Monday, November 15, 2010

War Stories: Close Quarter Battle in Sorsogon



October 20, 2010 is an unforgettable day for 1st Lieutenant Sandy Sereno. It was the day that he survived another brush with death in the frontlines while fighting with the enemies of the state.

He was doing his routine administrative functions as the Commanding Officer of Bravo Company of the 49th Infantry Battalion in the afternoon on October 19 (Tue) when he received a text message about the presence of NPA bandits in a village within his company’s jurisdiction.

“Five rebels are currently in our village to collect ‘revolutionary taxes’ from us,” says the civilian tipster. Sereno also learned that the bandits were planning to stay longer in the village when the tipster added that, “The NPA rebels have told us that they will be staying overnight as they are also doing some dialogues regarding the upcoming barangay elections”.

He felt excited by the news. “I hope this is not one of the dis-information campaign by the bandits,” he told himself.

Sorsogon veteran

He is no stranger to this province after scouring all corners of the province for the past six years. He first set foot in Sorsogon in 2005 as a young Platoon Leader of the 2nd Infantry Battalion based in Casiguran town. Knowledge about the terrain and its people is his great advantage.

He has just returned from his security patrols a day before but he is too eager to respond to the information provided by his civilian friends. “I would like to let them feel that we are taking actions to help them get rid of these extortionists among the CPP-NPA-NDF” Sereno said.

He summoned his most reliable Platoon Sergeant (PSG) to give his Warning Order. “Let’s prepare for a two-day combat patrol,” said Sereno, after narrating the information that he received to his PSG. “The enemy is planning to stay in a house in the outskirts of Sta Lourdes village. Our informant is keeping an eye on them,” added Sereno.

As he studied the map of Barcelona town, he was trying to picture out the situation in the ground. He had been to the different villages in this town. He has studied the terrain and he has also known the ‘poste’ (lookouts) of the bandit group.

“Even without a map and compass, I and my soldiers can navigate this area even in total darkness because we know every trail that criss-crosses the villages” he proudly said.

As Sereno prepared his mission-essential equipment, he can’t help but recall his first encounter with the NPA bandits in his area of responsibility.

I was saddened upon knowing that I was fighting a minor during that armed encounter in May 2005 which resulted to the death of a young NPA rebel in Gubat town.

“He was a 17-year old lad from Tabi village of Gubat town. He was an aggressive fighter who did not even care to duck for cover during the heavy exchange of gunfires. He was killed by my soldiers who outflanked him, and we also seized his M16A1 Rifle,” narrates Sereno in between sighs.

Through that experience, he came to realize that the out-of-school youths are easy targets to the intensified recruitment activities of the communist rebels.

It gave him more motivation to intensify his efforts to conduct community-based operations that aim to educate the people about the evils of communism. He also became more dedicated in his effort to help implement the development projects of the government which give the people more income opportunities.

He was in deep thoughts when he heard the familiar beeping sound of his Nokia cellphone. “Sir, the 3 bandits are now staying in the house of Manuel Enano,” said the informant. “There are only three houses in tha part of the village and behind his house, you can find a ‘tapahan’ (copra drying facility),” the tipster added.

The recent road-side bombings perpetrated by the bandit group a week prior to the barangay and SK elections were enough motivation for Sereno to intensify his patrols to flush the rebels out of the villages.

At around 6:00pm, he organized a squad of soldiers that he wanted to carry out the mission.
He decided to personally lead this delicate mission. He did not want to give an inch to the enemy. For him, it is also an opportunity to showcase his warrior spirit as an Army soldier.

A native of Cebu City, 1st Lieutenant Sandy Sereno is the typical adventurous man from the province. Having Lapu-lapu as one of his revered warriors, Sereno, at the age of 25, opted to be one of the men in uniform by joining the Officer Preparatory Course in 2004.

Knowing that the rebels are staying in an innocent civilian’s house, he carefully briefed his soldiers about their actions in the objective. “Don’t shoot at unarmed people and please, don’t fire at the house itself to avoid collateral damage,” came his stern warning.

He also reminded the soldiers to watch each other carefully. “I want everyone to go back home safe. Let us do some attack drills, reviewing the squad TTPs (techniques, tactics and procedures),” Sereno said during his mission briefing.

To show the example, Sereno personally led the squad attack practice by his soldiers. They reviewed the movement formation and techniques specifically tailored to night patrols during which the unit approaches the ‘objective’ under the cover of darkness.

With limited night observation devices (NODs), Sereno reviewed the soldiers on ‘natural observation’ using the ‘off-center’ vision technique. He also tapped a militiaman (CAFGU) who is a resident of Sta Lourdes village, to guide the troops through the maze of enemy ‘poste’ around the village.

After the their 30-minute drills, Sereno and his men rested for the night. He intended to depart from the assembly area (AA) at around 3:00am the next day (October 20).

Actions in the objective

At 3:00am (October 20), Sereno and his 8 soldiers were already in full battle gear. “Do the final inspection of your gear and equipment,” he told his sub-team leaders, Pfc Cagatin and Pfc Tano.
Moments later, they gathered in silence as they said their prayers as part of their standard operating procedure (SOP). “God is our best ‘force protection’,” said Sereno.

As planned, the Sereno and his men were transported to the designated line of departure (LD)
about 3kms away from the objective. As they traversed the narrow and rough road in the village, he kept on praying that no roadside bomb will be detonated.

Thirty minutes later, the KM 450 truck that carried them stopped and turned-off the lights. “Sir, we are already in our LD/LC,” says the driver, prompting him and his men to hurriedly disembark.

As they gathered in their initial rally point, all of them paused for their SLLS procedure (stop, look, listen, smell) to detect any enemy presence. It was also an opportunity for them to do the ‘dark adaptation’ procedures because not everyone was using NODs.

Walking stealthily along a faded trail, Sereno and his men inch their way towards the house of Enano where the bandits have taken shelter for the night. Checking his watch, it was almost 5:00am when they arrived at their designated objective rally point (ORP).

Looking around, there were occasional lightning flashes accompanied by loud thunder. Dark clouds were forming in the sky above. Though it was a cold morning, he was perspiring after negotiating the difficult terrain along the way. He was thankful that he has consistently implemented a physical training (PT) program in his company.

Aware that the enemy location was already nearby, he led a 5-man recon team to spot for the house described by the informant. Following the river bank for easy directions, he and his men spotted the house at around 5:30am.

By that time, some of the residents in the other houses were already awake. Roosters were already sounding their usual ‘alarm’ about the coming of the new day. Sereno was thankful that there were no dogs that may compromise their presence.

Seeing the ‘tapahan’ at the back of one house, he was certain that he was within 100m from the location of the still-sleeping bandits. He decided to go back to the ORP to deliver his fragmentation order (FRAG-O).

“Let us divide into two groups to cover both sides of the house,” he told his men. I will go with Alpha Team which will position near the ‘tapahan’ which is the most probable location of the bandits,” he said.

Recalling that the objective is a civilian house, he reminded his troops about fire discipline. “No firing at the house except when extremely necessary and only if aimed directly at the bandit,” he said.

Moments later, he found himself performing the ‘snake-crawl’ with his soldiers as they gradually positioned themselves towards their respective assault lines. “That was like my SROC (Scout Ranger Orientation Course) training during which we were performing this movement under pressure from our AI’s (assistant instructors). Now, this is real-life and we have to do it to survive,” he told himself, after being reminded of his rigid combat training under the tutelage of the famed Scout Rangers in Bulacan.

About 20 meters away from the “tapahan”, he could hear muffled voices. “Shhhhhhhh,” he signalled to his soldiers showing his hand signals. They all took an aim at the direction of the “tapahan”.

All of the sudden, a man rose to his feet, raised his hands to yawn as if greeting the morning. The man has a Cal .45 pistol tucked in his waist and he was in the act of adjusting his gun’s position. “Positive, eyes on,” came his order. As the Patrol Leader, he was to call the shots. He was supposed to be the one to fire the first bullet.

He can feel the heavy beating of his heart. He can feel the usual adrenaline rush when exposed to real-life danger. “These are the bandits who bombed and hurt my soldiers,” he commented to Pfc Tano who was behind him. “Let’s wait until we see the other two bandits who are reported to be with this guy.

All of the sudden, the bandit was heading towards their direction, holding his zipper. He was about to urinate beside the coconut tree where he was hiding. They only have some grasses that kept them from enemy observation.

Then, he suddenly heard, “Kalaban!”. The enemy spotted one of his men and drew his pistol to fire. In an instant, he fired his M4 carbine rifle. He aimed dead on. He fired two shots and shouted at the top of his lungs, “Assault”!.Together with the 5-man Alpha team, they rose and met the volley of fires from the enemies.

He can feel the bullets whizzing beside him but they all missed him and his soldiers. “Go, go, go!,” he commanded with his gun blazing as they pursued the other bandits who promptly scampered away.

“Cease firing!”, he ordered his assaulting elements. “Team Bravo, search!,” his voice crackled over the Harris portable tactial radio.

A bandit lay dead with his handgun beside the ‘tapahan’.

Sereno knew his bullet made a mark, causing the instantaneous death of the bandit. He felt sorry for him, but, he had to defend himself.

As Private First Class Cagatin chased the two wounded rebels who managed to escape, Sereno directed Alpha Team under Private First Class Tano to secure the house.

“To all occupants, please raise your hands, we will not harm you,” he negotiated with with people who were cowering in fear inside the house.

“Sir, please don’t shoot us, we are just ordinary civilians,” came the reply of a man whom he knew later as Manuel Enano, the patriarch of the family.

One by one, the occupants of the house came out, trembling in fear. Sereno could not contain his happiness upon seeing that one was hit by the ricocheting bullets.

“Sir, we are just force to let them stay. I am helpless against these armed bandits who approached me yesterday,” said Enano who claimed to be a barangay tanod (village watchman).

As his men searched the house, they found an M653 Rifle in the kitchen. Some subversive documents were also found contained in the combat packs owned by the fleeing bandits.

Troop reinforcements from the local police had also identified the fallen bandit as Eleuterio Mangampo, the Front Secretary of the CPP-NPA-NDF rebels operating in Sorsogon Province.

The death of Mangampo dealt a big blow on the NPA bandits in Sorsogon province. He was one of the few experienced ranking leaders remaining in the CNN’s (CPP-NPA-NDF) ranks.

Sereno was proud for his feat. He earned accolades for his heroic actions and he is also recommended to receive a combat medal for his acts of bravery and superb leadership during an encounter with the enemy.

For Sereno, his adventures in Sorsogon are far from over.

1LT SERENO briefing his troops on the operations they are about to embark on.

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