Armed Forces of the Philippines

[OPINION] From PMA to Officer Candidate School: A soldier’s story

Harold Cabunoc

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[OPINION] From PMA to Officer Candidate School: A soldier’s story
Dismissed from the Philippine Military Academy, Jerald Garcia would not give up on his dream to become a soldier

In life, it is indeed important to draw lessons from past failures and adversities. Throughout history, highly accomplished people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Jordan became successful by overcoming several failures. 

Second Lieutenant Jerald Garcia, 24, a proud Igorot from Baguio City, built his successes from the rubble of past failures. He is the first cadet of the Philippine Army Officer Candidate School (PAOCS) to reap all the top awards given to a graduate of the military institution – Secretary of National Defense Saber, Commander TRADOC Saber, Chief of Staff, TRADOC Physical Proficiency Award, and the Commandant’s Excellence Award. 

Garcia was exposed to life’s adversities at a very young age. He was barely 10 years old when her mom Flordeliza, 46, left their home to work in the Middle East as a nurse. To sustain the family, Joey, his then-48-year-old father, had to leave their house every day to earn a living in a construction company.

As the eldest child in the brood of six, he learned to do household chores that included cooking food for his younger siblings, washing their clothes, and looking after them. Life was difficult but he pursued his education by embracing the values of hard work, resilience, and duty. 

In college, his father directed him to take BS Accountancy, a course that he did not like. Out of respect, he took the course half-heartedly and ended up failing in some of the core subjects. 

He was a college sophomore when a friend invited him to take the entrance exam of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). He had no knowledge about military life but he felt the excitement of trying something new. 

When he passed the exam, he knew he had to hand over his duties and responsibilities to the next younger brother, Joshua, 22. They shared almost the same experiences together so the transition was much easier. 

Military life

In 2017, he had to deal with the physical and mental challenges as a plebe. Military life was indeed difficult but he luckily got a good mentor in the person of his squad leader, Cadet James Esquivel, 26, who taught him perseverance and positive mental attitude. 

Esquivel, a member of PMA Class 2020, was his first role model in the military. Esquivel made sure that their good deeds were rewarded and they were punished for infractions to the established disciplinary standard of the cadet corps. Importantly, he motivated Garcia to become physically strong by performing physical training exercises with the whole squad regularly. 

Garcia was a third year cadet when he was inspired to join the Philippine Army during the 30-day Leadership Development Course. Captain Jeffrey Buada, a Scout Ranger and one of the heroes of the Battle of Marawi, mentored him and the Army Group of PMA Class 2022 on combat leadership. From then on, he became more determined to become an Army leader.

Shattered dream

In the second quarter of 2019, he was designated as a squad leader for the plebes belonging to the Class of 2023. It was his time to practice the leadership principles and approaches that he learned – leading by good example, rewards and punishments, and mentoring. 

Though he believed that some hazing practices had some practical purposes in the Philippine military, he opted to focus on positive reinforcement, role modeling, and counseling as the better approaches in developing leaders. 

However, some of his mistahs (classmates) did not share the same level of understanding and tolerance for the misbehavior and stubbornness of neophyte cadets. 

One day, he found his roommate physically harming a cadet. The latter was groaning in pain and could hardly stand. Remembering his young siblings, he could not help but empathize with the poor plebe. He intervened and assisted the latter in getting medical attention. 

When the hazing scandal made it to the headlines, all hell broke loose in the PMA. He found himself implicated in the incident for “countenancing a hazing practice.” Admittedly, he failed to report his erring mistah based on the published cadet regulations.

And his painful journey as a detained cadet began. He knew that it was the end of his military career. He saw his dream crumbling before him and he felt suffocated under the debris of his failure. There were times that he wanted to die but thought of his siblings prevented him from taking drastic measures. 

Never surrender!

Luckily, Cadet Emmanuel Sabanal, a graduating cadet of Class 2021, would visit them at the holding center to cheer him up. He encouraged him to pray and prepare for other options. 

“Stand up, never surrender. God has a perfect plan for you,” Sabanal said.

Since then, Sabanal’s powerful words reignited the fire of Garcia’s quest for success in the military service. Instead of suffering in solitude, he stood up and strengthened his faith in God. Gradually, he was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

Along with another detainee, Cadet Rey Joseph Silagan, 24, of Bohol, he enrolled at the CAP College Foundation to finish AB in English. The online classes offered by the school during the pandemic was like manna from heaven for students like them who were literally deprived of PMA’s hallowed portals. 

After eight months, the final verdict was handed down. He and Silagan were among those who were separated from the Philippine Military Academy. 

Garcia had mixed emotions on the day he read the decision. He was saddened that he would no longer become a PMAer and be part of the so-called “cream of the crop.” On the other hand, he was happy learning that another door of opportunity opened for him during his exit call to the PMA Commandant at the time, Brigadier General Romeo S Brawner Jr. 

“Finish your studies and join the Army through the Officer Candidate School,” said Brawner.  As he packed his things up, he crafted a plan on how to realize his elusive dream. 

Different paths, same goal

He still had to hurdle the remaining subjects of his course when he went back to his home in Irisan village in 2020. He knew that he needed to focus on his studies and he had to do it with his long-time buddy, Cadet Silagan. 

Another discharged mistah, ex-Cadet Walker Titiwa, 26, offered his home in La Trinidad town in Benguet. There, the Titiwa family gladly welcomed Garcia and Silagan. 

It was the support network of his adoptive family and the endless motivation from his loved ones back home that drove him to continue fighting through all the obstacles that came along the way. 

Later that year, he and Silagan hopped on a borrowed scooter so that they could take the AFP Service and Aptitude Test, which was required for the pre-entry training for commissionship in the Philippine Army. To him, failure was no longer an option. 

“It was our last card in our dream of becoming a leader in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. We did our best to pass the exam,” he said. 

When he passed the series of physical and medical examinations, he had to repeat the very challenging plebehood that he had endured as a PMA cadet. 

Again, he found a good mentor in the person of Probationary Second Lieutenant Philip Servidad. The latter was an ex-PMA cadet, and the Officer Candidate School’s Cadet Battalion Commander.

“Rise as a leader among your classmates. You can easily endure the hardships as a former PMA cadet,” said Servidad. 

Since then, he volunteered to mentor his classmates on military discipline and traditions. When it was time for him to be designated as Cadet Battalion Commander, he practiced what he had already learned in PMA: he influenced others in becoming good leaders like him. 

Finally, on October 20 this year, P2LT Jerald Garcia fulfilled his dream of becoming an outstanding leader of the Philippine Army. Demonstrating performance excellence as the top-ranking graduate in his class, he started it right. Most importantly, he learned from his past failures in life. –

Colonel Harold M Cabunoc is the Commandant of the Philippine Army Officer Candidate School. A member of the Philippine Military Academy “Bantay-Laya” Class of 1994, he had served on the frontlines of Basilan and Sulu as a warrior-leader of the First Scout Ranger Regiment and later as a peace-builder while commanding the 33rd Infantry Battalion in Central Mindanao. He finished his Master in Military and Defence Studies at the Australian National University.

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