MANILA, Philippines – The troops will be talking about Army chief Major General Hernando Delfin Carmelo Iriberri for a while. The young general beat more senior contenders to the post, including his previous commander at the Northern Luzon Command, Lieutenant General Gregorio Catapang.
When he assumed the post on Friday, February 7, Iriberri also made a comic error in his very first order as commanding general of the 85,000-strong Philippine Army. “Sergeant Major, lower my flag,” he ordered. “Yes, sir!,” roared the soldier. Realizing his mistake, Iriberri quipped: “Ay, raise the flag.” The military heirarchy and the guests erupted in laughter. And then they clapped. Among them was his own backer Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin. (READ: Gazmin’s former aide is new Army chief)
Raising one’s flag in a military turnover ceremony indicates an officer’s acceptance of a new command. Lowering the flag means the officer is leaving his post.
Iriberri’s swift rise has been attributed to his closeness to Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who is very close to President Benigno Aquino III. (Voltaire Gazmin: The untouchable)
Iriberri served as spokesperson of Gazmin when he was Army chief in 2000. Before he became the commander of the Army’s 503rd Brigade in Abra and later 7th Infantry Division chief, Iriberri also served as senior military assistant to the defense chief.
“I personally thank our Secretary of National Defense, the Honorable Voltaire Gazmin, for his vote of confidence and, long before that, for his invaluable mentorship on the ways of becoming a leader,” Iriberri said in his speech.
Catapang, who served in the President’s hometown Tarlac, had been rumored to be the strongest contender for the post. But in decision he made known only last Thursday, Aquino chose Iriberri.
It was already 10 pm on Thursday when Iriberri arrived in Fort Bonifacio to practice for Friday’s change of command ceremony.
Sought for comment on Iriberri’s promotion, Catapang said: “We should support the decision of the President. Let’s rally behind the new commanding general of the Philippine Army.”
Iriberri told Rappler in an earlier interview he is proud to have served Gazmin. But it is unfair to say his appointment depended on him. “In the end, it’s the President’s decision,” he said.
In his speech, President Aquino talked about Iriberri’s record in Abra. “His unit was instrumental in achieving the most peaceful elections in Abra. Because they effectively responded to threats, the province recorded an 83% voters turn out. It’s the highest in the record of the Cordillera Administrative Region in the past elections,” Aquino said.
The President added: “I heard he is called in the Armed Forces as Superman. He always tops physical exercises. As the new chief, I expect that he will show extraordinary strength, discipline, and dedication to continue the Army Transformation Roadmap.”
Most of Iriberri’s combat duties were in Mindanao. He is a recipient of 2 Gold Cross Medals, the 3rd highest combat honor. He received the first in 1996 when he commanded a Scout Ranger Regiment that overran an Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) camp in Maguindanao and later in 1999 when he was Army spokesperson and survived an ambush in Lanao.
He is also a recipient of 5 Distinguished Service Stars, and one Bronze Cross Medal.
Improve disaster response
Iriberri has a lot to prove. He knows it and he said he’s ready.
He recognized that times are changing. While the military continues to fight insurgency there are other challenges like disaster response. (READ: PH military grappling with insurgency amid China tension)
“We are still engaged in battles for enduring peace in some areas and expanding development around the country…. In most instances, the batles are a contest of will and propaganda. In others, the clash of arms. In a new front, we also now have the battle against the onslaught of disasters,” Iriberri said.
Iriberri spoke about “improving interoperability with other armed forces” and “developing new means and methods for effectively and efficiently collaborating with foreign forces and other agencies in dealing with major disasters and calamities.”
While the government is set to finalize a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Iriberri said the Army has to deal with “spoilers.” He cited the clashes with the MILF breakaway unit Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and last year’s attack of the Moro National Liberation Front in Zamboanga City.
He said he will continue to implement the government’s counter-insurgency program, as well as the reform agenda of the military.
“I shall give nothing short of my own best performance,” Iriberri vowed.
Iriberri will retire in April 2016, two months before President Aquino steps down from office. The current chief of staff, General Emmanuel Bautista, is retiring in July this year, and Iriberri – as Army chief – would automatically be a nominee for the post. – Rappler.com