PMA graduates to serve as frontliners in COVID-19 fight
For 6th time, military academy’s graduating class topped by woman
By Valerie Damian, Villamor Visaya Jr., Vincent Cabreza
Philippine Daily Inquirer
2020-05-23 04:10:19

BAGUIO CITY—The Armed Forces of the Philippines will take in 196 new junior officers to help the country fight the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), following a simple and sparsely attended commencement exercise for he Philippine Military Academy (PMA) “Masidlawin” Class of 2020 on Friday afternoon.

Masidlawin (Mandirigmang Isinilang na may Dangal at Lakas Upang Maging Tanglaw ng Inang Bayan) holds the distinction for graduating during a pandemic and the resulting national quarantine.

Topping the class was Cadet First Class Gemalyn Sugui, a management economics graduate of the University of the Philippines Baguio. She and four other female cadets made up half of Masidlawin’s top 10 graduates.

Gemalyn Sugui

Other topnotchers

Cadets First Class Rojes Gaile Jamandre from Lamut, Ifugao province, ranked fourth while Vanelyn Angel Tabao from Tuguegarao City was seventh.

The other female topnotchers were Cadets First Class June Giel Anne Factor from Piddig, Ilocos Norte province, who landed on eight spot, and Dencel Aian Bayaca of Floridablanca, Pampanga province, 10th place.

The second ranking cadet was Cadet First Class Jade Villanueva from Tacloban City, followed by Cadet First Class Jefferson Salazar from Zamboanga City, third; Cadet First Class Jeb Bay-an from Kabayan, Benguet province, fifth; Cadet First Class Catabay Ladyong of Tabuk City, sixth; and Cadet First Class Rubenson Abgao of Baroy, Lanao del Norte province, ninth.

Sugui will join the Army along with 99 class members while 45 others will join the Air Force. The remaining 51 members will join the Navy.

Given an environment changed by COVID-19, Sugui said: “PMA prepared me in the four years I lived here [at Fort Del Pilar]. It helped me prepare for any crisis we might face when we go out.”

“PMA did not just hone our physical abilities, it helped train our thoughts to be able to understand and accept the world outside the academy’s gates. PMA changed our perspective so we would see things with an open mind,” she said in Filipino in a video clip provided by the academy.

Missing parents

But Sugui had been locked in Fort Del Pilar along with the rest of the cadet corps since March when Baguio City shut down its borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

She would not be able to see her father, George, a farmer in Echague, Isabela province, and her mother, Selma, a public school teacher, who were asked not to attend the graduation ceremony.

Jamandre, the second top female graduate, said it was hard to accept that their parents were not allowed to attend due to the pandemic.

“It was so different from traditional graduation rites I previously witnessed in the academy,” she said in a taped interview.

LOCKED DOWN Soldiers wearing face masks guard the main gate of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) at Fort del Pilar in Baguio City during the first day of the lockdown at the academy on Feb. 22. The PMA campus remains on lockdown even during the graduation of the “Masidlawin” Class of 2020 on Friday. —VINCENT CABREZA

Livestreamed

She added: “When I was a third class cadet, I told myself I would be in one of those graduations but now that it is happening, I felt sad. But it’s more important to put the health of our families first before we put them in an unsecured environment because health is more important than events like this.”

Vice Adm. Allan Ferdinand Cusi, PMA superintendent, said he had personally congratulated the parents of all 196 graduating cadets who could not participate in the commencement exercise.

“As a parent, I know how heartbreaking and disappointing that decision is, but we have to do what is best for all. Safety and health are paramount at all times,” Cusi said.

The parents were advised to watch their children graduate through smart telephones or computer screens for the livestreaming of the program at 3 p.m. But a thunderstorm forced the ceremony to be conducted indoors, and the streaming of the event had to be canceled.

“We are both happy and sad. Happy because she topped the class but sad because we cannot personally watch the graduation rites due to the restrictions,” said Sugui’s father.

The PMA instituted drastic measures to spare the cadets from the virus, including banning visitors from Fort Del Pilar and using digital instructions to limit face-to-face contact between them and their teachers.

But the cadets tried to maintain their routines, undertaking physical exercises a meter apart while wearing surgical masks.

Siege survivor

In Zamboanga City, a mentor of Salazar was overjoyed by the latter’s ranking third in the PMA “Masidlawin” Class of 2020, saying it was a testament of the young man’s resilient nature who overcome all odds—being a son of a poor family that was among the 100,000 persons who lost homes and were displaced by the siege in Zamboanga City in September 2013.

Salazar’s family lives in Sampaguita Drive of Barangay Santa Catalina. His father, Jose Jr., earns a living as a driver while his mother Marites takes care of the household.

Prior to entering the PMA, Salazar was a senior college student taking up Bachelor of Science in Physics at the Western Mindanao State University in Zamboanga City.

Technical Sergeant Harry Tañamor, the physical fitness training course director at the PMA, who is also from Zamboanga City, described Salazar as “a silent worker, religious and diligent.”

“I am like a proud father here,” said Tañamor, who competed in boxing during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Salazar, who will join the Philippine Navy, received the Secretary of National Defense Saber Award, Australian Defense Best Overall Performance Award, Mathematics Plaque and Philippine Navy Saber during the graduation rites. —WITH A REPORT FROM JULIE ALIPALA

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