Men of the Year 2017
In July of 2014, Islamic State commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi speaking from the pulpit of the Great Mosque in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq, declared the founding of a worldwide caliphate that sought to unite Muslims not just in the Middle East but all around the world in a jihad against the West. While Mosul was considered the jewel of the caliphate, Raqqa—a Syrian city on the banks of the Euphrates River—was its capital and the showcase of the IS’ experiment in jihadist governance.
In Raqqa, IS implemented extreme interpretations of Islamic law using beheading, crucifixion, and torture to terrorize the residents. The city stadium was turned into one huge prison with public executions being carried out on an almost daily basis. Satellite dishes, cell phones, and music were banned. The slightest infractions resulted in beatings or arrests by the religious police.
Raqqa was also the global nerve center of IS, directing the formation of satellite “states” in places such as Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, and the Philippines. It is most likely that the terrorist buildup that took place in Marawi City prior to the outbreak of conflict in May last year was on the direction and covert support of IS. In 2016, IS leaders urged its foreign recruits not to travel to Iraq or Syria but to launch substantial attacks at home or in other targeted areas. The amount of weaponry, ammunition, food supplies, the presence of underground tunnels and strongpoints within Marawi, all of which resulted in the long siege to regain control of the city, attests to the skillful and secretive preparations that were made by IS in conjunction with Abu Sayyaf elements and Maute terrorists.
Without the determined and heroic efforts by the men and women of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, it is possible that the objective of IS to establish a subcaliphate in Southeast Asia with Marawi as its capital would have succeeded with dire consequences for the country and the region as well. An IS-controlled Marawi would have become a major rallying point for all the other antigovernment elements in Mindanao creating perhaps the greatest threat faced by the nation since Independence.
The courage, determination, and fighting spirit of our soldiers during the battle for Marawi are best exemplified by the actions of Capt. Rommel B. Sandoval of the Army Scout Rangers that won for him the nation’s highest military honor, the Medal for Valor.
On Sept. 10, Sandoval, commanding officer of the 11th Scout Ranger Company, 4th Scout Ranger Battalion, Special Operations Command of the Philippine Army, was leading his company in clearing operations involving a number of buildings in Marawi City. One of the buildings, the tallest in the area, was linked to a tunnel leading to the strategic Bato Mosque. This building served as a stronghold of the enemy, providing them with unobstructed fields of fire from a vantage point.
An eight-man team led by Cpl. Jayson Mante proceeded to clear the ground floor of nearby Building 633. They were met by heavy volume of fire from the enemy resulting in the wounding of Mante. Sandoval immediately ordered the rescue of Mante but heavy fire from enemy snipers thwarted several attempts to carry out the mission. After awhile, Sandoval himself was able to pinpoint the exact location of Mante. Without hesitation, he ordered his men to provide covering fire as he crossed the open area to reach Mante. Upon checking the condition of the wounded soldier, Sandoval pulled him toward stairs that provided some cover from enemy fire. While doing so, he was hit in the right abdomen and fell seriously injured. Sandoval continued his attempts to save Mante by lighting a smoke grenade to conceal their location and using his body to cover Mante even as the enemy relentlessly kept firing. In doing so, he sacrified his life to save a dying comrade.
Captain Sandoval, PMA Class of 2005, was the highest-ranking officer to die in the conflict. He is survived by his wife Ma. Anna Sandoval.
The capture and clearing of Building 633 became the tipping point in the battle to liberate the city.
On Oct. 23, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana officially declared the end of hostilities in Marawi. By coincidence, or perhaps it was no coincidence, Raqqa the IS capital, fell to Syrian Democratic Forces a few days earlier on Oct. 17. It may not be far-fetched to say that IS elements in Marawi, after learning of the fall of Raqqa and facing relentless pressure from the AFP, also decided to call it a day.
The last Medal for Valor awardee prior to Captain Sandoval, was Private First Class Ian O. Paquit of the Philippine Army. A Scout Ranger, Paquit was an automatic rifleman in the 3rd Scout Ranger Company, Special Operations Command. Although he was wounded and hospitalized in an earlier encounter, Paquit volunteered to return to duty in the combat zone. He was killed in action against Moro National Liberation Front elements during the Zamboanga siege in September 2013.
In November, the AFP scored another victory when elements of the 202nd Infantry Brigade under Brig. Gen. Arnulfo Burgos Jr., including the 730th Combat Group of the Philippine Air Force under Maj. Engelberto Nioda Jr., engaged New People’s Army elements in Nasugbu, Batangas, resulting in the greatest loss suffered by the NPA in a single encounter in recent years—15 killed.
In Metro Manila, as well as in many parts of the country, people take for granted the luxury of going about their lives in the comfort of home and family and in the security of their communities. We owe this to the men and women of our armed forces who on a daily basis, continue to lay down their lives in defense of our liberties. Be it IS, NPA, Abu Sayyaf or Maute terrorists, or any foreign intruder, they stand ready to defend the nation and serve our people.
They are the “Men of the Year” for 2017.
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