The Captain in Golan: Nilo Ramones is home
MANILA, Philippines – The military band started playing and the generals stood up to welcome the 344 Filipino troops from the Golan Heights as they marched towards the grandstand in Camp Aguinaldo. A pop was heard and yellow confetti flew above them. It's no ordinary celebration. It's a homecoming meant only for heroes.
"We are very happy because they recognized our hard work and sacrifices. We were away from our families. Our service to the country was recognized not just by the Armed Forces leadership but also by the entire nation. We are very thankful," said Captain Nilo Ramones, 31, the platoon leader at the embattled United Nations encampment in Golan Heights, after the festivities Wednesday afternoon, October 1.
It was only a month ago when Ramones and his men exchanged gunfire with Syrian rebels, among them members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front, as they defied orders to surrender their firearms. The Filipino troops would later execute an adrenalin-inducing escape mission. They abandoned their belongings and carried only their firearms, bullets, and their gadgets.
"Masayang masaya kami kasi ho buhay na kami. Buhay na kaming lahat. Napasigaw nga ako noon na 'Oh buhay na tayo!' Noong pagka-step namin sa fence ng host natin na Israel, napasigaw kami. Safe na tayo sa lugar na ito," Ramones said.
(We're very happy that we're alive. I remember shouting then, 'Guys, we're alive!' The minute we stepped inside the fence of our host Israel, we all shouted. We were already safe there.)
The escape was not authorized by the UN. It was a controversial move that brought world attention to issues surrounding UN operations in conflict areas. The UN has since ordered a review of peacekeeping operations.
Their commander at the UN may call the Filipinos "cowards" and the UN itself may deny the controversial order, but back home these doubts do not matter. In a spontaneous speech Wednesday morning, President Benigno Aquino III himself hailed their heroism and did not hide his disappointment with the UN commander's orders.
"We are very happy that no less than the President supported our decision there," Ramones said. "Ang pag-surrender ng baril, wala ho yan sa dugo natin bilang Pinoy. Bawal po sa amin yung pag-surrender ng baril kasi yun 'yung honor namin. Kumbaga yun 'yung asawa namin dito. Kapag malayo po kami sa pamilya namin, 'yun na ho ang magiging asawa namin," Ramones added.
(We Filipinos do not surrender our firearms. We are forbidden to surrender our firearms because it is our honor. Our firearms are like our wives. If we are away from our families, our firearms are our wives.)
The President awarded Ramones and 7 other soldiers the Gold Cross Medal, the 3rd highest award for combat. It is the first time in recent years that Filipino soldiers received military combat awards for an assignment overseas. The last was in the 1950s for troops of the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK).
The prestigious Distinguished Service Medal was also awarded to UNDOF chief of staff Colonel Ezra "Iking" Enriquez and contigent commander Lieutenant Colonel Ted Dumusmog, who guided Ramones and his troops and coordinated with their commanders in Manila.
Aside from Ramones, the others who received the Gold Cross Medal were 2nd Lieutenant Larry A Endozo, Master Sergeant Wilson Lagmay, Sergeant Alwin Cuyos, Staff Sergeant Leonardo Aboy, Staff Sergeant Andy R Mejos, Staff Sergeant Ramil R Bobiles, and Corporal Joneve Acolicol. The rest of the troops in Position 68 received the Military Merit Medal.
Ramones does not deny that he feared he would not be able to bring his platoon home complete. "We were also afraid because we were up against terrorists. But Filipinos are brave fighters. Fear is normal. But I know that my troops are well trained. We were able to hurdle that challenge," Ramones said.
And while the world weighed in on whether or not the Filipinos made the right decision to escape while Syrian rebels were still holding the Fijian peacekeepers, to Ramones and his men it was a matter of survival.
"Sa sitwasyon na yun talagang tatakas at tatakas ka. Kapag maabutan ka ng madaling araw.... Based sa aming assessment, wave by wave ang pag-atake nila. 'Yung umaga na yun, more than 100 to 200. The next day ibang grupo na naman ho 'yun. Alam mo na mangyari kaya kami tumakas," Ramones said.
(In that situation, you will really have to escape. If you stay until dawn.... Based on our assessment, they attack by waves. That morning, there were 100 to 200 of them. The next day, it was another group. You already know what would happen so we escaped.)
The UN peacekeepers were only supposed to monitor the ceasefire between the neighboring countries Syria and Israel. The Golan Heights – a buffer zone – between the 2 countries is supposed to be a demilitarized zone. But escalating internal conflict in Syria has brought the rebels to their camps. The governments of both Syria and Israel assisted the Filipino peacekeepers during the firefight and the escape.
A soldier for 11 years now, Ramones said it was the most difficult situation he has found himself in. Used to fighting communist rebels, Ramones said Golan Heights was different because they were dealing with terrorists who have been known to behead their captives. (The Fijian peacekeepers were released a week after their escape.)
"Ito na yun pinakamatinding nangyari sa buhay ko," he said.
The celebrations are not over. On Thursday, October 2, the Filipino peacekeepers will also receive the "Sagisag ng Ulirang Kawal" award in a separate program at the Philippine Army headquarters.
This early, Ramones and his men are also preparing for their next mission: to secure Pope Francis during his visit to the Philippines in January 2015. A Catholic himsef, Ramones said it will be an honor to secure the Pope. – Rappler.com