MANILA, Philippines - Fifteen years ago this month, after more than half a century of exclusively male admissions, the walls came tumbling down at the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio City. Sixteen young women, ages ranging from 17 to 21, joined?for the first time in its history?the long, gray line of the Cadet Corps Armed Forces of the Philippines (CCAFP).
In practical terms, this meant that government-issued items for cadets would now include ?Whisper? sanitary napkins, ?Jockey? panty briefs and ?Triumph? brassieres?all specially designed to support an active lifestyle for rugged field maneuvers, cross-country exercises and a tough physical fitness regimen. It also meant separate bathroom and toilet facilities.
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Every year on exactly the same day, the first of April, also known as April Fool?s Day, the academy welcomes a new batch of young men and women into its ranks, graduating them four years later as second lieutenants with a Bachelor of Science degree. They are then sent off to the different major services of the AFP?the Army, the Air Force and the Navy.
Fifteen years ago, a day before their departure for Baguio City from the V. Luna Medical Center assembly point, I visited the group of young women who had made it to the history books by breaking the gender barrier at the academy. Out of the hundreds who took the exams, 23 fully qualified for admission. But there were only 16 slots available for women. The top 16 of the 23 were finally selected to compose part of the New Cadet battalion along with their male counterparts. They were to join the Corps as members of the class of 1997.
As I chatted with some of them, I could sense the growing anxiety?possibly caused by the fear of the unknown?as they prepared for the greatest adventure of their lives. But after spending more time with the young women and listening to their personal stories, I couldn?t feel anything but pride in their enthusiasm and determination to take up the challenge that lay ahead.
The topnotcher of the group (for the entrance exams) was a 20-year-old from Pavia, Iloilo, Elaine Faith Teodoro, the older of two girls and a third-year nursing student at the West Visayas State University. From early childhood, it was Elaine?s dream to join the military service as an officer and for her, the best way was the PMA way. She was extremely proud to be part of this historical breakthrough for Filipino women.
Maria Amor Matanguihan of Pasig, Rizal graduated cum laude from the UP in Masscom, majoring in Communications Research. When I asked her why the military?the PMA in particular?she recalled her early work in journalism class as a reporter covering Congress. There was this bill being debated on ?Women in Nation-Building.? She thought the PMA represented a new frontier, a new challenge for women and she wanted the experience.
The youngest in the group was Filipinas Rodriguez, 17, of Montalban, Rizal, a first-year chemical engineering student at UST. The eldest child of an illustrator and a special education teacher, she hoped to join the Philippine Navy after graduation.
Ma. Victoria Blancaflor of Novaliches, Rizal was a metallurgical engineering student at UP Diliman. She finished high school at St. Paul Quezon City.
The daughter of a retired Manila police officer, Leah Lorenzo, was a second year zoology student at UP Los Bańos. She had originally thought of pursuing a medical career but when the PMA opened up for women, she decided instead on the military profession.
One of the tallest in the group at five feet, six inches was Arlene Orejana, a psychology graduate of UP. The fourth of five girls, she was born in General Santos City and studied at the Mindanao State University before entering UP.
The first three ladies I mentioned didn?t make it. But Ma. Victoria Blancaflor is a captain in the Philippine Army and is now Mrs. Ma. Victoria B. Agoncillo. On graduation, she received the Management Award of the academy.
Leah Lorenzo finished No. 3 in her class and received the Secretary of National Defense Award along with another one for excellence in Military Science. She is also a captain in the Philippine Army and is now Mrs. Leah Santiago.
Arlene Orejana received the Social Sciences Award on graduation. Arlene, a captain in the PMA Corps of Professors, is the wife of the most famous detainee in the land, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV.
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When the class of 1997 arrived at Fort Del Pilar, they were received by second class cadets belonging to the class of 1995. Cadet Antonio Trillanes IV was in charge of indoctrinating the newcomers on the Honor System in the Academy. Arlene Orejana thought he was cute! Leave it to the women to notice these things even during times of stress and pressure.
At any rate, to make the story short, love bloomed within the drab confines of Fort del Pilar. Regulations forbade special relationships between cadets but obviously whoever formulated those rules never fell in love or didn?t know the meaning of the word. I can almost picture a couple of places in the academy where Sonny Trillanes and Arlene violated regulations. But what the heck, love is what makes the world go ?round.
When Sonny Trillanes graduated in 1995, Arlene felt desolate and wanted to resign from the Corps. But she was convinced by family and friends to stay on and finish the course. In May 1997, a few days after her own graduation, they were married at the AFP Evangelical Church in Camp Aguinaldo. Among their sponsors were Vice Adm. Eduardo Ma. Santos, now head of the finest maritime institution in the country, Vice Adm. Luis Fernandez and Col. Michael Morales.
These days remind Arlene of her separation from Sonny after he graduated in 1995. They now have a boy and a girl. A day before Oakwood in July 2003, she found out about her third pregnancy. They lost what would have been another boy the following year while Sonny was in detention.
Arlene Trillanes believes deeply in the cause of her husband and his colleagues. They have been the victims of a great betrayal inflicted by the Arroyo administration. Pardon from evil is not a pardon. Pardon had already been granted by the more than 11 million Filipinos who voted for Sonny Trillanes and in effect for the rest of the Oakwood boys. Those were honest votes, not votes tainted by deception, deceit or dishonesty.