When I was in grade school and my teacher would ask me if my father could come to the parents-teacher meeting, I was always quick to reply, “no.” And if teacher followed up with “why,” my ready answer was “because he is in Saudi and he works there.”
It was in the early 80s, at the height of Filipino migration to Saudi. A number of Filipino men, mostly fathers, trooped to work in the Arabian kingdom, which was experiencing a peak in its economy and was needing more and more workers.
A few of my classmates had fathers who were working in Saudi that time. I simply borrowed their lines when it’s my turn to respond to teacher on anything related to my father.
It was a lie. I was always uncomfortable with that lie. But it was, crazy it may be, my way of dealing with what I felt over my father’s absenteeism.
My father was a soldier. He belonged to the elite Scout Rangers of the Philippine Army. The Army’s rangers were said to be one of the world’s deadliest fighting forces. Belonging to a special operations command unit, the Scout Rangers were rigidly trained, enduring months of trainings that had been called “hell” so they’d emerge with the stamina, strength, endurance, loyalty, mental ability to tackle the fiercest battles. Hard and fast, they were designed to specialize in anti-guerilla warfare, raids and ambushes.
And so, in the 70s, during my father’s prime, he spent his military career, fiercely fighting for the Philippine flag in the all-out war against the Moro rebels in the hinterlands of Sulu and Basilan. They, the Scout Rangers, played a major role in the capture of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front camp during this conflict.
My father was a bemedalled soldier. His “kumpares” (friends) when they come to our house for a visit would remind us of that as they point to my father’s musang (Philippine civet cat – the Scout Ranger mascot along with the black panther) tattooed on his arm. Obviously it was to make us feel proud of our father. “Only a few in the army are musang. Your father is one of them.”
When I was a little girl, I would sit on my father’s lap each time I want to get a close look at his tattoo. I was always amazed with it. It would make me beam with so much pride. Looking at that cat’s face was enough to tell me why he was always away. He was a soldier, and he had to defend the country from the enemies.
When I started grade school, I started feeling some pressure over my father’s absenteeism. There were always those activities in school that required the attendance of parents especially the parents-teacher meetings or even the school parties. Some of my classmates would bring in both their parents. The ones I knew who couldn’t bring a father had fathers working in Saudi. So I thought, I might just as well say that my father’s in Saudi too.
But it was not just the pressure in school to show a father. What about the many birthdays that went by without him? The nights when you were afraid in the dark and you looked for a father? The male classmates who bullied you, and you wanted so badly to show them your father clad in his military uniform and armalite rifle so their knees shake and pants wet with their pee? The “tambay” (bystander) at the corner who whistled at you even when you were just an innocent little girl, and you wanted to bring your father to teach that maniac a hard lesson?
These were some of the moments when you wanted to show off your father’s fierce musang but you couldn’t because he simply was absent.
So you begin to question the concept of heroism. A soldier is a hero to whom?
You see, it is so hard to be a soldier. You sacrifice your own life for the country. My father had talked about his several near-death experiences from bullets, mines and bombs, as well as malaria.
You sacrifice your time with your own family. So even if you were a hero to the country, in the world of your little kids, you are nowhere near a hero.
In my case, it had to take a process, a long one, before I come to terms with who my father -a soldier – is to me.
My readings about the Moro history in Mindanao, which made me sympathetic to the cause of the Moro rebels (not to be confused with the mere terrorists and bandits), made this process even longer.
It wasn’t until I become an adult, a parent myself, that I get to see my father in an entirely new perspective. The more I look at him, the more I see myself in him.
Integrity, patriotism, strength, stamina, endurance and loyalty, these are the values he painstakingly taught us that I hold so dearly and now teach to my own kids.
It makes me realize that the values that made him a good soldier are actually the same values that make him a good father