Twenty-one years ago, then Capt. Cirilito Sobejana was given information that a group of Abu Sayyaf fighters led by its original founder Abdurajak Janjalani was encamped near his area of responsibility in Isabela, Basilan. He was just promoted to Captain then and was serving as the commander of the First Scout Ranger Company.
During that time, the Abu Sayyaf Group had just been formed by Abdurajak Janjalani, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, after breaking away from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by Nur Misuari.
Immediately, Sobejana created two squads of Scout Rangers to locate the Abu Sayyaf fighters, and eventually did so undetected in Barangay Lower Kayapawan on the night of January 13, 1995. As soon as they got near the camp, the Scout Rangers started strafing the ASG camp for several minutes.
The attack apparently surprised the ASG as indicated by their failure to immediately retaliate. But just as the troopers were about to conduct a final sweep in the camp, they started hearing gunshots from behind.
From more or less 50 ASG fighters whom Sobejana and his men had attacked, the number swelled to more than 150 and they appeared to be coming from all directions and heading towards their position.
It was recalled that this strategy had been repeatedly employed by the Moro rebels in Mindanao, the most recent was the incident in Mamasapano town of Maguindanao in 2015 when 44 elite police commandos were killed after Moro rebels, and even some local residents, banded together to attack them when they operated in the area to neutralize Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan.
All of a sudden, Sobejana realized that they were outmaneuvered and heavily outnumbered. But they stood their ground and began engaging the ASG fighters to prevent from being massacred. During the initial wave of firefight, two of his men died.
As Sobejana and his men were fighting aggressively to avoid being outflanked, two more of his men were captured and were eventually killed by the ASG.
Two hours later, Sobejana was shot after repeatedly exposing himself to the enemy both for his men to locate the nearest enemy position and to give the team’s radioman to establish contact with fellow Scout Rangers.
During that time, the Scout Rangers tried to reinforce them but could not immediately enter the area due to its location and the presence of more than a hundred ASG fighters. But the reinforcing ASG were able to prevent other fighters from attacking the group of Sobejana.
After more than two hours of fierce gun battle, the group of Sobejana a place that was not too exposed to attacks. During that time, half of Sobejana’s men were killed while the remaining survivors were all wounded.
But the bullets and mortar fires from the ASG continue to hit their position. During the volleys of gunfire, Sobejana’s firearm was hit at least three times and he had to get the rifle of his slain fellow soldier to continue to engage the ASG.
After more or less four hours, the ASG began to withdraw as more soldiers were inserted in the area. Sobejana and his men were then rescued but he was already too weak to stand up due to blood loss from the severe wounds he suffered in the right arm.
His right arm was supposed to be cut off but Sobejana insisted otherwise and went to the United States to seek medical attention. It took two years for him to fully recover.
He received the coveted Medal of Valor Award, the highest award for combat, in 1997.
Fear vs Courage
In one of the interviews before, Sobejana said that the encounter in Basilan was an unforgettable experience that gave him and his men the opportunity to spell out the real meaning of courage.
“That was the time that I really appreciated what they have been saying that fear is just a reaction but courage is a decision,” said Sobejana.
“It was the courage which ruled on me that day because we were trained to fight as Scout Rangers and I was very confident that I was leading a Ranger unit.
The Scout Ranger is one of the Army’s elite forces.
Based on Republic Act 9049, Medal of Valor awardees are entitled to receive P20,000 monthly gratuity pay aside from their monthly salary and pension. In case the Medal of Valor was awarded posthumously, the gratuity pay will go to the family.
President Duterte, however, increased the gratuity monthly pay to P75,000 in 2016.
Medal of Valor awardees and their children are also exempted from paying tuition fees even in private schools for any courses, including medicine and law degrees. If their children want to enter the Philippine Military Academy, they are prioritized—if they qualify.
Here are the benefits of the Medal of Valor awardees and their beneficiaries:
1. Precedence in employment in government agencies or government-owned or controlled corporation: Provided, That the awardee or his/her dependent also meets the job qualifications or requirements;
2. Priority in the approval of the awardee’s housing application under existing housing programs of the government;
3. Priority in the acquisition of public lands under the Public Land Act and preferential right in the lease of pasture lands and exploitation of natural resources;
4. Privilege of obtaining loans in an aggregate amount not exceeding Five hundred thousand pesos (P500,000.00) from government-owned or controlled financial institutions without having to put up any collateral or constitute any pledge or mortgage to secure the payment of the loan;
5. Twenty (20%) percent discount from all establishments relative to utilization of transportation services, hotels and similar lodging establishments, restaurants, recreation and sport centers and purchase of medicine anywhere in the country: Provided, That private establishments may claim the cost as tax credits;
6. Twenty (20%) percent discount from on admission fees charged by theaters, cinema houses and concert halls, circuses, carnivals and other similar places of culture, leisure and amusement: Provided, That aforementioned establishments may claim the cost as tax credits; and
7. Free medical and dental services and consultation in hospitals and clinics anywhere in the country: Provided, That private hospitals and clinics may claim the cost of services as tax credit.
On Wednesday, President Duterte appointed Sobejana as the next Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. He is set to replace Gen. Gilbert Gapay who is set to retire next week.
Based on the AFP records, Sobejana is the third Medal of Valor Awardee to be named in the highest military post. The first was Maj. Gen. Paulino Santos, the 2nd AFP chief of staff who served from May 6, 1936 to December 31, 1938; followed by Maj. Gen. Mariano Castañeda who served from December 21, 1948 to May 28, 1951.
A member of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class 1987, Sobejana is currently the commanding general of the Philippine Army.
Sobejana held various staff positions in the following capacities: Deputy G3 and G8 of the 1st Scout Ranger Regiment; Director, General Services of the Army Management Information Center; Head of the Plans, Policies, and Materiel Development Division of the Army Support Command; Chief of the Firepower Division at the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, J4, Armed Forces of the Philippines; Executive Officer of the Army Resource Management Office; and Deputy G7, and G3 of the Philippine Army.
He was deployed under the auspices of the United Nations Mission in East Timor as Military Observer from 2003 to 2004, and in the Truce Line between Syria and Israel, where he became the first Filipino Chief of Staff of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force from 2013 to 2014.
Sobejana is a Ranger, Special Forces, paratrooper, and scuba diver. He took the Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Training in Stockholm, Sweden; Operations Research Analysis Course at the US Army Logistics Management College in Fort Lee, Virginia; and Advance Security Cooperation Course at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii. He also attended seminars and workshops in Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.