Philippine Military Academy

For the PMA Class of 2023, difficult lessons on surrender and loss

Bea Cupin

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For the PMA Class of 2023, difficult lessons on surrender and loss

GRADUATES. Members of the Philippine Military Academy's Madasigon Class of 2023 at their graduation rites, May 21, 2023.

Presidential Communications Office

The Armed Forces of the Philippines welcomes 310 new officers into its fold

BAGUIO, Philippines – Among the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Madasigon Class of 2023’s first lessons was that of surrender.

It was not just because they were plebes of the country’s premiere academy with yearlong initiation rites but because, by the end of their freshman year, they’d already lost two of their own to negligence and abuse.

Then, after not being able to see their families and loved ones for over a year, the class’ recognition rites – or when they’d officially be acknowledged as members of the Cadet Corps – were closed to the public, with only the closest of relatives allowed access, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Family members and friends were already outside the barracks but couldn’t be allowed in because of COVID-19 lockdowns, recalled 1st Lieutenant Warren Leonor, the class valedictorian. “They were unable to enter the academy and that was the time we experienced really low morale,” said Leonor, who will be joining the Air Force.

But without missing a beat, the young military officer added, “But in everything we do, being part of the military [means] we surrender ourselves to the profession of arms and we think those circumstances are just part of being in the military.”

It’s the life Leonor and his 309 classmates, all newly commissioned officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), signed up for in besting some 20,000 or so applicants who took the 2018 PMA entrance exam. But theirs is a shared history that most of their upperclassmen and underclassmen have had the misfortune of having to live.

BEST OF THE BEST. 1st Lieutenant Warren Leonor, the class valedictorian, delivering his valedictory address. Photo from Presidential Communications Office
Freshman tragedies

In a speech that was both standard and deeply personal, Leonor spoke about their class’ early losses – cadets Darwin Dormitorio and Mario Telan Jr.

Dormitorio, whose lifelong dream was to be a PMA cadet, died in July 2019 after months of torture and abuse at the hands of his upperclassmen – fellow cadets who were supposed to be his brothers-in-arms. Dormitorio, who was only 20 when he died, wanted to be a “changemaker” in the AFP and the rest of the country.

After Dormitorio’s death, Telan died inside the academy in November 2019. He was found lifeless by his upperclassmen at the bottom of the campus swimming pool, after he went missing during mess formation. Telan, who was also only 20 when he died, once dreamed of being commander-in-chief. His death was later ruled to be an accident, and his swimming instructors were fired for negligence.

“You will forever be a cherished part of the Madasigon Class of 2023,” said Leonor during his valedictory speech. His mention of Dormitorio and Telan earned applause from the audience of top government and military officials, as well as family and friends of the Class of 2023.

“They serve as an inspiration for us to continue to be stronger versions of ourselves. We dedicate our graduation to them,” Leonor would later tell media, when asked about his late mistahs (classmates).

Dormitorio’s death triggered outcry from within but especially outside military circles, including calls for reform of the country’s anti-hazing law. The tragedy also offered a rare glimpse into the sometimes secretive world of the PMA – where maltreatment and hazing are disallowed on paper, but continue to happen within its vaunted walls.

Several PMA officials resigned as a result of Dormitorio’s death, on account of command responsibility. Bartolome Vicente Bacarro, then-brigadier general and commandant of cadets, was one of those officials who resigned. Bacarro would later become President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s first AFP chief, but he was eventually “replaced” by General Andres Centino, the man he succeeded.

Cases have been filed against the former cadets and military officers involved in Dormitorio’s death, as of mid-2020.

Challenges confronting the AFP

Life after the academy is sure to be no less difficult for the Class of 2023.

President Marcos, speaking during the first commencement exercises with him as commander-in-chief, laid the challenges the AFP must face in the coming years.

“Existing realities and the rapidly evolving security environment impel us to be always be prepared for any and all threats that our country may face. Purveyors of criminality, insurgency, and terrorism are the great interlopers in our peaceable aspirations, that undermine our peace, and our stability, and our march to prosperity in our sovereign domain and its environs,” said Marcos.

The Philippines is in the middle of conflict affecting Southeast Asia and the rest of the Indo-Pacific. Its strategic location to flash points – the South China Sea and Taiwan – means an even more daunting future ahead for the Philippine military.

GRADUATES. The Armed Forces of the Philippines welcomes 310 officers from the Class of 2023. Photo from Presidential Communications Office

Marcos promised to “relentlessly” pursue modernization, or the acquisition and upgrade of assets. He also promised a “comprehensive study to improve the social protection for our military and uniformed personnel,” referring to the controversial move to reform their pension fund.

The President recently signed into law amendments to year-old legislation that imposed fixed terms for key posts in the AFP. The law is hoped to improve the decades-old problem of backlogs in military promotions, among others.

“As you encounter challenges along the way, apply the hard-won lessons that you have learned while in the halls of the academy, clinging to the values of courage, integrity, and patriotism. That way, you will never lose your way,” said Marcos, referring to two-thirds of the academy’s motto. The President is the son and namesake of the late dictator, whose decades of strongman rule ended in the revolt of key military officers, many of whom were PMA graduates themselves.

“Live up to the precepts that define your class identity – namely, honor, excellence, and ability to recover – and help lead our nation towards the progressive and prosperous future that we all aspire for,” added the commander-in-chief, who, for the first time, signed the traditional blanket pardons for all underclassmen in the academy. –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.