking photos with their mobile phones, while others exchanged funny stories.
They had just stepped out of the C-130 military cargo plane, their faces appearing to be unmindful of what was going on at the Edwin Andrews Airbase where the coffins of the 19 soldiers slain in Basilan earlier this week were awaiting transport.
They were the 91 members of the Army’s Special Forces, soon to be deployed in Basilan to replace their slain comrades, or to Zamboanga Sibugay where seven more soldiers and policemen were killed by Muslim rebels two days after the Basilan attack.
Basilan Bishop Martin Jumoad said he was pained to learn that more young soldiers—who are all unfamiliar with Basilan—would be deployed to the island-province.
The new soldiers would be like “cannon fodder,” said Jamju Rivera, the governor for Western Mindanao of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“We pity these new soldiers. They will be fed to the sharks on a silver platter,” Rivera said.
Nineteen-year-old Private Bernabe Abesamis of Nueva Ecija said he knew what happened in Basilan on Tuesday.
“There was fighting there,” he said.
Asked if he had any idea about what was really happening in Basilan, he said: “No, we’re all first-timers here.”
According to Abesamis, soon after graduating from the Special Forces course in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija, this week, they were told they would be sent to Mindanao.
Private Arsenio Alapitan, 20, of Isabela, said he knew for certain that he would be sent to Basilan.
But asked if he knew who the enemy was, he replied: “No instructions were given to us.”
“All we were told was that Basilan would be our destination,” Alapitan said.
He then called someone on his mobile phone, telling him or her that they would soon be off to their first assignment any moment now.
“I pity them a lot. They did not know they were entering a different world, different from what they are accustomed to,” Jumoad said.
The bishop also said he wished that the military would properly brief first-timers before sending them to Basilan.
Many of those who died in Al-Barka last Tuesday were also first-timers, he said.
“I cannot tell them to send back these young soldiers to where they came from, but I wanted to tell them to infuse more information to these young soldiers, teach them the culture of Basilan, the people, the dialect, the terrain and everything,” he said.
Jumoad said he was not trying to discourage the military from sending fresh soldiers to Basilan but officials should “teach and provide more information to the fresh graduates.”
Young but trained
But military officials are unfazed.
The fresh graduates may be young but they have been properly trained, said Lt. Col. Orlando Edralin, the Special Forces Training Corps commandant.
“Aside from the basic military training, they underwent the Special Forces orientation course and some will be programmed for in-serving and cross-training for capability enhancement,” he said.
If Edralin had his way, he would have deployed the fresh soldiers immediately. But it will be the regiment commander who will decide on when they will be sent to Basilan and Zamboanga Sibugay, he said.
Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang, the Western Mindanao Command spokesperson, said the military was not trying to avenge the deaths of the 19 soldiers.
He said fresh soldiers were being sent to Basilan and Zamboanga Sibugay under a “regular deployment” process.
President Aquino has ordered the relief of another high-ranking military officer in the wake of the Al-Barka debacle.
Col. Alexander Macario, the commander of Task Force Basilan, was sacked last Friday.
“I was expecting this because of command responsibility,” Macario said.
He said he had not been formally briefed when the Al-Barka operation was launched but he accepted responsibility for what happened to the 19 soldiers.
“Since I am the island commander of Basilan, responsibility will definitely fall on me,” he said.
Col. Leonardo Peña, battalion commander of 4th Special Forces Battalion, was dismissed last Wednesday by Army Commanding General Arturo Ortiz.
In one of its heaviest losses in the decades-long Muslim insurgency in Mindanao, the military lost 19 Army soldiers in fierce fighting in Al-Barka, Basilan, last Tuesday.
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