Boots on the ground

Calisthenics time for soldiers at a camp in North Cotabato. PCIJ Photo by Winona Cueva.

NORTH COTABATO – While senators and generals in Manila were bickering over who got more millions in pabaon among outgoing chiefs of staff of the Armed Forces, Sergeant Rolly was wondering why his meager salary had thinned some more.

And then his pay check showed that General Headquarters (GHQ) had made deductions for several loans that he never took out.

Sergeant Rolly is just one of more than 100,000 soldiers who have kept their ears cocked to the ongoing Senate investigation into the staggering amounts that some generals have allegedly stashed away in bank accounts and prime real estate here and abroad.

When the PCIJ spoke with him last week, Sergeant Rolly was agonizing over how he could fix the erroneous deduction made on his pittance of a pay. After all, from his camp here in North Cotabato, GHQ seems like a world many light years away.

Yet, of course, soldiers have other cash benefits, however similarly small. Sergeants on combat duty draw a monthly combat pay of P500, or P16 a day.  And this is already a steep increase from December last year, when combat pay was pegged at only P8 a day.

But no one would probably argue against the fact that P16 for every day that a soldier is sent to the frontlines to embrace injury or death from enemy fire is peanuts. This is especially when the amount is compared to the multimillion pesos in pabaon and pasalubong money that, as had been alleged in the Senate, outgoing and incoming chiefs of staff get. And all that, for warming their seats at air-conditioned rooms most days of the year.

Yet still, for the record, Sergeant Rolly said that his morale remained high, and that he was willing to let this small hiccup in his pay slip pass. He must keep his focus, he said, on his duty to serve country and people.

The same went for Private Lenny and a second Sergeant Rolly. Yes, they said,  they monitor the Senate hearings live on their camp’s television set. The revelations made at the hearings, they add, should not distract them from their job of fighting the communists.

Basta maganda at tama ang utos sa amin, kailangang sumunod kami sa utos (For as long as we get good and correct orders, we must follow),” said the second Sergeant Rolly.

His friend Sergeant Ed said that he, too, has not been affected by the dirt that has so far been dug up at the Senate hearings. In part, that might be because Manila is too far away, and that it takes time for the soldiers here to get the latest reports.

“We are not updated about what happens in Manila so it seems like we are not affected,” he said.  “We just follow orders from upstairs.”

All the men in uniform at this camp seemed to echo just one mantra: “Obey first before you complain.” Such is the nature of military training and the concept of the chain of command that soldiers have been told to respect. Many would not dare cross the official line.

The officers at this camp allowed the PCIJ to speak with the soldiers on the condition that no questions are asked about the details of the Senate hearings, the generals, or the pabaon scandal. All throughout the interview, an officer stood by to monitor the answers of the soldiers, as if the mere presence of reporters would spark an epiphany among rank and file, and widespread discontent.

It's war as usual for these soldiers at a camp in North Cotabato. PCIJ Photo by Winona Cueva.

Still, not every military officer has chosen to put blinders on his men.

One brigade commander based out of Mindanao told the PCIJ that he had talked to his men about the scandal rocking the AFP. Instead of ignoring it, the commander said he tried to put the discussions in a more positive light for his men.

“I’ve been talking to my troops, telling them na huwag ma low-morale dahil dito,” he said. “This is even a good indication that government is doing something now about the system.”

He said he told his troops that in truth, “hindi lang naman sa military ito; sa iba nga, mas masahol pa (this is not just a problem in the military. In the other agencies, it is even worse).”

The commander knows whereof he speaks. Several years ago, he himself was sanctioned by his superiors for daring to speak out against irregularities within the AFP.

Sabi ko sa troops ko, let’s put this in a positive note,” he said. ”If these things had not been exposed like the 2004 ‘Hello, Garci’ wiretapping scandal, nothing will change and we will not shape up.”

Transparency seems counter-intuitive to an institution like the AFP that is built on secrecy and security. It also appears to run counter to the concepts of the chain of command and obedience to superiors.

“We are a proud organization kasi,” said one general. “So we should not be the first to talk against the institution.”

There was general awareness among soldiers here of the Senate hearings on corruption in the AFP. That is as far as it goes for now, with different commanders taking different discussion tracks with their men.

For sure though, the troops watch the hearings when they could. But the troops qualified that the usual order of their viewing preferences is the soap opera “Imortal” and “Mara Clara” first, then the news, and finally, the live telecast of the Senate hearings.

It’s small comfort to know that in some camps, soldiers have access to cable TV, and in others, none.   – With reporting by Ed Lingao, PCIJ, February 2011