TAGUM City–“Turn around,” I said. “Let’s give it another pass. I want to take a picture.”
It was the sight of big guns out there roped off on the road at the entrance of a mall in downtown Tagum that piqued my interest. What were these doing there? Is this mall under a terrorist threat? Doesn’t that just look like overkill as a show of deterrent force to protect some businessman’s investment?
“On second thought, just park here so I can get off,” I told my self-appointed go-anywhere-any-time transport specialist, Cezar Z. The last time we saw these babies they were up in the mountains. We started the day with no intention of going this way and yet, here we were. I needed to get closer.
I couldn’t get a panoramic shot worth talking about. The green tricycles just kept obscuring the tank and the two Howitzers. They were named Lasang, Greta, and Aubrey. And Aubrey was her name, oh!
I ambled over to the boys doing road security. They seemed relaxed, posted in a huddle on the sidewalk near the stairs. Up close, I found one lying on their packs. He looked tired and a bit flushed, his rifle on safe resting on his chest. They all looked exhausted, actually. But like most soldier boys wherever you find them these days, they were mindful of what was coming down their way. They greeted me with polite smiles, even the kid on the ground, though he didn’t look like he could get up just then. I waved him down.
They told me they were from a unit in Davao del Norte, and that they had just come down from operations when they got assigned to watch the guns on display. This was some higher-up’s idea of commemorating Edsa. Big guns on the city streets.
“Just till tonight, ma’am,” said the young man who looked like he had designated himself watcher over his exhausted buddy.
“Hey, you look all done in,” I told his ward as I reached out to feel his neck. The back of my hand came away clammy with his sweat. I registered low grade fever. “You okay? You took meds?”
“Yes, ma’m, I’m okay, thanks. We did not bring meds. I just need some sleep.”
“You guys ate already?” I asked. It was 2:00 pm.
“Later in camp, ma’m. We’re out of provisions now,” the team leader replied.
“All right. Keep safe now,” I said as I bade goodbye.
Getting back in the car, I instructed Cezar to drive through the fastfood joint round the corner where we picked up a bucket of fried chicken and bottles of water. We scrounged around for whatever medicine we had in our bags. I found a squashed envelope with two Naproxen pills Fr. Gabriel Gonzalez sent over last month, complete with notations on dosage and expiration date on the flap. Cezar had four Ascof tablets in his glove compartment.
We swung back and dropped the lot off on the surprised soldiers. It was a pleasant surprise for them, I hope. We did not even leave our names. I did not tell them I was Gail Ilagan, the military psychologist who understands that the soldier’s body and his psyche need to normalize after he comes back from operations. I did not tell them I teach their sergeants to do combat and operational stress first aid. I was just this lady who recognized the physical toll on a young man as he goes about the serious charge of securing the rest of us – so that we could travel safely on the road and go to the mall to cool off when they switch the power off in our neighborhood.
It was a déjà vu moment. Handing the packs of food out to my soldiers, it dawned on me that the act was a crucial element of the Edsa experience from 30 years ago. The tide turned when the soldiers sent to disperse the people on the streets came over to stand with them rather than against them. Edsa became Philippine history because the guns sent to attack the people became the guns standing by to protect the people. So gladly did the people share their food with the soldier then.
Thirty years later, I had my Edsa moment.
Rolling away, I mused that had we have a rose, I would have stuck it in the boy’s rifle barrel. As if reading my mind, Cezar firmly fixed his rosary around the rear view mirror stem overhead.
Roses, rosaries, and food. The soldiers securing the Edsa got lots of those 30 years ago. They were symbols of the Filipino people welcoming them back into the fold.
(Gail Ilagan teaches at the Department of Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University. She is head of the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.)