Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Military wives have to be stable" - Lt. Gen. Jaime de los Santos AFP (ret.)

At the recent wake for my late husband, Lt. Gen. and Ambassador Thelmo Y. Cunanan, my family arranged a makeshift gallery in one corner of the hall, that showed photos and mementoes of his 52 years of service to country.  Thirty-six of those years were spent in the military, starting with his one year training at PMA and four years at West Point, all the way to commanding the brigades in Cagayan Valley and Laguna, the National Capital Region, the Visayas Command, Southern Command in Mindanao (at that time a unified command), as well as many years of  service in the Defense Department.

The 16 other years since his military retirement in 1994  were spent as ambassador to then war-torn Cambodia, as President & CEO of the PNOC Group and finally as SSS Chairman, with brief stints in between as executive officer under Joe Concepcion of the Namfrel monitoring group to Indonesia’s first post-Suharto elections and as chief again of the Philippine humanitarian mission of doctors and nurses to Timorese refugees at the border of East and West Timor.

Reliving the Cory years

Tonight, Sunday,  at 8 pm. over dzRH, my radio partner Cecile Alvarez graciously featured edited speeches of three retired and one active military officers delivered at the military’s necrological rites for Gen. Cunanan last Friday, Jan. 21. Among the eulogists  were his last aide-de-camp before retirement, Lt. Col. Erwin de Asis, PMA Class ’87, now stationed in Isabela,  Brig. Generals (ret.) Gregorio Fajardo and Nagamora Lomodag, and Lt. Gen. (ret.) and former Army Chief Jaime de los Santos. The three general-rank retired officers and then Lt. Erwin de Asis were all with then Col. Cunanan in defending beleaguered Camp Aguinaldo in the most serious mutiny against President Cory Aquino in December 1-3, 1989. To the many dozens in the audience at the wake, including my children and myself, these former and active officers' accounts of that fateful event of over 22 years ago remained gripping as ever, making the black and white photographs of those days in our improvised gallery at Heritage Park even more meaningful. 

Please re-live those days with us over dzRH tonight.

Testimonials of bravery

The retired officers testified how then Col. Cunanan’s 202nd Brigade, consisting of three battalions with over a thousand men from Laguna, suffered a lot of casualties, first from the accidental strafing by friendly PAF F-5 combat planes at White Plains, and then from the heavy firefight on the night of Dec. 2 when rebel forces led mainly by misguided elements from the Marine Corps attacked, preceded by a terrifyingly huge LVT that rammed the Santolan gate of Camp Aguinaldo. 

The PAF pilots earlier mistook the moving column of Col. Cunanan for the rebels and fired at them three times;  when it was over and dead government soldiers lay on the road behind the camp, media swarmed over Col. Cunanan, who naturally was so angry over what happened. The media, sowing intrigue as ever, asked him whether he would now jump to the rebel side.  As the officers testified at the wake, he replied that the mistaken strafing did not change the equation:  Cory Aquino was the duly-elected President and the constitutional government had to be protected at all cost; he was determined to do so.

Magnificent show of leadership

As the officers testified, Col. Cunanan rightly judged that the forces on the Aguinaldo Grandstand would bear the brunt of the night attack by the rebels, and he prepositioned his men all around it.  The officers admitted that many of their men were dead scared, but seeing their top commander personally directing the fire shamed them from scampering away. Col. Lomodag recalled a soldier saying, “How on earth can I run away when my brigade commander is here with us? Hindi nga siya natatakot mamatay sa laban, ako pa kaya?”

The terrifying LVT first hit Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo’s statue across the Santolan gate, and as  Lomodag recalled, the grandstand forces began firing at it. Col. Cunanan first asked for a 57-RR cannon attack on the LVT which proved futile; hence he ordered  Lomodag’s artillery man to “bore-sight” it with a 105 Howitzer which hit the tank  directly, setting it on fire and killing most of those inside (including the rebel brother of the soldier who fired that shot).  That demoralized the rebels and after a  chase around the camp they gave up, leaving only the Makati rebels to be addressed (by the controversial return-to-barracks order). 
Weeks later various forces  claimed victory for knocking out the LVT; after all, as the saying goes, victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan. But to this day now Brig. Gen. (ret.) Lomodag, a renowned artillery officer during his time, remains certain it was his handpicked soldier who slammed it dead. 

Not a single defector

Retired Brig. Gen. Greg Fajardo, then the 202 Brigade’s intelligence officer, stressed at the wake that it was a hallmark of Col. Cunanan’s leadership that not a single one of his officers moved to the rebel side in that most disastrous coup attempt of December 1989.  As an Inquirer columnist I joined the media lunch-cum-briefing summoned by  NCRDC Commander Brig. Gen. Rodolfo Biazon two days after that successful defense of Aguinaldo. One of the points he stressed was the heroism of a number of people during the fierce fighting, including his “mistah,” who refused his repeated calls to go down to the basement of the grandstand at its height. Gen.  Biazon recalled my husband's retort:  “How can I direct the fire-fight if I don't stay on top of the grandstand?” 

The last brigade standing

At the wake for Gen. Cunanan at the Heritage Memorial Park, former Senator and now Rep. Biazon, looking at the coup photos in our “gallery,” recalled to me how in those desperate hours before the rebel attack, he summoned three brigades to come to Aguinaldo’s defense: namely, Cunanan’s 202nd Brigade from Laguna/Quezon, and two others from Northern and Central Luzon.  Biazon graciously acknowledged, however, that he could only be sure of the loyalty to the government of his “mistah” from Laguna.  “I knew Thelmo would not waver,” said Biazon. 
My husband’s forces, rushing to Manila in a six-kilometer convoy from Laguna that included even a commandeered bakery delivery truck, became the main force to protect the seat of the military government in Aguinaldo. It is no secret that had that convoy faltered, Cory Aquino’s government would have fallen.

It may sound immodest of me as his widow to point this fact here, but the testimonies came from various officers who were with him in those days. I stress these points here not just to praise my husband, as he had enough of that in recent days, but because there appears to be continuing confusion in the military since then over adherence to the Constitution and duly-constituted authority.

Salute to Military Wives

Lt. Gen. Jaime de los Santos (ret.), then the battalion commander of the troops in Magdalena, Laguna and part of the six-km. convoy to rescue Aguinaldo, spoke of Col. Cunanan’s competence and character, and how he “raised soldiery to a higher level” as a constitutional officer and advocate of democratic processes.  But at some point Jimmy also paid tribute to the wives of military officers and soldiers, and how they have to comport themselves under tremendous pressure. “Military wives,” said Jimmy, “are  trained to maintain their grace and stability as well as their beauty under the most difficult of circumstances," and I say that this pertained to his pretty wife Lulu, my co-alumna at the old Holy Ghost College (now the College of the Holy Spirit) as much as to other lovely partners of officers.

Pressure from all sides

I smiled as I listened to him praising military wives under pressure, for I remember those days of December 1989 only too well, such as, for instance, when then AFP Chief of Staff Renato de Villa called me up in the  “secret” hiding place where I had moved my children to from Aguinaldo (my husband dropped by the Inquirer the day before the mutiny broke out, to warn me about something dangerous to happen, and ordered us to get out of the camp right away). De Villa asked me if I had heard from my husband and replying negative, I asked why he was looking for him. He said he was worried as "Thelmo's forces are too close to the enemy lines."  How was a wife supposed to take that?
 That long night of the fire-fight that resulted in the decommissioning of the LVT, I would call from time to time the inner sanctum of the DND where a lady friend was working, to inquire about what was happening---ever the journalist but this time also the wife terribly sick with worry. Finally, after a few calls my friend shouted to me to get off the line as they needed it;  I lit a candle at the family altar of the “secret” house where I was staying and I prayed the rosary repeatedly for my husband and his men.  Later I learned that the 202nd Brigade had suffered 21 men killed and 20 wounded.

Security for a young officer

Military wives never stop worrying for their husbands---in fact we worry even for other wives' husbands. One evening when I was weekending at my husband’s camp near Lake Caliraya in the late ‘80s, a junior officer dropped in to confer with him. The young man was to cross the mountains that same night with only his driver in their army jeep, and return to his camp near the border of Quezon, an NPA-infested area then. As the commander's wife I was frightfully worried for his safety, but when I asked my husband to have an armored personnel carrier (APC) accompany this officer’s jeep to safety, they both laughed---in the field those details seemed ridiculous. But my husband, perhaps to ensure that we would have a nice weekend, acceded to the “order ni Mrs” and an APC rolled out with the officer's jeep.

 At the wake for Gen. Cunanan, this officer dropped in and we had a good laugh over that night’s episode in the mountains over 20 years ago.  He is Gen. Generoso Senga (ret.), who later was appointed AFP Chief of Staff by President Macapagal Arroyo, and who remained loyal to the constitutional government despite enormous pleadings from coup plotters in February 2006.

Not all officers are corrupt

Nowadays,   generals’ wives appear to be collectively maligned as being as "corrupt" as their husbands.  In the first place, not all generals were or are corrupt, and that goes for their wives as well (the corruption appears to be limited to certain cabals, and this has to be dealt with). Then, too, the sacrifices military wives endure for country and people by being "both father and mother to their children," as Jimmy de los Santos put it, so that their husbands could do their job of defending the country never make headlines, but they are very real. Take it from this one. 

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