SULU, Philippines – The lair of the Abu Sayyaf in the jungles of Sulu is witness to the worst of humanity, the site of gruesome beheadings that have caused national embarrassment.
But the troubled island is also witness to the heroism of soldiers who go beyond what’s expected of them as they hunt down terrorists who have mastered the terrain.
Here are 5 operations in the past year that won medals for soldiers deployed to fight the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu. They were recognized in an awarding ceremony at the Camp Teodulfo Baustista in Jolo, which was led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and witnessed by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr and the top brass of the military.
1. January 31, 2017: 12 Abu Sayyaf bandits killed in Barangay Pugad Manaul
A commander of a battalion, which is usually composed of about 300 soldiers, usually does not join ground operations. The brains of the team, he is often from a safe distance while he monitors his men execute the operational plan he prepared and make quick adjustments depending on the battlefield situation.
But Sulu is a different jungle, and officers here are ordered to step up and join combat operations to meet a self-imposed deadline to significantly weaken the Abu Sayyaf Group by June 2017.
This is where 32nd Infantry Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Flores earned his latest Gold Cross Medal.
On January 31, Flores and his men came across 25 Abu Sayyaf bandits led by sub-leader Alhabsy Misaya at Barangay Pugad Manaul in the town of Panamao while scouring the jungles for the group that continues to hold dozens of hostages.
Twelve were killed and 5 were reportedly wounded in the biggest military victory against the Abu Sayyaf so far this year.
The recovery of munitions such as an M4 bushmaster, bullets, and personal belongings indicated that the Abu Sayyaf did not see the soldiers coming.
“Lieutenant Colonel Flores distinguished himself in combat, thereby earning honor not only for himself and his unit but also for the entire armed forces of the philippines as well,” read his citation
But it was clearly a team effort for the battalion that’s known and respected for having the most number of encounters with the Abu Sayyaf lately. Flores shared the Gold Cross Medal award with one of his men, 1st Lieutenant Mark Alvin Bawagan. The two led the awardees on Tuesday.
Other members of the battalion who played key roles in conducting surveillance and stakeout operations got Silver Cross medals, the 4th highest combat award. They were represented by First Lieutenant Jovy Perater in the awarding ceremony.
2. April 25, 2016: Body of Canadian hostage is recovered
The recovery of the bodies of slain hostages is an automatic job that goes to soldiers, who recognize that families need to bring home the body so they could properly grieve. But it’s an operation that could be as dangerous as hunting down the bandits themselves.
Silver Cross medals were awarded to a group of Philippine Navy marine officers for intelligence operations that successfully located the body of Canadian kidnap victim John Ridsdel, who was beheaded in April 2016.
Colonel Noel Beleran and Captain Eric Quiñanola of the 2nd Marine Brigade’s Marine Battalion Landing Team-1 represented the group in the awarding ceremonies.
“These officers and enlisted personnel without any hesitation bravely acted on the information provided by their informant and together with a few policemen and barangay auxillary teams (BPATs) personnel conducted intelligence operations and were able to penetrate the ASG lair amidst the heavy threat of the ASG and IEDs along the way. They successfully retrieved the headless body of Canadian victim John Risdel at Sitio Tebangaw, barangay Gata in Talipao, Sulu,” the citation read.
3. March 6, 2017: Detonating an IED in Talipao, Sulu
Military Merit medals were given to soldiers who detonated an improvised explosive device found along the Service Road in Kutong, Talipao on March 6, effectively preventing what could have been a deadly explosion.
It was the 2nd medal that Beleran and Quiñanola received on Tuesday. Their troops belonging to the 2nd Marine Brigade were recognized for responding and providing command and control and securing the area while effectively coordinating with higher headquarters and the local government unit.
Major Mark Anthony Arabe and Sergeant Elmer Ballesteros also received the award on Tuesday.
“Umnindful of their own personal safety, said personnel successfully detonated the said IED…. Their individual expertise and collective effort in handling the situation have saved countless lives of possible victims that could be either civliians or soldiers passing the road,” the citation read.
4. February 5, 2017: 4 Abu Sayyaf bandits killed in Talipao
Military Merit medals were also awarded to soldiers of the Philippine Marines Ready Sulu for a series of targeted military operations in early February that killed 4 Abu Sayyaf bandits, including sub-leader Aktar Susukan, without incurring casualties.
The commander, Colonel Antonio Rosario, was cited for planning, deploying, executing, and maneuvering the forces of the Marine Special Operations Group (Marsog) in an encounter with up to 60 bandits.
His men were also awarded the same medals for the death of the Abu Sayyaf Members. It’s the 3rd medal for Quiñanola on Tuesday.
5. March 4, 2017: Retrieval of the body of Juergen Gustav Kantner
Military Merit medals were also awarded to troops belonging to the Special Operations Platoon-1 of the Marine Battalion Landing Team-1 of the Philippine Marine Ready Force Sulu, for the retrieval of the body of beheaded Geman hostage Juergen Gustav Kantner.
The soldiers found the body while conducting combat/clearing search and retrieval operations in barangay Buanza in Indanan, Sulu.
Second Lieutenant Noah Umipig and Sergeant Gary Prande represented the team during the awarding ceremony. – Rappler.com