Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Soldiery and Family Life: Connecting the Two Different Worlds

by Major Harold M. Cabunoc (Inf) PA

Is it possible to be successful as a parent and as a military man? Quoting one of PMA’s plebe knowledge, “...this question is still languishing in my heart,” . I am aware that this is quite a challenge. As a married military man myself, I am finding ways to find some solutions.

Broken homes and failed marriages are becoming common among families separated by distance. This is applicable to both OFWs and soldiers who are separated from their loved ones.

In my research, I have not seen any document showing the statistics of troubled marriages among military couples. There are no also records about military dependents who became drug addicts or juvenile delinquents.

I can only assume that this ‘problem’ has not caught the attention of many military leaders. In my honest opinion, this maybe a reason why there is no institutionalized training or seminars for soldiers on how to perform their dual responsibilities as a soldier and as a family man.

Soldier’s Morale

Among military personnel, it is quite common to see spouses and children left behind in their homes as soldiers are deployed to distant posts.

While in far-flung duty assignments, many of these soldiers seem to have forgotten their responsibilities as husbands and fathers; they focus much of their time on their military duties.

The soldiers’ inability to maintain the lines of communication result to failed marriages and ill-supervised children, who may became drug addicts and juvenile delinquents in the future. I have known about successful military men who rose to become star-rank officers but failed miserably at the home front. I see this as a great failure on the part of the soldiers and probably of their leaders who have failed to see this reality.

In my own experience as a combat leader, I realized that a soldier’s morale is directly affected by the condition in his home. You cannot expect a soldier to focus on his job if he carries the burdens brought about by family-related woes.
As a leader, I am also affected by these problems. In one solid example, I sent home one of my soldiers when his Team Leader told me that the soldier was always staring at a ‘blank wall’. I traced his troubles back to his tumultuous family situation.

Aware of these, it became part of my personal commitment to look into the status of the families of my men. During Commander’s time, I never failed to remind them about their important role both as a father and as a husband, on top of their basic responsibilities as soldiers.

To ensure that I would not commit the same mistakes, I tried my best to address the same problem in my own family.

When my son, Harvey, was born eleven years ago, I realized that I could not perform all the ‘jobs’ of a father. He was born during the time that I was about to become a Commander of the 10th Scout Ranger Company, a rapid deployment force that could be sent anywhere in the Philippine archipelago.

I would not be there to teach him how to walk, or how to ride a bike, or how to fly a kite. I would not be there to help him in his school assignments or teach him how to cook.

Establishing the ‘connection’

Being new parents, my wife, Bia, and I relied heavily on folk wisdom or the ‘sabi-sabi’ as regards to the correct ways to maintain the bond between me and our son, Harvey.

“Maglagay kayo ng di nalabhang damit sa tabi ng bata,” was the advice from our baby-sitter.

“I read that a baby ‘connects’ through scent and not through vision,” my wife added, quoting some ideas she scanned from a book on responsible parenting. I readily agreed, hoping that it really works.

So there I was, bundling my unwashed shirt beside him when I departed for Sulu in September 2000, during the Sipadan hostage rescue operations. My son was about eight months old during that time. Pinagtitiisan nya ang aking amoy dahil nakasabit sa kanyang crib ang aking damit na di nilabhan. The unwashed shirt that I leave every time became his comfort blanket and his guardian.

While serving in the frontlines of the Army’s counter-terrorism campaign in southern Mindanao, I was quite thankful to the guys in Finland who invented the cellular phone.

I was also very happy that cellphone signal was very good in downtown Jolo where at least two thousand soldiers were deployed to simultaneously attack the terrorist lairs in Sulu province in September 2000.

As such, I always make it a point to make a phone call and make myself heard not only to my beloved wife, but also to our son during our resupply operations.

In one of our conversations, I can vividly recall when my wife said, “Tumatawa sya nang marinig ang boses mo, Dear.” I was happy that our techniques seemed to work perfectly.

That became my motivation to volunteer to climb some high grounds for ‘observation post’ (OP) operations because these hills offer good phone coverage as an incentive. Bud Tumatangis in Indanan town and the surrounding hills of Kagay and Tanum in Patikul are among the best places for making phone calls. Unfortunately, the bandits were aware of this too and some of our fierce clashes happened in these areas.

‘Tactical’ communications

I maintained the same system of communication with my family when my unit was transferred to Basilan during the Lamitan siege in June 2001. For this reason, I found out that there were strong phone signals on top of Hill 800 and Hill 898 (Punoh Mohadji).

When security situations permitted, I made it a personal routine to send my family text messages or phone calls when extremely necessary. Though I may be deep in the lush forests of Sampinit complex and within the lair of the terrorists, I maintained my communication lines to my family. I did not want them to be stressed, thinking about my situation.
It was also a stress-reliever for me to hear my son utter “Papa” as if greeting me or wishing me good luck.

As a policy, I did not tell her about the details of our military operations as this would make her worry some more. I just told her that we were ‘resting’ for a while and that my unit was doing fine. In one occasion, I told her we were all ‘okay’ despite the fact that I am still shaking and my unit just suffered numerous casualties (wounded) after a brutal encounter.

My wife had adjusted to the situation that I needed to talk in whispers every time I make a call in a ‘hot’ area. “Tactical considerations, let’s talk within 3-5 minutes,” I tell her.

Since clashes were always in the headlines during those times, I always made it a point to relay a message to my wife through military communication lines when cellphone signal cannot be accessed in my area of operations (AO).

“Tell her that I am alive and kicking the butts of the terrorists here,” I would joke to my radio operator in our camp in Cabunbata village in Isabela town. He would relay the same message to my wife through our unit’s cellphone.

It was my hope that my wife would not entertain thoughts that I might be one of the casualties in the bloody clashes. I was aware of the fact that the events in Basilan filled the primetime news and that the Scout Rangers were at the very forefront of the dangerous combat-rescue missions during those times.

During lull of the military operations, I also find time to fly to Manila to see my family even for only three days. To do this, I usually pay a round trip ticket (Zambo-Manila-Zambo) just to ensure that I can rejoin my company after its ‘rest period’ elapses. By doing so, I sustained the bonding moments with my wife and my son.

Consistency is the key

When I was transferred to Bulacan province for my staff duty assignment in May 2002, my son was already talkative and playful. He was barely three year old when I regularly hopped back and forth Manila and our headquarters in San Miguel town, located about 2.5 hours away from home.

When I am on duty, I saw to it that I talked to him everyday. Our phone conversations became part of my ‘duty’ that I religiously performed. “Papa, san ka? Bakit ka nandyan?” was his repeated dialogue. Parang sirang plaka sa mga tanong pero aking pinagtitiyagaang sagutin kahit paulit-ulit.

I had the opportunity to be with my family regularly when I was posted as a Liaison Officer in Fort Bonifacio in that same year. Unlike in the field, soldiers who are posted in garrisons usually have the chance to spend the weekends with their family. I therefore became one of the so-called ‘weekend warriors’.

As part of our bonding time, we regularly had swimming trips. He loved playing in the pool and I became his first
swimming instructor. Through our ‘habulan’ games, we created memories that would be imprinted forever in both our hearts.

Where is Papa?

When my son was five years old, saying goodbye became much more difficult. When I was detailed as an instructor in the Scout Ranger School, I always depart in the wee hours of the morning so that I can catch the start of the classes at 8:00am.

One morning, my wife called to tell me that Harvey was crying because I did not ask for his permission to leave the house. “I will wake you up next time son,” I promised him.

He took my word like a covenant. Since then, I always make it a point to get his nod every time I depart for duty. Most of the time, he was still too groggy to rise and send me off. However, I was glad that I did not hear more grumblings from him anymore.

Probably influenced by the negative impact of the primetime news about battles and tales of destruction in Mindanao, my son never liked soldiery as a profession. “Ayaw kong mamatay. Takot ako sa Abu Sayyaf,” were among his reasons. His mom could only nod in agreement.

I am glad that my duty as a company grade officer was over when he gradually became aware about the bloody battles in the countryside.

I believe Naomi Drew, author of Hope and Healing: Raising Peaceful Children in an Uncertain World when she said that children are usually terrified by the prospect of war and that this fear is magnified for those with family members in the armed forces.

I also agree when she declared that, “Children live by routines, such as eating dinner at a certain time or having a bedtime story read to them every night. These routines make them feel safe and in control. When a routine is broken—in this case, the absence of a parent for an unspecified period of time—a child may begin to feel helpless and adrift.”
I believe that it was the reason why he complained about my inability to ask for his permission before I depart for my military duty.

As my only child, he expected that that I am still beside him when he wakes up. He disliked the idea that I am not there to play with him the whole day.

Creating memories

Regardless of the constant phone calls from hundreds of miles away, I still felt that my son is becoming aloof to me as time went by. Definitely, there is no replacement for actual presence. As they say, ‘iba ang may pinagsamahan’. There are things that cannot be compensated by long distance conversations.

When I get the opportunity to go home, I always make it a point to spend quality time with my son. I identified some common interests that we have. When there are minor conflicts about what we like, we meet halfway and come up with compromises.

Since the three of us love Swedish massage, we find time to visit our favorite massage parlor. It has become a convenient way to share experiences and laughter especially when we compare the performance of our respective attendants.

We also implemented the family coffee time during which we just talk and share funny stories about our own lives. I share my ‘kwentong mess kit’, which is about the humor in uniform. Hearing the real life funny situations involving soldiers, I found out that he appreciates even simple jokes.

For his part, I require him to share his daily experiences as a child, about his crushes (which he reluctantly shares) and about his close friends.

We taught him the importance of honesty and the proper use of “All Right” challenge, which I learned in the PMA. Until now, he has adhered to his highest standard of integrity. He also takes note about the importance of word of honor. Lagi akong nasisingil kapag nakakalimutan ko ang sarili kong promises.

Lately, my son and I are into pistol shooting. Somehow, I influenced him after several shooting competitions during which I tagged him along as my cheerer. He is becoming a very good shooter now. Malapit na akong ma-demote bilang cheerer.

It started out when I told him that I ‘won’ many friends through shooting competitions. I asked him if he wants to do something for the country. “Gusto ko po,” came his reply.

I asked him if he wants to be an Olympic gold medalist in one of our ‘usapang mag-ama’ as we called our conversations. “You will become a national hero. Nobody has brought home a gold medal until today.”

Since then, I shared to him my shooting skills. Aware that shooting is quite expensive, he urged me at one point to concentrate on the coaching job. I soon realized it was a trick so that he can have all the ammunitions intended for both of us.

Naturally, shooting became our passion. Discussing his shooting ‘dry practices’ became part of our small talks every night. I told him to minimize playing computer games as this might adversely affect his vision. I also told him to undergo swimming and aerobic exercise, which he readily obliged. Dahil sa shooting, meron na kaming karagdagang pinag-uusapan.

I also noticed that our communication lines have become more open and less informal as it should be. He shares to me his feelings such as his ‘nerbiyos’ prior to an actual match; and I always ensured that I taught him the techniques to overcome them.

“Just concentrate on the shooting basics. Don’t think about the people watching you but think on how to shoot straight consistently all the time,” I reminded him.

When he won his first official shooting match in February 2011, he was very proud. He called me and asked me to take a photo of his trophy for his Face book account.I got a simple reward for my coaching job when I heard him say, “I am proud of my Coach Papa.”

Technological advancements

During my younger years as a Platoon Leader in mid 90’s, our soldiers were contented with the use of the URC 187 HF radio to talk with their loved ones. I can vividly recall soldiers saying, “I love you too, over!” to their wives who chatted with them through the military communication lines of another military camp near their homes.

When I was a Company Commander, majority of my soldiers had their own cellphones. I also maintained a company-owned cellphone that was monitored by our support personnel 24/7.

Those who had no personal cellphones were allowed to use the unit’s cellphone for emergency outgoing calls. I also required them to maintain communication lines to their loved ones and I personally write letters to their wives or parents. By doing so, I have helped save some troubled marriages in my unit.

With the advent of 3G video calls, Skype and Yahoo Messenger, maintaining the lines of communication is becoming much easier.

It seems that there are no more valid alibis left for soldiers not to maintain a robust relationship with their loved ones.
I can confidently say that we can be the best soldier and a responsible family man if we want to do it. We must strive to achieve this usually unrecognized ‘accomplishment’.

I had received many combat medals and citations in the past. Indeed, I am very proud for them.

But during my Basilan tour in 1998, I received my first “Best Husband” certificate from my wife. It made me prouder.

I am still waiting for my “Best Father” award from my son. I am still working hard for it. It will make me the proudest soldier.
***(This article is dedicated to all soldiers who have offered their lives in the service of the motherland)


  1. Hi there, the article is quite moving (I am also a father). I guess this sends a strong message that, regardless if a father holds a gun or not, he will be no different from the rest.

  2. Yes, right! Soldiers are family leaders too. Let's pray for their safety.

    I really hope that the time will come that no more fathers (from both the enemy forces or government forces)will offer the ultimate sacrifice for their respective beliefs. :-(