Women in uniform
The honor roll citing women for topping their class at the Philippine Military Academy is long and almost expected, despite the PMA being a male enclave. From April 1993 when the PMA accepted its first batch of female cadets, women have proved their mettle and shown themselves equal to their male colleagues when it came to written exams, physical and neuropsychiatric tests, and prequalification interviews conducted at the AFP Medical Center. The only difference in the requirements, according to a PMA official, is the extra 2 inches in height expected of male applicants.
The PMA has so far admitted 528 female cadets, despite the limit of 5 percent of total enrollment imposed on them—apparently because of the limited women-oriented facilities in the academy.
In 1999, Arlene de la Cruz became the first female in the PMA to top the graduating class, followed by Tara Jaime Velazco in 2003 and Andrelee Mojica in 2007. The other notable female cadets include Army Maj. Leah Lorenzo, who graduated summa cum laude from the PMA in 1997, and Christine Mae Naungayan Calima of Gabay-Laya Class of 2016.
Female cadets were among the top 10 graduates from 2008 to 2014, per PMA records. But what has this led to? What career paths have these topnotch cadets carved for themselves? Have they made inroads in the Armed Forces, or advanced the cause of women? Or have they remained tokens of equal opportunity, relegated to desk jobs or other tasks deemed more appropriate for their traditional roles as women?
A PMA report proved the contrary: A total of 306 female cadets are deployed in the field, some of them flying attack helicopters, driving tanks and firing high-powered guns.
Army Maj. Maria Victoria Blancaflor (now Mrs. Agoncillo) received a Gold Cross medal for helping overrun the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s Camp Rajamuda in Pikit, North Cotabato, in 2000. A tank commander, she was the first female to take on that duty.
Air Force Maj. Maria Consuelo Nunag (now Mrs. Castillo) is the first female pilot of the 205th Tactical Helicopter Wing. In 2013, she was assigned to the 250th Presidential Airlift Wing, piloting a Bell 412 helicopter.
Lorenzo (now Mrs. Santiago), who was 18 when she entered the PMA, recalled how the idea of female cadets was initially resisted by senior male cadets. Like her female classmates in Kalasag-Lahi Class of 1997, she endured a physical training program designed for men, until a planned mass resignation among them led the academy to remodel its facilities and retool the physical exercises to fit separate genders.
It was the start of better treatment for female cadets, Lorenzo said, adding that female cadets were also assigned key positions in the cadet corps. “The PMA had to go through a process of adjustments and transitions,” she said. But the real trials took place after graduation when she met with rigid attitudes concerning women in combat. “We do not train women for combat; they are just for combat support,” she said she was told when she tried to take a Scout Ranger training course.
Undeterred, Lorenzo trained in field artillery and took a jungle war training course in Australia. She later became the commanding officer of the 30th Infantry Battalion. Then 23 and the only woman in the company, she commanded 81 soldiers, over 60 Moro National Liberation Front integrees, and over 200 paramilitary troops who were fielded in the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur, and Marawi City. None of her men died in combat under her leadership, and she was later awarded a Bronze Cross and a Gold Cross.
Two of the original seven women graduates also taught for some time at the PMA, including Army Capt. Arlene Orejana, the wife of Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV. The other female cadets joined the Army, Air Force and Navy, or enrolled in foreign service academies, including West Point and those of Korea, Japan and Australia.
Women in uniform generally do our country proud, setting for themselves lofty standards that have transformed grudging acceptance into full-fledged recognition, at least in this part of the world.
Elsewhere, in foreign ships where the chain of command still holds antediluvian concepts on women’s roles, female engineers constantly find themselves parrying sexual advances. One marine engineer held her ground and countered an unwelcome proposition from a ship captain with: “I came onboard to work, not to look for a boyfriend!”
And that is one of the ways Filipino women remain a force to contend with.
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