Dying for our country
Before Donald Trump entered the White House, perhaps the most divisive issue in the United States was the Vietnam War, a conflict that lasted a decade through 1964-1973. During those years, about 11 million entered the military service either as draftees or volunteers. Of those who went to Vietnam, 58,000 died, 270,000 were wounded, with 5,000 of the wounded losing one or more limbs. Sixteen million of draft-age men, meaning those who were covered by the Selective Service System, escaped military service by a variety of legal and illegal means.
Among the 16 million was Donald Trump who was able to secure five deferments: four for academic reasons, and one for bone spurs in his heel.
Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam War hero who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi and is now facing his greatest battle against cancer, had this to say about the system that put the burden of service on the poor and the powerless: “Those who were better off economically did not carry out their obligations, so we forced the Hispanics, the ghetto blacks, and the Appalachian whites, to fight and die. That to me was the greatest crime and injustice of the Vietnam War.”
How did so many able-bodied young Americans circumvent the draft system, leaving the fighting and dying to others?
First, there were college deferments for undergraduates as well as graduates. Married men, especially those with children, were deferred. A hardship deferment was available if you were the sole support of a widowed mother or younger siblings. Actor George Hamilton was excused because he was the sole support of his mother. Incidentally, Hamilton was making $200,000 a year and lived in a Hollywood mansion.
Physical exams were used to avoid the draft. All you needed was a sympathetic doctor who could certify to some kind of illness or physical disability. Divinity school students were also given exemptions.
Service in the National Guard was another way of avoiding possible deployment to the war zone. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle were both in the National Guard during the Vietnam conflict.
The war in Vietnam was a war fought largely by the poor, the working and middle classes, not the privileged elite. The lower income groups, for mainly economic reasons or because they were not aware of deferments, provided the warm bodies needed to pursue the war.
Who fights our wars?
The Filipino equivalent of the American GI, is the “sundalo” and they come from the lower income groups of our society. For them military service provides a stable job with a steady income, various career opportunities, and a chance to earn a commission and to move up the social ladder. Even with the growing danger accompanying security threats facing the nation, many young men flock to recruitment centers as the Armed Forces of the Philippines, particularly the Philippine Army, continues to build up its manpower base.
The recently-concluded battle for Marawi, now known as “the longest urban battle in AFP history,” tested the mettle of our soldiers in a conflict fought under unfamiliar conditions. Better-trained for jungle warfare rather than urban house-to-house combat, our security forces suffered 165 casualties killed in action, and over 1,400 wounded. The Philippine Army bore the brunt of the conflict, losing six officers and 118 enlisted personnel killed in action.
Most of those enlisted casualties were in the ranks of private first class and corporals. Most came from Mindanao and were in their 20s. Many were college students who probably lacked the resources to finish their studies with a degree.
Many entered the service more by virtue of necessity but in simple obedience to duty as they understood it, they suffered, sacrificed, and died for our country.
How do we compensate these young men?
Private First Class John Bernaldez was born in Tawi-Tawi. He entered the service in July 2014 and was assigned with the First Scout Ranger Battalion of the Special Operations Command. He died in Marawi City from gunshot wounds.
As a private first class, Bernaldez was receiving a base pay of P15,500 monthly, plus allowances of about P8,000 for a total of P23,500. He was single and had for dependents his father and mother. With his death, he was given a posthumous promotion to corporal. However, his monthly pension that will go to his parents is computed on the basis of one rank higher, that of sergeant. This pension for life comes up to P8,900 shared equally by father and mother. In addition, his parents will receive about P64,000 representing commutation of unused leaves. They will also receive P170,000 from the Philippine Army representing Command Special Financial Assistance, plus P80,000 support for funeral services.
From President Duterte’s Comprehensive Social Benefits Program they will receive P500,000 plus various health, educational, shelter and employment assistance. Contributions from the private sector will be shared by those killed in action.
We must start thinking of how the burden of defending our country should be shared by all, including the elite. Let it not be said that our wars were fought only by the poor, the powerless, the working and middle classes. The reintroduction of a compulsory ROTC program in the coming schoolyear is a step in the right direction.
I wish to acknowledge the kind assistance of two ladies of the Philippine Army, Captains Cristina Rivera, Class of 2007, and Shayne Hornido, Class of 2006, both assigned with G-1, HPA for the statistics on the Army.
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