MORE THAN 60 years ago, on April 1, 1952, 77 young men aged 17 to 21, arrived at Fort General Gregorio del Pilar, home of the Philippine Military Academy. The nation’s finest military institution, which traces its origins all the way back to the 1898 revolution against Spain, is located on the outskirts of Baguio City. At that time, the place was a desolate, one-building affair in a site where one could say, only fools would rush in to spend a considerable amount of time. To this day, for some reason never fully explained, new cadets entering the PMA would always be received on April Fool’s Day each year.
Four years later, on April 4, 1956, 51 survivors of the PMA obstacle course, forming the Class of 1956, were commissioned as second lieutenants in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. They ended up in the four major services of the AFP—Army, Air Force, Constabulary and Navy. (The Constabulary has since been separated from the AFP, leaving the latter with only three branches of service.)
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The political and economic elites of the country have always shown little enthusiasm, almost bordering on disdain, for the military as a career for their children. As such, the great majority of young men joining the PMA—and this is true for the Class of 1956—come from the middle-class. Many are products of provincial high schools, with a few coming from Metro Manila educational facilities. All were chosen by merit rather than connections, using as basis, competitive exams held nationwide. Many would cite the free education supported by the Filipino taxpayer as the main reason for joining the academy.
The commander in chief in our early years was President Elpidio Quirino, an Ilocano from Ilocos Sur. In 1952, his administration was wracked by charges of corruption, injustice and electoral fraud (it was said that even the birds and bees joined the voting process) the same issues that continue to plague the nation today. History would be kind to Quirino as he was recently remembered as one of our best.
In November 1953, another Ilocano, the hugely popular and beloved Ramon Magsaysay, took over as commander in chief. For the members of Class 1956, it really didn’t mean much as far as our daily lives were concerned. We remained focused on getting through the heavy academic workload and keeping physically fit for the future.
A few thoughts: In four years at the PMA, we never saw Presidents Quirino or Magsaysay on the fields of Fort del Pilar. It seemed as though the academy was a world apart from politics and politicians. For one thing, there was never any doubt about the principle of civilian supremacy over the military. The idea of taking up arms against the government never entered our minds as political discussions seldom intruded into our sheltered existence. In its purest form, we were a truly apolitical segment of the military organization. Perhaps that is how things should have remained.
When we graduated in 1956, the guest of honor and commencement speaker was Speaker Jose B. Laurel Jr. Today, at least since the martial law years, the guest of honor at PMA graduation rites has always been the commander in chief. This practice appears to have been institutionalized over the years.
On a number of occasions, I have brought up the idea of choosing as guest of honor in graduation ceremonies other distinguished personalities and not necessarily limited to the military profession. The president of the republic is always a good choice, particularly since he attracts a lot of attention and adds prestige to the occasion. But the continued practice of a president in attendance contributes to a political atmosphere that may not be in the best interests of the military organization. The graduating cadets and the military as a whole, could benefit from a leader of society with other viewpoints that reflect different perspectives.
A few years ago, the US Naval Academy in Annapolis had as its graduation speaker Sen. John McCain, one of its own graduates. This was before he ran for president. McCain finished fifth from the bottom of his class, spent five horrible years in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp known as the Hanoi Hilton, and came out a war hero. He lost in the presidential contest against Barack Obama, but continues to be an influential force in American society. We welcome presidents, but we should also call on heroes to inspire our cadets.
In 1956, the nation was at war with a peasant guerrilla army known as the Huks, short for Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon. With a large mass base and a substantial armed component, it represented a formidable threat against the government. Because of this serious issue, President Magsaysay decreed that all new graduates be sent to the field, where they served as platoon leaders in battalion combat teams. In all these units, members of Class 1956 served with distinction.
In defeating the Huks, and acting as guardians of electoral polls, the Armed Forces won a reputation for professionalism and integrity. Magsaysay would also draw from the ranks of the military, utilizing them for purely civilian functions. It was the first time political involvement crept into the lives of soldiers who were basically imbued with an apolitical sense of professionalism. The martial law years would exacerbate the situation, when soldiers were called out from their barracks and things would never be the same again.
During the Edsa Revolution, the class found itself deeply divided, with some continuing to serve AFP chief of staff Gen. Fabian Ver, while others joined the rebel group of Minister Enrile and General Ramos. But the bonds of friendship and camaraderie nurtured over the years helped set aside the issues that for a brief moment kept them apart.
Last Saturday, on the parade grounds of Fort del Pilar, the 500-strong corps of cadets paid a final salute and farewell to the academy’s diamond jubilarians. They honored them with a parade and review to mark 60 years of a life spent mostly in the service of the nation. In their active years, the class produced 29 generals and flag officers, a record among previous academy classes. After retirement, some continued to serve in government as Cabinet members, ambassadors, members of Congress, and heads of government agencies and corporations. Perhaps the most productive of the group, Filoteo Arevalo, sired five sons, all of whom graduated from the PMA and in the tradition of a proud father, remain in the service of the country.
As of December 2015, 25 of the original 51 members of Class 1956 have answered God’s call.
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