From enlisted man to Army chief
Even before he joined the cadet corps of the Philippine Military Academy in April 1947, Fortunato Abat was well aware of how life in the military was like. As a young boy from La Union, he joined the guerrilla forces serving as an enlisted man in the campaign against Japanese rear guard units fighting in Northern Luzon. After finishing high school, he entered the academy and was a member of PMA Class of 1951, the first postwar class to graduate after the institution closed down during the war years. Their tactical officers, who also served as upperclassmen, were members of two disbanded PMA classes, 1944 and 1945. The superintendent was a young West Pointer, Lt. Col. Tirso G. Fajardo.
Abat’s rise through the ranks was uneventful until one day while serving as commander of the third infantry brigade in Cebu, he gave a briefing for President Ferdinand Marcos on the peace and order situation in the Visayas. The briefing was well-received not only for its substantive content but also for his extemporaneous delivery. It was described in AFP circles as the “briefing that made a star.” And indeed, it won for Abat his first star.
In March 1973, more than half of Cotabato province was under the control and influence of the Moro National Liberation Front. The separatist movement in Mindanao was gaining strength and the drive for independence depended on the success of their Cotabato operations involving some 5,000-6,000 men with almost half under arms.
Aware of the grave danger faced by the country, President Marcos issued orders creating the Central Mindanao Command (Cemcom, not Centcom) and designated Abat as the commander. Its mission was to recover all territories lost to the rebels, restore conditions of peace and order, and bring about a return to normalcy in the lives of the local population.
By August 1973, Cemcom was able to shift from conventional military operations to unconventional warfare as the tide of battle shifted against the rebels. The rapid build-up of troops and resources brought about mainly by Abat’s decisive leadership threw the MNLF’s grand design of establishing a Bangsamoro republic off balance, and soon it became clear that the rebels could only conduct limited attacks and harassment activities. General Abat was touted as “the man who saved Mindanao.”
In his book, “The Day We Nearly Lost Mindanao,” Abat points out that in those critical days in 1973, “the Philippine government had to practically beg friendly non-Muslim neighbors to sell us what the Americans would have been obliged to provide the AFP under the Military Assistance Program (MAP).”
Lesson: “There are no greater interests than one’s own and that to rely on friends and allies for the protection of such interests places the security of that country at great risk.”
On March 28, 1976, Brig. Gen. Abat assumed command of the Philippine Army, winning a second star. His first arrival honors as the new commanding general of the Army was at Awang Airport in Cotabato City. He was accompanied by his wife, Corazon Bulatao-Abat, a former teacher from Pangasinan who had always been at his side when things got rough, and that day she stood next to him as he reached the pinnacle of his career.
In “Vignettes From My Diary,” Abat relates how his fame and popularity as Cemcom chief somewhat complicated life for his two sons, Victor and Tito, who both entered the PMA: “In the Academy, the ‘Abat menu’ was concocted by their upperclassmen. It was a special concoction just for the two of them, an appetizer for breakfast that consisted of a simple preparation of coffee to help push the news clippings about me through the digestive mill of the human body… There was nothing I could do but minimize news-making.” Victor graduated with PMA Class of 1977, while Tito finished a year later.
Abat also relates how military politics, or “mili-tics,” affected his career. As Cemcom chief, he was in frequent direct contact with the president, and these raised some concern possibly motivated by envy. At one general council meeting, there was a recommendation that the president should refrain from directly talking or giving instructions to his field commanders, but instead pass the orders through the service chiefs. After hearing all sides, the president had the last word, “Are you telling me that your commander in chief should not talk directly to his field commanders?” That was the last heard on the issue.
General Fortunato Abat served as commander for a period of five years, one of the longest tenures in Army history. His most significant legacy was a “10-year Philippine Army revitalization plan” that served as the foundation for a viable defense posture in the years that followed. It was based primarily on his MBA thesis at the Ateneo Graduate School of Business. He would continue to serve in other capacities as ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, and later, as defense secretary in the Ramos Cabinet.
Rarely does a father bury a son but in the case of Abat, his greatest sacrifice for the nation was a son, Lt. Tito Abat, Class of 1978, who was killed in action against NPA rebels in Samar.
General Abat passed away last Wednesday, March 7, after a lingering illness. A week earlier, he celebrated his wife’s 90th birthday. Abat was 92. They have six children: Victor, Evita Tito, Asterita, Teodosio, and Roberto.
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