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Soldiering on despite the holidays

SOLDIER SANTAS Christmas away from homemeans outreach activities in the community like this feeding program in Malaybalay, Bukidnon province. —PHOTO FROMAFP FOURTH INFANTRY DIAMOND DIVISION

SOLDIER SANTAS Christmas away from homemeans outreach activities in the community like this feeding program in Malaybalay, Bukidnon province. —PHOTO FROM AFP FOURTH INFANTRY DIAMOND DIVISION

When the bells of peace ring on Christmas Eve, Sgt. Alexis Estelloso will make sure all activities lined up earlier in the day are done.  Only then can he sleep and celebrate with his family—in his dreams.

Estelloso’s workplace is distant, surrounded by water and can be reached only by a Philippine Navy vessel or a C-130 of the Philippine Air Force.  He is one of the soldiers stationed at Pagasa (Thitu) Island in the Kalayaan Island Group, some 280 nautical miles northwest of Palawan province in the West Philippine Sea.

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Like some Philippine troops, this chief master at arms at the Naval Station Emilio Liwanag will be celebrating Christmas away from his family.  Fortunately, Estelloso’s wife, Angel, is also a Philippine Navy personnel. They have two daughters, aged 4 and 11.

“Christmas is for everyone,”  said the 41-year-old Marine. “In our case, however, it’s the call of duty first. But I have no regrets being assigned here and defending our sovereignty.”

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Indeed, while ’tis the season to be jolly for most people, troops on the frontlines must contend with distance, boredom, and loneliness away from home—all in pursuit of duty.

In 2014, Marine Lt. Mark Anthony Jordan spent the holidays at the BRP Sierra Madre at the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the South China Sea, comforted only by the noche buena goodies sent by the Western Command based in Palawan.

The Marines onboard the rusty ship in the so-called last frontier of Philippine sovereignty are surrounded by water year-round and have only each other for company even on Christmas. To make their premises look more festive, the Marines under Jordan, then the detachment commander, crafted a Christmas tree out of plastic bottles.

“We used bottles we found floating in the water,” Jordan said. “We also used the gas lamps from boats to light up the tree.”  The highlight of their celebration, he said, was taking turns talking to their loved ones on the satellite phone.

Facebook and Skype

Christmas has never been the same since he joined the military, said attack helicopter pilot Lt. Bryan Lanzuela who will be away from family on both occasions for the first time this year. Since September, he has been deployed in Jolo to give close air support to ground troops, continuously battling the bandit group Abu Sayyaf.

Technology has helped ease the separation somewhat, Lanzuela said, thanks to Facebook and Skype, although signal problems in Jolo can get in the way.

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The Christmas break for the Armed Forces of the Philippines is usually divided into two to four sets of dates to make sure there are enough personnel on duty even while the rest go home to their families. The troops follow Christmas and New Year breaks on rotation.

Whiling away the hours

On Christmas day, troops on duty partake of simple noche buena fare and sing Christmas carols to while away the hours and drown out the loneliness that, Estelloso said, makes him think of filing for early retirement in two to three years’ time to be with his family during special occasions.

On this year’s holiday at least, said Scout Ranger Cpl. Brenan Mahayag, he won’t be involved in combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf Group.  Instead, he will join the gift-giving activities organized by his mother unit, the 63rd Infantry (Innovator) Battalion of the 8th Infantry Division in far-flung communities.

“I miss my wife and my children, especially this Christmas but what can I do? We have to crush this menace so there will be peace here,” he said.  His wife and two children—aged 26 and 1—are in Samar province.

“My Christmas wish is to come home but I guess it won’t happen so I will just pray for the happiness, security and good health of my family,” he said.

With the military-declared ceasefire in effect, his troops will be involved in civic action activities and inspecting remote barangays before they return to their barracks on Christmas Eve.

For  Pfc. Mary Ann Gordove, being in a welcoming community helps ease the pangs of being away from home.

“The residents here in Jolo are courteous and nice, and the fruits and resources from the sea are abundant,” said Gordove, who will spend her first Christmas away from home since giving birth to her only child.

Assigned to the 101st Infantry (Three Red Arrows) Brigade of the 1st Infantry (Tabak) Division in Jolo some four months ago, she does office work and joins the medical outreach missions of the military.  Her husband, also a soldier, will be spending Christmas in his assigned camp at the 55th Infantry Battalion in Misamis Occidental province.

“We miss our child very much but we have to sacrifice because of the call of duty. I try to overcome the pain and loneliness of being a mother by keeping myself busy,” she said of their child who is staying with a grandmother in Kabasalan, Zamboanga Sibugay province.

Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang’s wish to be with his family this Christmas was granted, albeit at the last minute.  He had applied for a New Year’s break but an order from the higher-ups required all commanders to be on Christmas break.  He will enjoy the company of his wife, four boys and two daughters in his home in Panabo, Davao del Norte province, but only until December 26.

As commanding officer of the 80th Infantry Battalion in Baras, Rizal, he takes charge of more than 400 Army personnel deployed all over the communist rebel-infested province.

“My family had always wished for my Christmas and New Year breaks but having both never happened. So now, they know we can choose only one,” he said.

Most memorable

Although some show biz celebrities had visited his camp to cheer up the troops on Christmas Day, Cabangbang recalled that his most memorable Christmas was in 1995 when, as a young first lieutenant and company commander in Davao City, he met then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte who made a surprise visit to bring noche buena to the troops.

“It was Dec. 24, everything was quiet. Then he came in a helicopter, bringing food for the midnight feast,” he recounted.  The mayor later asked him about his roots and when he said he was from Bohol but grew up in Laguna, Duterte took off his watch—a Swiss Army watch—and gave it to him.

“‘O, sa iyo na lang ito (Here, you can have this),’ Mr. Duterte had told him. The mayor then invited Cabangbang to join the Christmas party of the city government, which he did for the next 15 years.

On Christmas Day, Cabangbang’s men will make the rounds of surrounding communities, particularly the problem areas, to make their presence felt and give residents a sense of security when they celebrate the special occasion. People are “psychologically at ease” when they see the military, he said.

No Christmas, New Year breaks

In Davao City, troops won’t take a break for Christmas and New Year, a tradition in the city for years now.

Col. Erwin Bernard Neri, commander of Task Force Davao, said his soldiers had already taken their break as early as November.

“Since Nov. 15, they’ve been taking turns having their break. We divided the troops into four groups  to accommodate their various activities,” Neri said.

Despite the holidays, they have not lowered their security alert Level 3, which has been in place since the September Davao bombing that killed 14 people and injured more than 60 others.

“That has been the practice here,” said Neri. “We advance the break to make sure the troops are intact and can handle the convergence of people in public places during the holidays.”

Although his fiancee will join him this Christmas, Pfc. Vinjie Colaljo will miss his parents from Misamis Occidental. They’re too old to visit him at the V. Luna Hospital in Quezon City where he has been confined since the troops’ encounter with the Abu Sayyaf in August.

Colaljo was wounded in the clash that also killed 15 of his comrades. He has to stay in the hospital for at least four more months, he said.

Being away from family on a day that celebrates the Holy Family can be lonely, but there’s the thought of duty that sees them through, said Jordan.  No regrets, he added.

“It’s a sacrifice, but it comes with the job. Kasama po sa serbisyo ’yan (it’s part of the service we render),” he added.

It’s something that their own families have learned to accept, Neri said. “You become an absentee father, but your family understands why. And technology has been very supportive. It’s like using a remote control to manage family ties.”

Capt. Jason Roy Mararac, a civil military officer of the Joint Task Force Sulu, 101st Brigade, based at the Western Mindanao Command, can no longer count the number of Christmases he had missed spending with his family.  “I don’t want to count them anymore,” said the  34-year-old member of Philippine Military Academy Class of 2006.

“I will spend Christmas inside the camp and later in the community so I won’t get lonely. I’m not part of the troops fighting off the Abu Sayyaf in the mountains,” he said.

New chapter

His Christmas wish is to have improved communication signals so he could call his family in Pangasinan province and hear them loud and clear, Mararac said.  He added: “I hope this problem with the Abu Sayyaf will be over soon so we can all go home and enter a new chapter in our lives.”

Col. Benjamin Hao, spokesperson of the Philippine Army based in Fort Bonifacio, recalled his first Christmas away from home as a first lieutenant assigned in the mountain of Pagibato District in Davao in 1991. It was the height of the military campaign against the New People’s Army.

“It was lonely and very dark in our detachment because of the mountainous terrain.  I really missed my family but it’s duty first, so we just stayed in our base.”  After a simple noche buena, they hit the sack at midnight.

But it did not take long for them to integrate with the community.  “At first, we just observed them going to simbang gabi (dawn Masses) from our detachment.  But the following Christmas, we started joining them in going to church,” said Hao, who is now back in his home in Malabon.

Based on his experience, he said more soldiers opted for a New Year’s break because they felt happier on this occasion. “But as you grow older, you opt for the Christmas break. So now, I chose the Christmas break,” he said with a laugh.

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