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Commentary

The passing of a warrior

/ 05:04 AM October 28, 2017

One of Col. Romeo Lim’s favorite sayings was “Die today, die tomorrow, same die.” It was both an occasion for laughter among his friends, because he said it in a voice uniquely raspy, and a glimpse into how this combat veteran, wounded twice in battle, viewed his own mortality.

His readiness to face death when it came calling could have been part of his Army training, first as an infantry officer then as chief of staff of the First Scout Rangers Regiment. The regiment provided a treasure trove of stories for him.

During drinking bouts in the now shuttered bar Remember When, Lim would hold fort with his stories about war, mostly his Ranger days, regaling his audience with how battles could be won through the simplest of strategies: common sense.

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“Stupidity” was a word he often used to describe military losses in the battlefield, particularly against communist rebels and especially when the casualty figure for the Army was unusually high during rebel ambuscades. “That would not happen under me,” he often said, citing examples of Army units being led to traps by rebels simply because, according to him, “they did not use their brains.”

War, for the colonel, was art, science, math, common sense, courage and humanity all in one.

He brought war’s horrors to the table through his clinical description of what a howitzer round, or an M-16 bullet, or a .45-caliber bullet, or bullets flying out of a .50-caliber, helicopter-mounted heavy machine gun could do if any of these found their mark on a human body.

Some of the ammo could split a coconut tree in two, he said. Imagine, he said, if they slammed into a man.

Lim found military miscalculations a source of amusement, having committed such an error that caused him one of his wounds—hiding from enemy fire behind a coconut tree but getting hit in the butt anyway because the tree did not provide full cover.

He narrated the episode of a Tora-Tora pilot delivering a bomb to a group of rebels seen assembled not far from a public market. The pilot missed the mark so terribly that the bomb landed on the market where, he said, “nangamatay ang mga tao (people were killed).”

He clarified quickly that he was not laughing at the loss of innocent lives but at the mistake of an airman flying what, to Lim, was the military’s most laughable air asset.

War also tested the one thing that Lim refused to discard as excess baggage in his battles, mostly against communist rebels: his humanity.

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While his stories about battlefield successes were told almost with braggadocio, he would slow his narrative down when he recalled encounters with rebel leaders whom he refused to call enemies of the state but, simply, warriors with a different cause.

He knew who Alex Boncayao was, the insurgent leader who died in battle and after whom an urban communist rebel unit was named. Boncayao, for Lim, was a warrior worthy of respect by fellow warriors on the opposite side. When his men killed the rebel leader in a clash, Lim made sure the body was turned over to his family for a proper burial.

“We carried his body down from the mountain,” the colonel recalled.

Lim recounted many scenes of bravery on the battlefield, and also of the frustration of troops on the ground at superior officers who got all the credit even if they took part in the fighting only as “armchair generals.”

He loathed the kind—those good at endearing themselves to the powers-that-be but have never experienced being shot at, or even just grazed by a bullet. “Only a man in the foxhole can understand a man in the foxhole,” he said.

He lived a soldier’s life, and admitted to sometimes worrying if war shock was creeping into his brain, as manifested by unpleasant encounters in bars with certain unsavory characters, some of them foreigners.

At the old location of the bar Hobbit House in Malate, Manila, Lim crossed paths with a foreigner, an apparent Middle Easterner, who had been verbally abusing the service staff. Lim sat beside the foreigner and said in a matter-of-fact tone: “You know, if I shoot you right now I’ll be a hero.” The undesirable alien soon disappeared from the bar and Lim became a hero for the night, at least to the small people who had to endure the foreigner’s verbal abuse.

The Army never left Lim and Lim never left the Army even after his retirement and his transition to civilian life. The military brass who knew him invited him to meetings to pick his brain.

And his stock knowledge was vast. He could fly a plane or a helicopter and describe the machines’ parts in detail and what their functions were. He could narrate at length what went wrong after reading news reports about ship collisions, describing to us laymen what port side or starboard meant.

But in moments of weakness, he confused names and labels, sometimes repeatedly mispronouncing the surname of Romy Tangbawan, an ex-Malaya reporter and also Remember When habitue, as Timbangon, Tambangan, and similar-sounding variations.

Or he referred to the clothing brand Benetton as “Lebutton” on the night he complained about how expensive it was but still had to buy it to heed his daughter’s request.

Or, bedridden in hospital, he made a barely audible phone call to me only to let me hear his voice, but answered vaguely when asked what had happened to him. “Matanda na (I’ve gotten old),” he said. A lousy signal cut the call short. But knowing him to be a tough nut to crack, I failed to get the message as his means of saying goodbye.

It’s during these times when one clashes with a loss of words to honor a brave warrior and a great man. Perhaps the sound of a 21-gun salute will approximate the respect and admiration that I and many of Colonel Lim’s friends and fellow warriors feel for him: Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

Tony Bergonia was assistant editor of the Inquirer’s Across the Nation and current consultant for its Regions.

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