Sunday, November 06, 2011

No fuss for caring Army chief as he fades away

He is one of the most distinguished military officers in active service and a decorated hero, the recipient of the Medal for Valor, the highest honor the nation can confer for heroism. But Army commanding general Lieutenant General Arturo B. Ortiz has chosen to bow out without any fuss.

In one of his last official acts before he retires next week, Ortiz ordered his staff to downscale the grand military parade and testimonial dinner and other extravagant activities usually given in honor of a retiring military brass.

Ortiz said he would feel much better knowing that the resources and manpower that would have gone to honor him would instead go to the troops in the frontlines.

No official estimates are available of how much the celebratory activities to mark a military retirement would cost. But a testimonial parade in the Army’s Fort Bonifacio headquarters could easily cost hundreds of thousands of pesos since tanks, vehicles, artillery and troops from camps outside Metro Manila would have to be called in for the series of rehearsals and for the big day itself.

Hundreds of thousands of pesos more would be spent for the lavish testimonial dinner, a formal gathering among the retiring officer’s family, classmates, colleagues and friends.

Such resources could go to more “worthwhile activities,” said Ortiz.

“Much fuel would be used to transport the tanks and the artillery. We don’t need that here. We should give that to the field units,” he said.

After 32 years in the service, Ortiz will retire on November 13 when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 56.

But he will be stepping down four days earlier on November 9 as this is the only date that President Aquino will be available to preside over the formal turnover ceremonies.

Career in frontlines

“Our accomplishment is based on the accomplishment of our field units,” said Ortiz, whose outstanding military career was largely shaped in the frontlines with the Special Forces units.

During his 15 months and two weeks as Army chief, Ortiz prioritized the morale and welfare of soldiers, especially those in the frontlines, by allocating resources to upgrade their fighting capability and equipment and to improve camp facilities, medical care and housing.

A member of the Philippine Military Academy Class 1979, Ortiz was appointed the 53rd Army commanding general on July 22, 2010, by the then newly installed President Aquino.

Up till then, he was the chief of the Army Special Operations Command, a post he had held since November 2008.

Highest honor for heroism

It was Mr. Aquino’s mother, the late President Corazon Aquino who conferred on Ortiz the nation’s highest honor for heroism in combat above and beyond the call of duty, the Medal for Valor. He was cited for leading five teams of the 606th Special Forces Company and Cafgu paramilitary members in a daring raid of a large communist New People’s Army camp with about 300 rebels in Murcia, Negros Occidental, on April 6, 1990.

“Under cover of darkness, Captain Ortiz led his troops in a grueling 11-hour cross-country foot march and dangerously scaled a 1,000-foot steep cliff to infiltrate the enemy territory. Disregarding personal safety, he darted from one team to another, directing their line of fire. Risking the cross-fires, [he] rushed towards a group of hysterical women and children and ensured their safety. Led his men in hot pursuit against rebels, the troops overwhelmed the enemy and completely overran the 28-hut NPA training camp. The 2-hour gun battle resulted in 84 terrorists killed, 8 captured, and several others wounded. Only one was wounded on the government side,” read the military’s account of his feat.

Revamped hospitals

Knowing the hardship of having inadequate medical facilities, Ortiz ordered a top-to-bottom renovation of the Fort Bonifacio General Hospital because he wanted the best medical care for the wounded soldiers and their families.

The now renamed Army General Hospital boasts P70 million worth of new medical equipment and has the look of one of the high-end hospitals in Metro Manila.

Ortiz also ordered the release of funds for the improvement of station hospitals in the headquarters of the various Army infantry divisions.

He also implemented the construction and renovation of housing facilities in Fort Bonifacio for officers and enlisted personnel.

“We have funds. It’s just a matter of prioritizing,” he said.

Cried for 19 soldiers

At a simple testimonial dinner last Friday, the warrior general was not ashamed to publicly show his emotions as he cried for the 19 Special Forces soldiers brutally killed by Muslim rebels in Al-Barka, Basilan, last October 18.

“I felt the pain of losing a brother and a fellow soldier every time someone dies in the line of duty. I was there with them in the frontlines before,” Ortiz is quoted as saying by one of those who attended the dinner.

“This is the very reason that our soldiers’ welfare is always on top of my list of priorities. A motivated soldier dares the dangers while serving far away from his own family,” he continued.

Visit to all Army units

Ortiz was the only Army commanding general who was able to visit all Army units down to the company level in a year. He also visited the camps of the main Cafgu paramilitary units.

In making these visits, he rode the infamous 50-year-old Huey helicopters even during stormy weather.

“If my soldiers face dangers while doing their mandate in the remotest villages, I have no reason not daring the dangers of doing my duty to visit them right in their area of assignment,” he said.

“I know that the soldiers are very proud to see their Army chief in front of them, listening to their feedback and mentoring them,” said Ortiz, recalling his own experience as a young lieutenant.

One of the officers who spoke at the testimonial dinner was Lieutenant Colonel Eliglen Villaflor who recalled a visit from Ortiz when he was a newly commissioned second lieutenant serving in the frontline in Kalinga Apayao at the height of the communist insurgency in 1992.

“I was surprised one day when Major Arturo Ortiz, my Batcom (battalion commander), suddenly came to my remote camp to visit me. I was confused on how to give him accommodations when he decided to stay overnight. He readily volunteered to use my dilapidated folding bed,” Villaflor said.

“He accompanied me in visiting all the small encampments of my soldiers in remote military outposts. I am not surprised that he did the same when he became Army chief,” he said.

Brigadier General Benito de Leon, a member of PMA Class 1980, said he looked up to Ortiz as a mentor and a brother. They both served in the frontlines as young lieutenants in Lanao in the early 1980s.

Risking career

“He is a very principled man and he will stick to his decision even if it may cost him his career. He is an epitome of a true leader and a gentleman,” De Leon said.

Ortiz had risked his career when he led nine living Medal for Valor awardees in questioning the award given to now Colonel Noel Buan and Sergeant Leopoldo Diokno for the killing on April 8, 2004, of Abu Sayyaf leader Hamsiraji Sali during a clash in Basilan.

Ortiz said Buan deceived Sali who was already reportedly planning to surrender.

Despite the protest, a top-level military review board in 2008 upheld the award given to Buan by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

When then Armed Forces Chief Lieutenant General Ricardo David retired last March, Ortiz was expected to be a top contender for the post.

Gave way to other bets

But Ortiz gave way to other candidates, saying he preferred to stay on as Army chief to see through the reforms and programs he had started.

Mr. Aquino appointed Ortiz’s classmate, Air Force general and the then Armed Forces deputy chief of staff Lieutenant General Eduardo Oban Jr. The latter will step down on Dec. 9 after nine months in office.

Ortiz took a moment to reply when asked how he would like to be remembered by the troops.

“As a commander who cares for them,” he said.

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