By Jesse T. Reyes

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Since time immemorial, war has been considered an integral part of the history of humankind.  It is also generally perceived as a male affair with women being on the sidelines of action.

Indeed, the role of women in the armed forces has been in a process of transformation throughout the twentieth century, and still is ongoing.   Yet, there is a long tradition of women serving alongside men in the armed forces around the world, and that their contribution has not been limited to nursing or administrative duties.

(This does not mean, however, that the presence of women in the armed forces is accepted widely by the general public.)

In January 2016, however, the U.S. armed services lifted a controversial ban on women serving in positions of direct combat.  For the first time in American history, female service members would be able to drive tanks, fire mortars, lead infantry soldiers into combat, and serve in elite Special Forces units like the Green Berets, the Navy SEALs, or Air Force Pararescue.

That change will mean more and more women on the frontlines, in increasingly visible roles (particularly under a commander in chief who plans to increase the defense budget by $54 billion).  But women have, officially or not, been part of the American armed forces for more than 150 years – with a history that stretches back to both the American Revolution and figures like Deborah Sampson, who bound her chest and fought the British under the name Robert Shurtleff.  Four hundred women fought in the Civil War.  Twenty-five thousand joined up as overseas nurses and support staff in the last two years of World War I.  By the Second World War, that number had increased more than fivefold.

Rights, ever since, have come in fits and starts:  In 1948, women in America could for the first time claim veterans’ benefits; in 1976, they could attend military service academies; in 1993, they could serve on combat ships and fly fighters.  And in the aftermath of 9/11, the onset of more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the increasingly blurred lines between combat and noncombat positions, women’s roles changed again with the removal of the ban, and the acknowledgement that no door will be closed to those who can meet the challenge.

At a moment when the world order seems to be shifting in unpredictable ways, there’s a special resonance to Philippine newspaper and television account’s images of this generation’s crop of Filipino women warriors currently serving in war-torn Marawi City.

Last Thursday, June 29, a Philippine news agency announced that the Armed Forces of the Philippines have removed sex discrimination against women from front-line combat roles.

Yes, in the midst of battle to retake the Lanao del Sur capital, fearless Filipino female soldiers stand alongside men at the front lines to defend the Islamic City from terrorist groups.

The Filipinos’ News5 team had met some of these soldiers who accompanied them in order to catch a glimpse inside ground zero where the heat of battle was taking place between government troops and the joint forces of the ISIS-inspired Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups.

Among the female military officers with the News5 team were Lieutenants Sarah Bagasol and Rodessa Bungay.

Under a drizzle, 1st Lt. Sarah Jane Bagasol patiently waited for the signalman for clearance to drop the 4.5-kilogram shell she was holding into the 81-millimeter mortar.

She got it and seconds later there was a loud explosion.

The spotter, on an elevated position, radioed a direct hit on the target – a house some 800 meters away, where Maute gunmen had taken shelter that day.

Bagasol, 26, is one of seven female soldiers in the Army’s 1st Infantry Battalion, which was plucked out of Luzon on June 1 to fight the Maute group and its allies in Marawi.

One of their tasks is to provide indirect combat support during special operations, such as taking down an enemy lair.

Bagasol is also the team leader of the Philippine Army’s Quick Reaction and Medical Team, who led the group with the News5 team inside ground zero.

One cellphone video showed Bagasol bravely firing back against the enemies.  Despite the dangers, the military officer said it was a great honor to serve her fellow Filipinos.

“Kinakabahan po pero bilang isang babae isang karangalan po na makapag lingkod or makapag-save ng buhay na nandon po sa delikadong lugar (I was nervous, but as a woman, it is an honor to serve and to save lives in dangerous areas),” Bagasol told News5.

Like Bagasol, Private Anjanette Mayang, 23, gives indirect combat support as a gunner, handling 81-mm and the smaller 60-mm mortars and joins battle operations.

Barely into her first year in Army service, Mayang, a native of Laguna province, indicated that the Marawi crisis was her first actual combat experience.

“I took ROTC while in college and decided to be formally drafted into the Army.  I graduated with a criminology degree in 2016 and applied to the 2nd Infantry Division,” she said.

Mayang, the eldest in a brood of eight, remarked that her father, a security guard and her mother told her they were proud of what she was doing for the country. She also draws strength from the plight of women and children who fled Marawi and is now in evacuation centers.  “They also serve as my inspiration to continue fighting even with the risks of enemy fire hitting me,” she declared.

When they were not at their mortar posts, the female soldiers join their male comrades in actual combat and exchange fire with the enemies.

As for Lt. Bungay, the battle inside ground zero was the most dangerous operation she had encountered in her eight years in the military service because of the presence of enemy snipers.

“Mahirap lang kasi ‘yong kalaban natin snipers…hindi katulad no’ng direct na putukan, makikita mo ‘yong kalaban mo… ‘Yong snipers kasi nakatago sila so habang puputukan mo sila, nagka-counter din sila sa ‘yo,” she explained.

(It’s difficult to fight enemy snipers unlike in direct encounters where you can fire back at the enemies in plain sight.  Here, snipers are hidden, so while you are battling the enemies, snipers also do counter-attacks.)

Bungay said that in order to survive, it was really crucial to be completely kept from sight during encounters.

“Dapat talaga kahit konting silip sa katawan mo nakatago ka talaga.  Ganuon ka-delikado kasi konting labas ng katawan mo matatamaan at matatamaan ka kasi mga skilled sila na snipers,” she observed.

(Every part of the body should be concealed.  That is how dangerous the situation is because if a small part of your body is revealed, you will certainly be hit because they are skilled snipers.)

Nevertheless, Bungay warned the enemies against underestimating female soldiers as most women today no longer subscribe to the old, iconic “Maria Clara” image.

“Kaya na naming makipaglaban kagaya ng mga lalake.  Buo na ang mga loob ng mga babae  ngayon  (We can also fight like men.  Women today are dauntless.),” she contended.

(Since the beginning of the Philippine military approximately on 25 October 1899 with the establishment of the Academia Militar in Malolos, Bulacan by virtue of a decree issued by General Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president of the Philippine Republic, through the establishment of the Philippine Constabulary on 17 February 1905 while the Philippines was under American colonial rule (1898-1946), then through the formal creation of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) by virtue of Commonwealth Act No. 1 (also known as the National Defense Act) on 21 December 1936, the Armed Forces of the Philippines never had female soldiers.  Having women in the Philippine military with formal training became a reality upon the passage of Republic Act No. 7192, which granted women in the old homeland to become cadets in the Philippine Military Academy in April 1993.  Until that year, women were only admitted to the reserve ranks and the technical services as part of the Women’s Auxiliary Corps established in 1963.)

In recent years, many women had taken an interest in joining the ranks of the male-dominated Philippine military with a number of female cadets finishing their course at the premier institution – the Philippine Military Academy - with honors and distinction.

According to Joint Task Force Marawi spokesperson Lt. Col. Jo-Ar Herrera, both men and women in uniform have equal responsibilities when it comes to public service.

“Kung ano ‘yong gawin ng mga kalalakihan, especially ‘yong mga men in uniform, ay dapat gan’on din ‘yong ating mga sundalong babae.  (Whatever the men can do, especially the men in uniform, should also be done by female soldiers),” he remarked.

The AFP spokesperson also described the Filipino women soldiers as confident, upbeat, incredibly polite and utterly self-assured.  “These women are fantastic,” he pretty much summed it all up.  “In briefings, I wanted to project that image of empowered Filipino women soldiers who were strong, who are part of defending the Philippines.  They did not disappoint.”

From the many videos (or footage of films) taken on these women, their courage under fire is genuinely evident.  I am absolutely convinced that this generation of young Filipino women, who continue to put their lives on the line for their country is the next Greatest Generation for the old Motherland.  I am confident that they will continue their selfless dedication to the Philippine Republic, whether in military service or transitioning to new opportunities.

There is no doubt about it that Filipino soldiers (man or woman) are ingrained with an entrepreneurial and resilient spirit, a willingness to sacrifice and above all, an absolute total commitment to the principles of duty, honor and country.

I say:

The strength of the Philippines is its Army. The strength of the Army is their soldiers. The strength of the Filipino soldiers is their families.

That is what makes the Philippine Army strong!

Today, the issue of women in combat has generated a vast amount of literature drawing on law, biology and psychology but history has had surprisingly little input into this important debate.

I say that the demarcation lines between an individual’s gender, contemporary social ideas and ability to be a member of the armed forces are not as clear cut as might be assumed.  It is undeniable that throughout history women has played a role – however small – in war when they themselves were not the main protagonists.

Women have also always played a support or a ‘home front’ role to war that needs to be recognized. The female presence in contemporary armies remains minor (only 3 percent of the world’s armed forces personnel are women) but it is growing and that is the result of a long narrowing of the divide between femininity and conflict.

War and the violence associated with it are not a matter of gender, but first and foremost of individuals, and so we must all regard aggression as a human activity and not just solely a male affair.

Indeed, women are capable of warfare, too!


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“MARIA CLARA”:  A byword in the Philippine culture for the traditional, feminine ‘ideal image’ of a Filipino woman who deserves to be placed on the ‘pedestal of male honor.’  Leonor Rivera (in picture) is the “Maria Clara” in the Filipinos’ national hero Dr. Jose Rizal’s novels.

WOMEN IN THE MILITARY:  A U.S. Armed Forces recruiting poster for females in the American military services

COMBAT POSITION: A female sniper for the Philippine Army’s 1st Infantry Division looks for the enemy from her post in Marawi City

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WOMEN IN COMBAT: Philippine Army First Lieutenant Sarah Jane Bagasol (shown at the right) and another female soldier rendered courageous service in the Marawi City armed conflict

ON THE FRONT LINES:Philippine Army female soldiers are in the thick of fighting terror in the siege of Marawi City

Photo: WONDER WOMEN: Philippine Army female soldiers are in the thick of fighting terror in the siege of Marawi City