There are two red-letter days in the Philippine Air Force calendar. One is an annual event to celebrate the establishment of the Air Force as a major service command similar to the Army and Navy. The other is the change of command ceremony to mark the retirement of the incumbent and the infusion of new leadership into the organization.
Last Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Oscar H. Rabena, the 31st commanding general of the Air Force, bowed out of the organization he had led for three years and from the military service where he spent close to four decades, including four years as a cadet at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). In the post-Edsa period, he is the longest serving chief of the Air Force, a tribute to his sense of professionalism and personal integrity that enabled him to bridge the transition from the Arroyo to the Aquino administrations.
In his valedictory, Rabena reported the institutionalization in the PAF of his inSTEP Core Values Program stressing the ideals of Integrity, Service Above Self, Teamwork, Excellence and Professionalism. Adding a personal touch to his remarks, he made special mention of his first grandson, Theo Javier, born three days earlier. Theo Javier means “divine gift from God.”
The new Air Force chief is Maj. Gen. Lauro Catalino dela Cruz, a member of PMA Class 1980. The son of a government official and a working mom, Dela Cruz is a native of Pasay City who grew up close to the Air Force headquarters at what was then Nichols Air Base. Dela Cruz and his wife Lolita have an only son, Chris, who is currently a yearling (sophomore cadet) at the PMA.
In his assumption remarks, the new chief spoke of an “exciting journey” to propel the 17,500-strong organization to greater heights during his tour of duty.
A much appreciated part of the program was the “Slow Drill” performance by a team of 16 airmen led by Sgt. Isagani Divinagracia. According to Col. Miguel Okol, the difficult routines that included the throwing of rifles in the air were patterned after those of the US Air Force and Norway Armed Forces’ slow drill exhibition teams. Just as the Drum and Bugle Corps of the Marines often showcases Navy excellence, the Air Force “Slow Drill” unit could serve to highlight the skills of our airmen in drills requiring strength and teamwork.
The relinquishment of command by the old, the assumption of leadership by the new, the final salute by the troops for the outgoing chief, all were in the finest traditions of the military service.
Some notes on earlier PAF leaders: The first chief of the Air Force was Col. Edwin Buencamino Andrews, a graduate of the Philippine Constabulary Academy in 1928, who later joined the Philippine Army Air Corps (PAAC) as a military aviator. Appointed to head the Air Force in 1945, he stayed on in this position after independence on July 4, 1946. Andrews would perish in the crash of his C-47 aircraft Lili Marlene in Lanao. The air base in Zamboanga is named after him.
Colonel Andrews was succeeded by Lt. Gen. Pelagio Cruz, the youngest and most distinguished of PAF chiefs. It was during his second stint as PAF chief that Cruz ushered the PAF into the jet age with the acquisition of T-33 jet trainers for the jet transition training of our pilots.
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The other important date for the Air Force family is Air Force Day and here we have an interesting story.
For some time, even before the restoration of Philippine independence in July 1946, the Philippine Army Air Corps, and its successor the Philippine Air Force, celebrated Air Force Day on May 2 of each year. It was on this day that Lt. William Lee, a US Army Air Corps pilot detailed with the Philippine Army Air Corps, test flew a Stearman bi-plane over Zablan Field near Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
In May 1986, during my incumbency as Air Force commander, the PAF celebrated its Golden Anniversary (1936-1986) with President Cory Aquino as guest of honor, accompanied by AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Fidel Ramos. Highlight of the day was the return to the skies of the Blue Diamond acrobatic team that had not been seen for some time.
Three years later, in 1989, President Aquino signed Presidential Proclamation 397, moving Air Force Day from May 2 to July 1.
It was on July 1, 1947, that the PAF was raised to major service command status. The change was also brought about by nationalist sentiments calling for the Air Force to “disengage itself from its colonial moorings.” In accordance with the new directive, the Air Force in 1997 celebrated its golden anniversary (1947-1997) for a second time during the incumbency of Lt. Gen. William Hotchkiss III.
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There are some interesting similarities between the Armed Forces and the Church as institutions. When an individual opts for the uniform or the cassock, he gives up his personal freedoms, his privileges and prerogatives, and takes a vow of complete unquestioning obedience to authority. The penalty for any form of disobedience could be dismissal or excommunication.
The two institutions are meritocracies. Promotions and career advancements are usually based on performance or competence rather than the intervention of outside forces. There are exceptions but, by and large, one moves up the ladder depending on one’s personal merits.
A few months ago, our parish, the Mt. Carmel Shrine in New Manila, Quezon City, experienced a changing of the guard similar to the change of command ceremonies that took place in the Air Force. The outgoing parish priest, Fr. Alex Collera, took over the Carmelite seminary in Davao and was replaced by Fr. Dan Lim, who used to be a parish priest in Jaro, Iloilo.
What is interesting about Father Lim is his background prior to joining the priesthood. He graduated from the University of the Philippines with a degree in Business Administration. Over a span of 16 years prior to his priestly calling, Father Lim worked for two of the country’s most prestigious companies, Philam Life and Philippine Air Lines, where he headed a number of training programs for PAL. In 1996, Father Lim entered the Carmelite order as a postulant in response to God’s calling for him to become a priest. He was ordained by the Most Rev. Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle (now archbishop of Manila) in September 2005.
We can only admire individuals who are able to discern their own true calling and make the difficult decision to change one’s lifestyle.