Monday, January 24, 2011

When does a soldier know peace? Remembering my dear Uncle – Lt. General Thelmo Y. Cunanan

When does a soldier know peace? 
Remembering my dear Uncle – Lt. General Thelmo Y. Cunanan

I asked the General who sat by the porch as he puffed on his pipe. “When does a soldier know peace?”

He looked me in the eye and I gulped. I wasn’t sure if I offended him or just asked him a question that he’d chew on for the next few days.

“A soldier,” he said as he paused for effect. “Is always at war.”

I nodded in agreement not wanting to give way to my being perplexed.

“No matter where you are. You always have to be alert.”

My late uncle Lt. General Thelmo Y. Cunanan held a special place in my heart. My immediate family as well as the Caluags used to go out at least once a month to Cavite, Laguna, Tagaytay, Baguio, Ilocos, and just about anywhere our convoy of cars would take us. We’d eat regularly at Josephine’s and the 7 Sisters. We’d go to Subic and Clark and at one point, quite often at Lemery, Batangas where he once let me fire his M-16 rifle on a coconut that they tossed into the sea.

As a young buck, I was fascinated by the military. My grandfather in my mother’s side assisted the Americans during the liberation of Tarlac from the Japanese in 1944. And then in my father’s side, there was Tito Thelmo. He always found an eager audience in me when he talked about his job and what the military did.

Around fourth year high school, I thought about entering the military. I had two classmates go up to the Philippine Military Academy and another one joined the US Armed Forces. I wanted to. Only I never got around to it. That was because I didn’t have my head screwed on straight and thought that I was signing up for the wrong reasons.

Safely ensconced at home, my Tito Thelmo and I shared magazines like Soldier of Fortune and those Asia-Pacific Defense Forum magazines. He also enjoyed borrowing my comic books and we’d oft talk about it. Every now and then, he’d ask me what was new in the Marvel Universe. I thought that he was the coolest uncle because none of my other relatives read comic books and he was someone I could debate whether Gwen Stacy was a better girlfriend for Peter Parker than Mary Jane Watson.

I always knew my uncle’s job was dangerous. And it never hit home until that ambush in Gattaran, Cagayan where he nearly lost his life and that 1989 coup d’etat where his steadfast dedication is protecting the government from coup plotters saved the day.

What is death to a young man when you think every one else is invincible? I thought that my Tito Thelmo was Iron Man and impervious to harm.

In the last evening of my uncle’s wake at Heritage Park, I listened to my cousin Christine as she bared her soul in a way I never heard her do before. To hear her say that she was deathly afraid that every time her dad – Tito Thelmo – left their house to go back to his area of operations that it could be the last time she saw him really hit me like a ton of bricks.

I always wanted to write about military stuff since I began to write professionally. I once talked to my Tito Thelmo to see if he could help me get a lift to the Spratly Islands to write about the Marine garrison stationed there. But my uncle had been retired from the service for a while and he didn’t know the new officers who could see how they could help.

He said he’d look into finding me a story to write. Only soon after that, he was diagnosed with cancer.

In the morning of my Tito Thelmo’s funeral, I asked General Cesar Tapia who was a year ahead of him in Fort Del Pilar, “When does a soldier know peace?”

The General, like my uncle did all those long years ago, paused and looked me in the eye. “A soldier is always at war,” he said uncannily mimicking my uncle’s words to me as a youngster. “But now is the time for peace. His (Tito Thelmo) mission is accomplished.”

I thought about his suffering from cancer. About his name being slandered by people who were up to no good. I thought about those close calls in Gattaran and Camp Aguinaldo. About his service in Cambodia, the PNOC, and finally to the SSS. 

The realization of his long and dignified record of service tempered the quiet pain I felt of losing someone dear to me. I accepted it and in my last look at him lying peacefully inside his coffin, I whispered a silent prayer of thanks and mission accomplished, General.

It was time for peace.

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