Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Tale of Heroism During Typhoon Ondoy

Heroism thrives in the country. That's what Typhoon Ondoy taught me. Yes they say that in the newspapers, TV and Facebook.

But I also heard it from first hand stories of people whom I know personally.

 One of them is from an lady army sergeant, a member of the Women's Auxiliary Corps of the Philippine Army, who wishes that I don't mention her name.

Let's call her Wilma, the woman in the army. She's single and the only daughter of a widow. In short, she only has her mother for her family.
After the Saturday formation on September 26, 2009, rain was unceasing and floods were everywhere. Wilma called her cousin who was living with them. The cousin told her that she went out to buy a phone load but couldn't get back to the house because of the rising floods.

The cousin also saw that the floods reached the roof of houses already. Then the phone signal went out and Wilma couldn't reach her cousin anymore.

That alarmed Wilma. She knew her old mother very well. It was unlikely for her to leave the house even with the intensity of the flood.

Wilma immediately changed clothes and headed out of the camp. At this time, flood at portion near the was waist level already. Incidentally, her commander saw her and asked, "where are you going?" 

She explained to her commander the situation at home.

But the commander said, "You can't go home. We have a job to do." Her unit was tasked to help in coordinating rescue efforts in flooded areas.

Being a military personnel Wilma was trained to obey orders and to put service to country above her own family . . . even if the only family she has may already be drowning back home.

 Her heart was bleeding. But, with military discipline and dedication, she focused on her job as she would in a war.

Flood water also started to enter Wilma's office in the camp. Upon instruction of her commander, she moved the communication center to higher ground and called up other offices to inform them of the move. 

She then began receiving desperate calls requesting rescuers to proceed to Cainta.

It was not an easy task. At that the rescuers were concentrated in Marikina. To start moving some of them to Cainta meant greater burden to the already overwhelmed rescue operation in Marikina. Secondly, it was risky for rescuers themselves to start moving to Cainta.

An officer in the office of a House Representative called Wilma seven times in a row to pressure her into contacting teams to Cainta, but there really was none to spare. Government resources were overwhelmed at this time. This officer even resorted to threatening remarks.

Wilma just had to bite the bullet and endure the verbal abuses on the phone, especially from that officer from a Congressman's office, even as she herself had to endure at the thought of her own mother.

The question actually crossed Wilma's mind, why was she helping other people save their lives while she couldn't save her own mother. There was no word from her mother and that created currents of fear running down her spine. She was in tears the whole time.

As the phones continued to ring, Wilma stood up and, under the suprised look of her commander and colleagues, she went to the comfort room, closed her eyes and told herself repeatedly, "As I serve other families so shall others help my mother. I can do this. I can do this. I can do this."

She felt a surge of courage and peace and managed to smile as she quickly went back to work. 

I think moments like that make heroes out of anyone. Some choose to just crumble. Some choose to rise up and face the challenge squarely.

As Wilma struggled to perform her duties in the camp, mud-filled water was rushing inside her home in San Mateo, Rizal. As Wilma already knew, her mother refused to leave their home. Wilma's cousin was not there. Her mother was all alone at home to deal with the floods.

Water was already touching her mother's nose when neighbors came to check out on her. She had to jump to get some air, while holding in her hands Babe's firearm.
The neighbors pulled her mother out of the house and brought her to the safety of a two-storey house nearby.

Wilma prayed for someone to rescue her own mother. But she had no idea what actually happened to her mother.

Wilma's commander allowed her to leave the camp at 5am the next day, Sunday. It was an agonizing trip along traffic-jammed streets on the way back to San Mateo, Rizal. Agonizing, not because of the traffic, but because of not knowing what's waiting for her back home.

The joy of seeing her mother safe and secure was boundless. Meantime, their house was a complete mud-filled mess. Outside of four sacks of muddy clothes there wasn't anything else to gather and reuse.

The moment Wilma saw her devastated house, she had no tears to shed. Her mother survived the flood. That was the most important thing that mattered to her. She realized very clearly that material things could disappear in minutes. Her mother was much more important. She could only be grateful.

They decided right there to abandon the house. Wilma brought her mother to the WAC barracks, back in the camp. She was safe there, but the trauma didn't leave her. When there is rain, she would hide under the bed, trembling.

Why was Wilma a hero?
It was because of her allegiance to her sworn duties even at great personal cost. It was because of her will to rise beyond her own bleeding heart to help other people deal with their adversity.

We say, cool! But weren't soldiers expected to do that?

Yes they were expected to. 

But in times of adversity affecting the whole country, weren't we all expected to? Who among us rose to make a difference?

Heroes rise to make a difference, that others may emulate them.

- - -

P.S. As of this writing Wilma's mother is still staying in the WAC Barracks. A group of friends is now organizing a debriefing for Babe's mother to help her overcome her trauma. Furthermore, Wilma is in the process of acquiring a new house far away from flood prone areas.

P.S. There were other heroes during typhoon Ondoy. Among them were the rescuers themselves, many of whom didn't eat anything for 24 hours straight, according to Wilma. You would wonder who they did it. Yeah, they were trained for eventualities like that. But didn't they deserve public praise? The country owed them a debt of gratitude. Our hands should be clapping.

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