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Heroes of the nation

IN THE United States, the last Monday of May is celebrated as Memorial Day in honor of the men and women who died while serving in the US Armed Forces. The Philippines does not have a specific day devoted to honoring the men and women who died while serving in our Armed Forces. The closest commemoration we have is National Heroes Day, which is dedicated to the memory of all whose acts of courage and bravery contributed to our growth as a nation.

While watching a moving documentary on Memorial Day celebrations in America, my thoughts wandered to the ongoing conflict in Basilan, where our soldiers continue the fight against Abu Sayyaf bandits. We who live and work in the relative safety and security of Metro Manila often forget, or simply are unaware, that hundreds of young men are out there fighting our battles and oftentimes making the supreme sacrifice.

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This is a story of two young men, one a Christian, the other a Muslim. Both were fighting a common enemy and, in the end, both paid with their lives. Their deaths took place many years ago, part of the terrible price we have had to pay for a conflict that has been going on for decades, and for which we seem unable to provide some lasting and just solution.

Lt. Rommel G. Reyes was the executive officer of the 2nd Marine Company, Marine Battalion Landing Team (MBLT) 2, one of several young officers sent to Basilan in the drive against the Abu Sayyaf terror group, whose jungle hideout was located in the Sampinit complex on the island. Sampinit is a heavily forested area, which provides good cover for guerrilla-type operations and has long been a base of operations for all kinds of lawless elements in the province.

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Reyes, a Zamboanga City boy, was named after the famed German military commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Early on he had set his sights on joining the Philippine Military Academy. In preparation for this goal in life, he spent two years at Western Mindanao State University before taking the exams that would lead to a career in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. After graduation from the PMA, he joined the Philippine Navy’s elite Marine Corps. His choice of a naval career was a reflection of his love for the sea, nurtured as a young boy from the south.

Much of his brief career was spent with one unit, the MBLT 2, assuming many of the usual duties and assignments that junior officers are supposed to handle, they being low men on the totem pole of the military organization. Aside from being a platoon leader, he also served as unit mess and supply officer. But with the Marines, there is a lot of esprit de corps, pride and discipline that put them several notches above other units of the AFP. This was part of the magnet that attracted Rommel Reyes to the Marines.

Lt. Johnson S. Jadjuli was born in Indanan, Sulu, and finished high school at Hajji Buto School of Arts and Trade. He would attend Notre Dame of Jolo College before taking up the Marine Basic Officers Course at the Marine Training Center. Eventually Jadjuli was called to active duty as an ensign in the Philippine Navy, one of a limited number of Muslims in this branch of service. He would serve as mess and supply officer and handle other duties normally given to lower-ranking officers. He would also be the unit historian, in recognition of his literary skills and ability. In time, he would assume the key position as the weapons platoon commander, an indication of his growing responsibilities and effectiveness in small unit deployments.

Soon after his promotion to first lieutenant, Jadjuli would be designated as a company commander of the MBLT 6. After a while, he became company commander of the MBLT 2.

Here, the lives of Jadjuli and Reyes intersected, with the Muslim Jadjuli serving as company commander and the Christian Reyes as his executive officer.

Based on sketchy reports about their mission, it appears that a team of Marines, led by Jadjuli and Reyes, was spearheading an assault on the Abu Sayyaf lair in the Sampinit complex. In the firefight that ensued, Reyes was gunned down along with four other Marines; and in a counterattack, Jadjuli charged the Abu Sayyaf lines in a virtual suicide attack to save his comrades.

The official report on the action is quite terse: “Operating elements of MBLT 2 encountered undetermined number of heavily armed lawless elements at vicinity Grid Coordinates 924248 Sampinit complex; exchange of fire ensued for about two hours, after which enemy withdrew. Mortar barrages were delivered on enemy vantage portion, while troops conducted retrieval of casualties from encounter scene.” Among the casualties were Lt. Johnson Jadjuli and Lt. Rommel Reyes, both killed in action.

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We remember our young heroes.

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Last Friday, schoolchildren of Canadian American School in Makati City staged a musical program, “We Can Be Heroes,” in order to raise funds for orphans and children of AFP soldiers who were either killed or permanently incapacitated in combat. The special guests of the school were

Maj. Gen. Daniel Casabar Jr., executive director of Hero (Help Educate and Rear Orphans) Foundation, and MSgt. Emiliano Hemongala Jr., a Marine Corps veteran who lost his right leg in combat against MILF elements in Lanao del Sur.

The children’s program consisted of musical numbers extolling their heroes, calling for peace and justice in resolving conflicts, and celebrating their global families. They come from different nations, including Australia, Canada, China, France, India, Israel, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Philippines. The event was able to raise a modest sum in support of AFP orphans.

Hero Foundation was organized during the incumbency of President Corazon Aquino and former AFP chief of staff

Renato de Villa. The foundation is managed by a board of trustees chaired by Fernando Zobel de Ayala. For almost 28 years, the foundation has provided educational support for children left behind by our soldiers who gave their lives in defense of the country. A total of 2,557 children have benefited from the Hero program, and 1,054 of them have graduated from college. It costs P5,000 a year to support the education of a grade schooler, P8,000 a year to support a high school student, and P20,000 a year for a college student.

The foundation’s stipend program works in close cooperation with the AFP Educational Benefit System Office which identifies candidate families in need of financial assistance.

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