Sunday, September 12, 2010

Baptism of Fire

by 2LT Michael Castro (INF) PA


Every soldier’s bragging rights come from his personal experience about his ‘baptism of fire’. As a matter of fact, soldiers who have retired from the military service still value the good memories about their actual experiences in combat.

Most of these stories are told and retold with some elements of fun, but, retaining the factual information about the story.

Baptism of fire refers to the soldier's first experience of battle. It is referred to as “baptism” because battle is new to him and 'fire' from the firing of guns, i.e. he is 'under fire'.

As a young officer of the Philippine Army, I had always longed to experience my very own baptism of fire. At least four of my ‘mistahs’ (PMA classmates) have their amazing stories about slugging it out with the enemies.

After learning about the valuable experiences shared by my mistahs, I just patiently waited for my own ‘war story’.

I remembered one senior officer who told us that young officers must not force themselves into the ‘heat of the firefight’. Many officers have fallen due to over-confidence and too much aggressiveness.

On the other hand, I also lost a mistah who perished in an ambush here in Camarines Sur about three months ago. I don’t want to die without really putting up a good fight. This sad experience of losing a classmate have somehow motivated me to survive and continue serving our country.

Every time that I reflect about my life in the Army, I am always reminded of the people who have influenced my way of thinking.

One of these officers whom I look up to gave me one valuable piece of advice: never kill a captured enemy combatant who has peacefully surrendered. “That is the expectation of you Battalion Commanders once you report to your own field unit”, my mentor in the PMA said.

During that time when I was still a cadet, we have different opinions on how to handle a captured enemy. I can recall one my peers who said that he may consider killing his captive to give instant justice for our fallen comrades.

I strongly disputed him about his idea. I told him that a true warrior is a gentleman and treats his enemies humanely. Personally, I believe that killing all the enemy combatants is not the ultimate solution to this over 40-year old communist insurgency problem.

Going to the battlefield

I learned about my duty assignment here in Bicol when the Army group of the PMA Class 2009 were directed to report to Headquarters Philippine Army in April 2009.

As a known battleground of the Army against the communist terrorists, I was aware that I will find myself in the ‘thick of the fight’ as a frontline leader.

I came to know about the enemy during my Platoon Leader’s Course Training. I had learned about their support systems and the way they are being organized.

My instructors had also taught me about the techniques, tactics and procedures (TTPs) which were applicable in effectively dealing against the terrorist rebels.
More importantly, I was enlightened more about the importance of human rights protection. We were also told to familiarize ourselves with the provisions of the
International Humanitarian Law.

After over a month of my combat training, we headed off to our respective battalions that would be our ‘family’ in the next years to come. I was very lucky to have joined one of the best units of the 9ID, the 31st Infantry Battalion.

I had my own share of valuable lessons during my early days as a combat leader. Some were good lessons and some would surely fall to my own list of ‘lessons learned in combat’.

I promised myself that I will always use all my experiences as my references for my future actions.

Reckoning time

I was reading my favorite pocketbook when I was told that a civilian resident of Tible village in Lupi town, Camarines Sur had sent a text message to our battalion’s hotline number complaining about the extortion activity of the NPA rebels.

“Sir, please free us from the claws of these extortionists,” said the civilian texter. “They are consuming the food provisions that are enough only for our big family,” the complainant added.

Several exchanges of text messages later, I learned from my colleagues that the NPA rebels were temporarily staying in the houses of civilians.

I knew that the rebels were not welcome there. “The residents were forced to let the rebels in for fear of reprisal,” our Intelligence Officer said.

Based from the texter’s report, we learned that there were at least 5 NPA extortionists in that village.

My battalion commander directed me to prepare my platoon for an impending mission. “I trust you with this delicate mission, prepare yourself accordingly,” he said.

It was a rainy morning on July 29, 2010 when I started packing-up all my mission-essential equipment as our battalion staff officers prepared our operations order (OPORD).

About thirty minutes later, I was summoned by my Commander for the mission briefing. I was given detailed instructions on how to avoid collateral damage---unnecessary loss of life and property in the event of a firefight.

Studying the topographic sketch about the enemy positions and comparing it to the military map, I came up with an imaginary picture about the engagement area. We would be confronting the enemy in a populated area.

As my Commander closed his briefing, he tapped my back with an assurance that everything will be okay. “Take care of yourself and our boys. We will pray for your safety,” he said.

I felt motivated knowing that my Commander and fellow officers were behind me. It was also heart-warming to know that I was being trusted with that very important mission.

I know precisely that it could make or unmake me as an officer. The CPP-NPA-NDF are very good at propaganda war too. They will look into our minutest infringements especially regarding human rights violations as we carry out our mission.

I came up with a detailed military sketch and a terrain model to depict a clearer view about the enemy location. I jotted down notes about my contingency plans.
I realized that the heavy burden is already in my shoulders by that time. I am aware that my mistakes could be that of my Commander too. I didn’t want to give him any headaches.

I can’t help but recall about the ‘war stories’ shared by my PLC Course Director about a ‘trigger-happy’ Lieutenant who committed a serious mistake by mowing down a house with heavy machinegun fires when he was told that some Abu Sayyaf bandits were inside.

It turned out that a septuagenarian was inside and he was seriously maimed by the soldiers bullets. The said officer faced a string of criminal cases for his foolish actions.

Remembering the fundamentals of room-clearing in my close quarter combat training, I reminded my troops on what to look for and how to dominate the enemy position without incurring casualties on the civilians.

I have considered all possible worst-case scenario as I delivered my platoon OPORD. We discussed our techniques on how to prevent civilians getting into the middle of a crossfire.

I consulted my well-experienced soldiers and we discussed our options. I felt very lucky to have these mentors among my NCOs!

After ensuring that my soldiers have clearly understood the commander’s intent and the individual duties and responsibilities, we said our prayers and wished each other good luck.

Reaching our line of departure at about noontime (July 29), I directed my troops to remove their boots and walk barefooted.

In the past, we experienced bungling our mission due to the enemy outposts which provide information about the soldiers’ presence. One of their reference about our presence was the boot marks along our pathways.

It was raining hard that day and the visibility was low, a typical “Ranger weather” as they say. Enduring the thorns and the rough terrain for the next one and a half hours, we finally occupied our objective rally point (ORP) where I decided to conduct leader’s reconnaissance.

Crawling towards a vantage position overlooking the houses where the bandits were located, it took us about thirty minutes to cover about fifty meters. Seeing the presence of a group of about 3-4 men chatting inside one of the houses, I felt the heavy beating of my heart. “This is it,” I told myself.

Thankful about the excellent cellphone coverage, I transcribed my message to our informant who was also inside one of the houses.

“Please confirm the color of their shirts and their exact locations,” I texted him for which he replied, “Sir, three are having coffee inside the house. One is standing guard in the backyard while another one is talking with a woman inside the adjacent house,” he said.

Taking notes of the color of the enemies’ clothing, I also tried to spot for the location of the civilians. I can only hear some muffled voices of children. The rain kept pouring and causing noise. I know that favored us.

Back in our ORP minutes later, I gave my final briefing to my soldiers. I told them to shoot straight only at an armed bandit. No clear target, no shoot.

I couldn’t see any hint of fear from the eyes of my soldiers. As their over-all leader, I tried my best to show my calmness despite of the tension that I felt. Adrenaline rush? I really didn’t know. I just felt like having a high fever.
As planned, I subdivided my patrol into two groups. One group will be the assaulters while the other group provides overwatch as the supporting element.

I moved with the assaulting element to ensure that I closely supervise the actions on the objective. I knew that I was also meeting the enemy up close and personal. Moving stealthily in skirmishers line, we raised our rifles and prepared to jump into action.

At about 30 meters from the house, I saw three men sharing a good laugh at the terrace. Not anyone among them saw me. I also spotted their rifles placed just near them. In the backyard, I saw one armed bandit resting under the mango tree.

We wanted to capture them alive so wanted to grab them all and direct them to surrender. All of a sudden, burst of gunfire fill the air! The bandit sensed our presence and started shooting. He missed me by a few inches as I promptly dropped and returned fire.

Most of us fired only one or two shots-----at the same target who dropped lifeless from his fatal wounds, his rifle still slung around his body.

Meanwhile, my other soldiers were quick enough to climb the stairs and pointed their guns at the bandits. Two of the bandits quickly entered the main room where the children were located. The other bandit was subdued by my burly soldier.

“Hold your fire,” I shouted as I heard the frantic shouts for help from the civilians inside the house. I heard the children were crying loudly as their mother was trying to calm them down.

The next thing I knew was that I was negotiating for the surrender of the NPA rebels so that no civilians will be harmed. I was not really sure if they were armed because two high-powered firearms were laying attended in their previous position where we collared one of their comrade.

“We will not harm you and we will treat you humanely. We will let you answer the charges to be filed against you in a local court,” I said.

Surprisingly, the bandits raised their hands and went outside to surrender. One of the bandit dropped his M16 rifle through the door.

That was the moment that I knew I did everything right and that luck was on my side.

I directed some members of my support elements to secure the captive rebels as I tried to calm all family members who were visibly trembling in fear.
Mercedes Saporco, the mother of the young children could not contain her appreciation for our actions.

She and her five children were technically held hostages when the bandits mingled with them to use them as human shields. She knew they would be all dead if I ordered my soldiers to fire at the bandits who positioned behind them.

“Thank you for saving me and my children, I wouldn’t forget your kindness,” she said in between sobs.

With a smile, I told her that the soldiers are their protectors and not their tormentors. She kept crying but I knew hers were mixed tears of joy and fear for her whole family’s safety.

Wasting no time, I immediately sent all the captured rebels to a pre-designated collection point where our colleagues picked them up.

Back in our ORP, I inspected each and every soldier before I rendered my ACE report to our operations officer.

“Sir, all soldiers are safe and accounted for. Mission is accomplished,” I said over the radio.

Appreciating our kindness and professionalism, one of the bandits fully cooperated and led us to the location of their huge arms cache which contained 8 more high-powered firearms.

That was probably the best price for treating your enemy with dignity.
Now, I truly believe that the solution to the communist insurgency is not only through the barrel of the gun.

Sun Tzu is right that the acme of generalship is winning the war without killing people.

How I wish I can personally tell my PMA squad mate about this valuable experience.

*This article was written in honor of 2LT MICHAEL LOGRONIO (INF) PA and company who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country.


  1. That was an excellent accomplishment, 2LT Michael Castro (INF) PA!! Continue your vision to be at the head of with the communist in our country, and for treating the captured with dignity though they have harmed our country tremendously. You are indeed an example of a great soldier, able to be in a self-controlled manner even in the middle of warfare. Has the capacity to think quickly and provide a solution that will avoid a big number of casualties or if possible, none at all.
    It's not in the killing that you vanquish the enemy but rather on how you have them without hostility.
    May God be with you in all your endeavors!

    Chelo Nactor - Justiniano

  2. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. That is the same principle being followed by the present crop of Army officers.

    We really wish that the killing among Filipinos would be over very soon. --PAO 9ID

  3. snappy army officer and snappy your humbleness in relating this story, you really made us proud..salamat..

  4. Thanks for dedicating the article to my bunkie... Take Care mistah and Godspeed to all AFP-PA!!
    More Power!!!

  5. i've known lt castro personally, he was one of my close friend and classmate. what you did is just a manifestation of how i know who u are- you're really a great warrior and a gentleman as well... i'm so proud of you bok, your story really struck my heart and it gives me new sense of inspiration to continue with this noble task entrusted to us... god bless my friend, god bless my mistah, god bless my brother... c09130

  6. Lt., you epitomizes the true officer and a gentleman. Kudos to you bro.