By Loraine Balita-Centeno
As the Marawi conflict rages on, we are seeing more of what our soldiers are willing to do for the nation. We are witnessing gallant warriors in battle, saving civilians, clearing the besieged city of the local terrorist group Maute. These soldiers have sworn to protect the flag and the nation with honor. They are willing to die so others may live.
But what some of us might have forgotten is that underneath the camouflage and full battle gear is a husband, a father, a son, a brother. Every day we see the numbers of casualties flashed on our screens. But what we are not seeing behind those numbers is a son who lost his idol, a daughter who lost her favorite playmate, and a wife who lost the love of her life
Most of these fallen soldiers are so young with little children who will now have to grow up without their father. Some didn’t even live long enough to see the birth of their child, one of whom is Cpl. Benito Serrano of Conner, Kalinga Apayao.
The unborn child he didn’t get to see
On the night of May 22, 33-year-old Cpl. Benito Serrano called his wife Ligaya, who’s eight months pregnant. They talked about their plans, their four-year-old daughter and him coming home in July in time for the birth of their baby. The soldier, who was supposed to come home in May, chose to stay in Marawi and save his leave credits for when his wife gives birth. They talked for hours. By midnight he asked his wife not to hang up, he wanted for them to keep the call going as they slept. “At 2 a.m. I woke up and heard him snoring on the other line, ” Ligaya recalls.
The following day Cpl. Benito Serrano was killed in battle. He and his team went into a house occupied by Maute members where a terrorist was hiding inside, ready to shoot. He was shot in the chest and died on the spot.
“I kept texting him that night ‘Budz, reply ka naman nag aalala na ako’ but there was no reply,” Ligaya says, sobbing. The following day she was told the devastating news. “Sigaw ako nang sigaw, tinatawag ko ang pangalan niya [I kept screaming, calling out his name],” she cries. It felt like a nightmare for Ligaya from which she was hoping she would soon wake up, but she never did—it was all too real. Her husband, the father of her daughter and unborn child, was gone.
“He was my best friend,” she says. The couple called each other Budz short for Buddy. “He was my sumbungan, my kakwentuhan,” she adds.
Cpl Serrano, who was known among his friends and family as Arnold, was a hands-on father. “When he’s home he’s the one who takes care of our daughter,” Ligaya says. “He likes playing with her. He would tie a string around my daughter’s cart and they would pull it by the side of the road.”
What breaks Ligaya’s heart now is how many dreams Arnold still had for himself, for his family, and for his daughter. “He wanted his daughter to be a doctor someday,” she says.
Arnold was a Computer Science graduate who took automotive courses. His dream was to someday put up an automotive and electrical parts shop. He was also planning to start saving up next year to get his family a home. “He wanted to buy a house for us. It was really our dream,” she says.
What she would miss most about her husband though is how he would wake her up in the morning with coffee in hand. “Sasabihin niyan, Budz gising na ito na ang coffee mo, [Budz wake up, your coffee’s ready],” she recalls. Arnold was a loving father who wanted a better future for his children. His dream was for his kids to finish college someday and Ligaya, a high-school teacher, promises to try her best to fulfill that.
Asked how she would want her husband to be remembered, she says “Mapagkumbaba, mabait, and dedicated sa trabaho.” At first being a soldier to him was just a job, a means to make ends meet, but eventually Cpl. Serrano felt that he was fighting for a greater purpose. “Naramdaman niya ang layunin ng ginagawa niyang paglaban, he felt like he was really fighting for something important,” she adds.
Arnold is just one of the many soldiers who were expecting to go home to their families, those who intended to fulfill promises when they got back. Promises that they didn’t live long enough to keep.
Sgt. Marlon Baldovino’s wife Mylene held on to one such promise.
Hero Dad of Sulu
While some of our troops are fighting Maute in Marawi, others are fighting the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in other parts of Mindanao, one of whom is Lt. Raulito Tago-on who had to leave his pregnant wife and six children to fight in Mindanao.
“The last time I talked to him we he was asking me if I had already booked his plane ticket so he could come home,” says his wife Mary Joy who gave birth last Thursday. Lt. Tago-on was about to take his paternity leave, excited to be by his wife’s side, when she gives birth to their seventh child.
But on June 2, Maryjoy got the news she never wanted to hear. “Nung unang tawag ang sabi sa akin natamaan siya ng bala and tina-try nila i-revive [When they first called me they told me he was wounded, he got hit, and they were trying to revive him],” she says. A few minutes later she was told that her husband Lt. Tago-on did not survive.
Lt. Raulito Tago-on of the 41st Infantry Batallion was fatally hit on the back while conducting focused military operations against the ASG in Patikul, Sulu. He was taken to a hospital in Jolo but was declared dead upon arrival.
“Napakapasensyoso niya sa mga anak namin. Siya ang nagbabanatay pag andito siya and hindi siya nagagalit kahit minsan sa sobrang laro nasasaktan siya [He was a very patient father. He was the one who took care of our kids whenever he was home. He wouldn’t get mad even when the kids got too playful,” recalls Mary Joy.
The mother of six remembers one time when her husband was too tired but didn’t want to disappoint the kids. “He was tired, so tired, so he rested against a wall, while the kids used his back as a slide,” she recounts.
“Mahilig talaga siya sa mga bata, maawain siya sa maliliit na bata kahit doon sa Mindanao [He really loved kids and took pity on small children even in Mindanao],” says Mary Joy. He loved children so much that when he was not off to a mission with his troops he would visit barangays in Mindanao to teach young children to read and write. “Naawa siya lalo na sa mga bata na ‘di makapag-aral. Malambot ang puso niya sa ganun kaya nagtitiyaga siya magturo [He felt bad for those children who couldn’t go to school. He had a soft spot for those children. That was why he taught in his spare time],” Mary Joy says.
A stay-at-home mom who’s now left with six children, the oldest of whom is only 10 years old, Mary joy feels positive that they would make it through with the help of her husband’s friends and family. “My husband was always happy and positive, which is what I learned from him. Even amid big problems he taught me how to look at the bright side,” she says. “He was a good person, an amazing father, a loving husband, and a hero.”
A soldier’s birthday promise
When news of the insurgency in Marawi broke, Sgt. Marlon Baldovino was among the first ones to fight there. He left his wife Mylene, 39, and their three-year-old son, to go to Mindanao on April 12.
On May 23, Mylene got a call from her husband telling her about their mission that day. “He called me at noon and told me he was off to a mission. They are going to a [Maute] camp,” she says.
“I asked him when he would be back because my birthday was coming up on May 26,” she narrates. Marlon assured her though that he would be back in time to greet her for her birthday. “Mababati pa raw ‘nya ako pagbalik. Balikan lang daw iyong mission [He said he could still greet me when he got back. It was supposed to be a short mission],” Mylene says.
That night, news broke out about the casualties in Marawi, including two soldiers who died in battle. The news report didn’t include the names of the casualties but Mylene knew in her heart that something bad had happened to Marlon. “I couldn’t sleep that night. I was frantic and worried. I stayed up ‘till 2 a.m. watching the news,” she says.
The following day, her fear was confirmed when she got a call from her husband’s commanding officer (CO). “I almost dropped the phone. I didn’t even get to finish talking to the CO,” she tearfully recalls.
Sgt. Marlon Baldovino of Cabacan, North Cotabato was part of the 4th Light Reaction Company—among the first who fought the Maute terrorists during the first day of the Marawi siege. He was one of the two soldiers who died on May 23. “Tinamaan sya ng bala ng kalaban sa tagiliran [He was hit by a bullet on his side],” says Mylene.
He never got back to greet his wife on her birthday.
“I will miss how sweet and thoughtful he was,” Mylene says, trying to keep her composure, her voice cracking.
When Sgt. Baldovino was not away fighting, he was at home cooking. “When he’s here he cooks for us,” Mylene recalls. “He loves pinakbet, the only thing I cook for him, but everything else he cooks for us. Sobrang maasikaso siya [He’s very attentive].”
The loving dad also had so many dreams for his three-year-old boy. He wanted for him to also be in the military. He dreamed of someday sending his Junior to the PMA. “He used to call our boy his future general,” says Mylene.
Among his other plans was to also apply for a salary loan to get back the bukid his father, a rice farmer, had mortgaged to be able to send him to college. “’Yun ang ginamit ng mga magulang niya para makatapos siya ng pag-aaral [that’s what his parents used to send him to college],” Mylene says. Aside from the farm lot, his parents also had part of their home lot mortgaged and used it for Marlon’s tuition. He had originally planned on being a seaman after college but jobs became hard to come by so instead he enlisted in the army. The soldier promised his parents he’d find a way to get the half-hectare farm land back, which was their family’s only source of livelihood.
“Ngayon wala na siya [Now he’s gone],” Mylene says.
As for the little boy Sgt. Baldovino has left behind, “he knows his father’s gone but I’m not sure he understands what had happened. Just yesterday he kept asking me and looking for his father,” Mylene says. While it breaks her heart to see her child so small who will grow up without his Daddy, she knows she has to accept what has happened.
“Although it’s painful to accept, I have to be strong for my son. He’s still so young. I know Marlon wouldn’t want to see me weak and he would want me to carry on and take care of our Junior,” she says. “I hope people will remember Marlon as a hero, who endured being away from his family and sacrificed his life for the country.”
Like Sgt. Baldovino, Sgt. Eric Coros had to bear being away from his family for months on end. He, too, had to endure so much in the battlefield and, in the end, make the ultimate sacrifice.
No breakfast for war champions
The night before his deployment Sgt. Eric Jason Coros talked about retiring soon. This came as good news for Juliet, 40, his wife who has been having a hard time rearing their two young children on her own since her husband was almost always away for work. He promised Juliet he would retire soon and be with his family.
On May 22, Sgt. Coros, like many other soldiers, was called to fight in Marawi. He left at 4:30 a.m. as Juliet, an elementary school teacher, and their children bid their father goodbye. He hugged his wife tight, kissed the children, and told them “Magpakabait kayo [Always be good].”
In the morning of May 28 Juliet got a text from her husband. “He was telling me that they didn’t even have the chance to grab breakfast because they had to go to battle right away,” she shares.
The mission that day was to recover a SAF tank that was seized by terrorists. Sgt. Coros, of the 6th Light Reaction Company of the Philippine Army, led his team to the site. Unfortunately he was shot by a Maute sniper.
At 5:30 in the afternoon, Juliet got the call she had long dreaded. “The officer informed me that my husband was one of the soldiers who died that day,” she recounts. “He said his body was in Marawi”.
Juliet, grief stricken and at a loss, couldn’t believe that it was her husband. “I told him, there must have been a mistake. Nagkamali kayo,” she says. It took a while before it finally dawned on her that her husband was gone. “Napakasakit tanggapin na wala na siya [It was so painful to accept that he’s gone],” says Juliet.
Dada, as his kids fondly called him, was a thoughtful and loving father, says Juliet. “A few days before he was deployed to Marawi, we took the children to the doctor for a checkup. And while he was there in battle he would find time to text me to remind me about the children’s medications,” Juliet recalls.
“Even in battle he would often check on me and the kids. He would text to check if we were safe,” says the mother of two.
When he’s not out in battle, Sgt Coros likes going to the beach. “He loved the beach!” Juliet recalls. He would never miss the chance to visit the beach when he was back home in Sarangani. He would often take the kids to the beach or the playground.
What Juliet would miss most about her husband was his sweetness and his surprises. “He wouldn’t tell us when he’d come home he would often just surprise us,” she says. “One time I came home and, to my surprise, he was in our room!”
The widow wants others to remember Sgt. Coros as a brave soldier, who was very dedicated to his job. She would also like people to remember him as a loving son and a responsible brother. Eric, the eldest among four children and the only boy, was a consistent honor student, who would take care of his siblings after school while their parents are away. “He was the kind of kuya his sisters could turn to for almost anything,” says Juliet.
Now left with two young children to raise, aged five and seven, Juliet recognizes the responsibility that rests on her shoulders. She understands that it’s tough but she believes that she will make it through. “Mahirap pero kakayanin [It’s hard but I know I can do this],” she says. “Eric was a strong man and I learned a lot from him.”
Cpl. Serrano, Sgt. Baldovino, and Sgt. Coros are just three of the many hero fathers who have sworn to keep, not just their families, but everyone’s families safe. They are among the many who have lost their lives fighting in Mindanao.
So the next time you hear news about the casualties think about this: While you’re here comfortably seated in the safety of your home, there’s a soldier somewhere fighting under the sweltering heat of the sun or under the pouring rain amid deadly bullets and ear-shattering explosions. These men chose to be there so you could be here.