First published in the Youngblood section of the Inquirer, this article was written by 1 Lt. Manuel Kalang-ad Jr, a kailiyan who graduated from the Philippine Military Academy last 2004. Lt. Kalang-ad is now serving as a company commander with the Philippine Army. It’s not often that we read an article written by a military man so let’s consider this a treat.
Men of Arms
by Manuel Kalang-ad Jr.
When I was a child, my grandfather cautioned me not to eat the head whenever we had chicken for dinner. He said that if you ate chicken’s head, during war or battle, your head would keep popping up, no matter how much you try to hide it, and it would become an easy target for the enemy. I didn’t pay much attention to this superstition of my grandpa. After all, for all the truth it might hold, I didn’t plan on becoming a soldier, whose job is to go to war.
I went through elementary and high school having much the same safe and idealistic dreams as any youngster my age. At first, I wanted to be an architect, then a lawyer. The two professions had one thing in common: You get to live the normal life of a civilian and don’t have to concern yourself with things like going out in the dead of the night because it is your duty to do so.
Never did it enter my mind to consider a career in the military. I had this image that the life of a soldier was a hard one, not much different from a farmer’s who must endure the rain, the heat of the sun, and the cold of night out in the field. I went through my formative years dreaming of someday becoming a big shot with lots of money and power.
The years flew by and, before I knew it, the carefree days of high school were over and I was in college, bewildered and trying hard to find my way. Born shy, I suffered culture shock. Going through a high school where there were no girls hadn’t helped. Although I found the academic subjects rather easy, I couldn’t decide what I really wanted. I was just drifting along with no clear goals. I was wasting my time.
That was when I began thinking of entering the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). Initially, it was just an urgent move to get a free college education. I had squandered my scholarship by making a mess of the first course I enrolled in. My parents were having a difficult time supporting me and three of my sisters who were also in college. If I entered the PMA, I reasoned, I would become one college student less for my parents to worry about.
I took the entrance exams to the Academy and passed. After hurdling all the other exams and screening processes, I entered the PMA in April 2000 and went on to graduate and become an officer in the Armed forces four years later.
I never thought I would become a soldier, but now I’m one. Years ago I was one of those kids who would run to watch and yell, “Soldado!” as trucks filled with soldiers sped by. Now we would go through a village with my men, and the kids would come out and shout, “Sundalo!” and it never fails to surprise me to realize that I have become one of those men they’re shouting at.
Years ago I’d look with awe and not a little apprehension at the guns of the soldiers as they passed by. Now, guns to me are just equipment to be handled with great care and respect, but equipment just the same. Now I hold a gun in my hand and I feel the steel, a sensation not much different from what a farmer feels when he holds a spade. I’m no longer awed by big machine guns, grenade launchers or mortars. Instead, I’m glad for the firepower they generate, but I’m also aware of the difficulty of bringing along such heavy hardware and their ammunition.
I look at an elevated terrain and I see its value in terms of defense or I see problems in assaulting it. I walk along a river and I weigh the risks of an ambush, the dangers of crossing it while carrying all the gear and supplies for a seven-day operation.
I’ve been trained to move, shoot and communicate — the basic skills of an infantryman. I can navigate through land, swim through rivers, jump from aircraft. I’ve climbed mountains, rappelled down cliffs. I’ve lived with the land, and became one with it. Many nights my bed has been the hard ground and the backpack I lugged around during the day. My blanket is none other than my sweat-soaked battle attire and my bedroom ceiling the vast night sky with its array of twinkling stars. And many nights, I have had only my thoughts to keep me company as I waited for sleep to come in those remote patrol bases we had established.
It’s not an easy life. As a soldier, you get to know intimately what “cold,” “hot,” “wet” and “tired” mean. They mean going to bed with your combat boots on and with your socks still wet from the creeks you’ve crossed. They mean huddling under a poncho, trying to keep warm, as you wait for the rain to stop and for daybreak to come so that you could continue with your movement. They mean walking like a zombie for lack of sleep during forced night marches because you have to hit your objective and be ready to attack before daybreak. They mean running in full combat gear under the blistering midday sun of Central Luzon and, after the run, seeing your squad mates go raving mad from heat stroke. They mean falling asleep the moment you lie down on your bunk and coming awake only seconds later it seems as your trainer sergeant screams for everyone to come out and fall in formation. They mean no longer caring about how you look and smell because what’s important is surviving the training, or coming back alive after a combat operation.
But the hardest part is being away from your family. The hardest part is saying goodbye because you have to go back to duty again.
More than anyone else a soldier knows what sacrifice means. It means being unable to rush home immediately whenever there’s a problem in the family. For those who are married, it means coming home and seeing your baby afraid of you initially. Sometimes it means coming back home and hearing your own child yell to his mother, “Ma, there’s somebody …” As one of my upperclassmen told me, sometimes you just can’t hold back the tears.
My “mistah” [military school classmate] cried when, during an open house (the first time we were allowed to have visitors in the Academy), his auntie approached him and asked, “Where can we find Cadet Aguilar?” They were looking for him, but like the rest of us bald-headed plebes, he had become so gaunt and dark from the training that his auntie didn’t recognize him. He could only mutter a choked reply, “This is me, auntie…”
Charles de Gaulle once wrote: “Men who adopt the profession of arms submit to a law of perpetual constraint… It needs but an order to settle them from their families and dislocate their normal life. At the word of command, they must rise, march, run, endure bad weather, go without sleep or food, be isolated in some distant post… If they drop in their tracks, if their ashes are scattered to the four winds, that is all part and parcel of their jobs.”
It sounds overly dramatic, but it’s true. It’s the life I’m living now.