By Susan Palad
“Old soldiers never die,” the popular song goes. “Never die. They just fade away.” That song was associated with generals, particularly the Gen. Douglas MacArthur of World War II fame.
But the young soldiers who are in the frontline, they are a different case. They often die as they do their job. They don’t want to, but when they are out of luck, they die because they are in harm’s way.
Their stories are virtually all the same. They belong to large families. Since boyhood they had wanted to join the armed forces because in many Philippine communities there is a tradition of service. The girls become nurses. The boys become soldiers.
Their parents and siblings fondly remember their loving ways, thoughtfulness, and generosity. They send money regularly for the continued education of a younger brother or sister.
How much does a private in the Philippine Army make in terms of salary per month? PHP 29,668, which is equivalent to USD 593 or IDR 8,895. He sends home most of the entire amount. Not much but it could help a younger brother finish high school or even college.
Upon his death, the soldier’s family will receive a tax-free gratuity of PHP 100,000, roughly the equivalent of USD 2,000 or a little less than IDR 30 million. It’s a small consolation for the loss of a loved one, but it will tide them over for a while.
John Agustin was one such young soldier. When the first bomb exploded in downtown Jolo on 24 August 2020, he was among the first soldiers to respond to the attack. They attended to the dead and brought the wounded to hospitals, and they cordoned off the bombing site, an area in front of a restaurant where a military truck had parked. The bomb had been attached to a motorcycle and was parked right next to the truck.
About an hour later, a woman tried to go through the cordon. John Agustin saw her and moved to confront her. That was when the woman detonated the bomb she was carrying, killing herself and fatally wounding Agustin, while wounding several policemen. His last words, addressed to his superior, were, “I followed the woman terrorist, Sir.”
Killed in that double attack, aside from the suicide bombers, were 14 people, including seven military personnel and one policeman. The rest of the fatalities were civilians. The wounded totaled 72. The slain soldiers belonged to the 21st Infantry Battalion. They had been sent to the area to do the weekly marketing for the unit.
According to military intelligence sources, the suicide bombing was directed by a faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) led by Mudzimar “Mundi” Sawadjaan, reputed to be an expert bomb maker and a rising personality in the ASG. He is the nephew of Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the current top commander of the ASG and identified by the military as the new emir of the Islamic State province of Southeast Asia.
Since the start of the administration of President Rodrigo R. Duterte, the military had carried out massive operations against the ASG. The terrorists took some losses but they proved to be resilient and durable. It did not stop them from kidnapping for ransom.
In several cases, the kidnappings were carried out in nearby Malaysian territorial waters, with the victims, usually Malaysians and Indonesians working for Malaysian shipping companies. The victims were then shanghaied to an ASG stronghold where they would be held until successful negotiations for their release.
In frustration, a top military official recommended that martial law be declared in the province but the idea met stiff opposition in other parts of the government. Senate President Vicente Sotto III and other high officials argued that a newly enacted Anti Terrorism Law already provided the necessary legal structure for robust action against terrorists.
Six days after the latest double bombing in Jolo, President Rodrigo R. Duterte visited the troops in Jolo to express his sympathy and to give them encouragement. Not long after that visit, another soldier died in an encounter with 30 ASG fighters.
For as long as terrorists are active in the ungoverned areas of Mindanao and the Sulu-Tawi-Tawi archipelago, the list of low-ranking soldiers who die in the bloom of their youth, will keep getting longer.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pinter Politik.