Two weeks ago, the nation marked the 71st anniversary of the Fall of Bataan, a day dedicated to the memory of our veterans who fought alongside American soldiers in a campaign that from the start had already been written off by Washington. The United States’ secretary of war, Henry Stimson, put it thus: “There are times when men have to die.”
President Aquino, along with Japanese Ambassador Toshinao Urabe and US envoy Harry Thomas, was at the Shrine of Valor, a giant cross on the summit of Mount Samat, to pay homage to the bravery and heroism of those who perished in the desperate fighting that took place before the final surrender. Without reading or listening to their prepared speeches, one could almost predict what they had to say about Bataan and the sacrifices of our veterans.
Many years ago, one president vowed “that veterans’ welfare will always be my highest-priority concern.” He assured veterans “not to despair for there is beginning on this day, a renewal and optimism that shall govern government policy towards your welfare.” As an update, the backlog in unpaid veterans’ benefits comes up to roughly P15 billion.
President Aquino, for his part, reiterated how the government was working hard to deliver additional benefits for our veterans in terms of disability pensions and greater medical care available in public health facilities.
A highlight of the weeklong ceremonies was the unveiling of eight life-size sculptures of Filipino, American and Japanese soldiers at a station designated as Kilometer 2. Here, survivors of the Death March were loaded into boxcars for their final destination at Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac. Many of our veterans who fought in Bataan have since passed away without having enjoyed the benefits that were due them. For those still living, there are not too many years left. It is only proper that we fulfill our commitments under the law, keeping in mind that we can never fully repay them for sacrifices made in defense of our freedoms.
A question often asked is, “Who are considered veterans?”
For many Filipinos, particularly those belonging to the younger generations who grew up after World War II, the stereotype image of the veteran is that of an old man with an overseas cap covered with medals, perhaps walking with a cane. He is usually part of the audience during ceremonies marking Araw ng Kagitingan or The Battle of Bessang Pass in Northern Luzon, one of the great victories of Filipino troops over Japanese forces. They represent a vanishing breed of heroes who served their country with distinction and honor during World War II. Many of them are in their 80s or even 90s awaiting the final boarding call from the Almighty at the pre-departure area of their lives.
The law has broadened the term “veteran” beyond this popular image to include three categories of individuals:
1. Any person who rendered military service in the land, sea or air forces of the Philippines during the revolution against Spain, the Philippine-American War and World War II, including Filipino citizens who served with Allied forces in Philippine territory;
2. A member of the Philippine Expeditionary Force to
Korea (Peftok) and the Philippine Civic Action Group (Philcag) sent to Vietnam; and,
3. Those who rendered military service in the Armed Forces of the Philippines and had been honorably discharged or retired after at least 20 years of cumulative active service, or sooner separated while in the active service due to death or disability incurred in the line of duty.
All in all, the country has more than 60,000 veterans. After more than 30 years of active service, I belong to the third category along with some 17,000 others who came into the system some years after World War II.
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Last month, the Philippine Military Academy graduated 125 new officers who will be joining the major services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The top graduate was Jestoni Lanaha, son of a tuba gatherer from Davao del Sur. He is now Lieutenant Lanaha of the Philippine Army. Last year, the topnotcher of Class 2012 was Tom Puertollano of Lipa City, the son of a carpenter. He is now Lieutenant Puertollano, also of the Army. In 2010,
Erano Belen, son of a tricycle driver from Dumaguete City topped his batch. In 2009, Karl Winston Cacanindin, son of a public school teacher from Aurora province, finished No. 1 in his class.
In 1997, Ephraim Suyom, son of a farmer from Mexico, Pampanga, received the Presidential Sabre, symbol of overall excellence in his class.
Of all the educational institutions of the land, none is more democratic than the Philippine Military Academy. Here, no one cares about your birthplace, your religion, your social standing, your family fortune, or whether your parents are married. All that matters is your worth as you are able to show it. The cadets come from every part of the country and in that sense they represent the youth of the land from Batanes to the Sulu archipelago. The great majority of these young boys and girls are from the middle and lower classes of Philippine society. Most are products of provincial high schools. For many, entrance to the PMA represents the only opportunity for higher education with the possible realization of their dreams of a better life. For a few, the vision of some day becoming AFP chief of staff is also part of that dream.
In terms of support from the Filipino taxpayer, no institution in the land comes close to the Philippine Military Academy. Everything a cadet needs—uniforms, clothing, food, shelter, transport, books and instructors, training and sports facilities, medical care, a modest monthly stipend—is provided for by the government. In return, the cadets dedicate the best years of their lives, if not life itself, in the service of our country.
We rely on the academy to provide leadership for the Armed Forces. We devote a substantial amount of taxpayer money for each cadet hoping that in the end the return on investment will be worth the sacrifice of our people.
There is absolutely no reason why we should treat the leadership of the academy in such a cavalier manner as to appoint short-term superintendents, regardless of their qualifications, who will not even stay long enough to graduate one PMA class. When we act in this manner, we do a great disservice to the Armed Forces and to the nation, and such action can only be an indication that we are merely paying lip service to the ideal of professionalism in our Armed Forces.