Go East, Young Man

Floren Herrera (Photo by Criselda Yabes)

Floren Herrera was a country boy from the far north of the Philippines, who marched among the “Long Gray Line” of cadets on an exceptionally cold, rainy day in spring on the parade ground of America’s elite army school perched grandly above the swollen Hudson River.

He is the 68th Filipino officer to graduate from West Point in about one hundred years, which tells us how much of our colonial military past with the United States has withstood time. 

From a row of seats on the stadium’s lodge–where other foreign dignitaries and relatives cheered one of their own–the Filipino ambassador, Herrera’s friends and family marked another step up the ladder for a future leader, as any officer given the privilege of being among the best of the lot is expected to become.

The weather is said to be ominous. The superstitious said it was a sign that this year’s graduates might go to war. It was like that in 2001, when war soon followed the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York, not far from the military academy’s semi-medieval stone cut architecture. But there was no talk of war that day in late May. The army today is “emerging and recovering” from Afghanistan and Iraq, said U.S. defense secretary Chuck Hagel, the commencement speaker.  

Having received his diploma, with honors for being a distinguished cadet–a five-pointed gold star patched on his gray uniform–Herrera was going home to the Philippines to a prospect of peace with Muslim rebels after decades of insurgency in the troubled south. He has never been there, but a tour of duty in the south is a sort of merit badge for rising officers in the Philippine military. 

His story is simple, as simple as fairy tales go among folks in the provinces, where the chance to rise out of poverty is golden.

At five-foot, five-inches tall, and weighing a meager 125 pounds (he lost 20 pounds from study pressures and grueling hours of training), Herrera has always tried to stand out as a young man. He has gone from scholarship to scholarship since his primary schooling in the province of Cagayan. He was born to a humble Ilocano family that met tragedy when his father, a simple farmer in the valley, died of illnesses, leaving his children with small portions of land he had tilled. 

Herrera, the third of four children, was just a boy in the first grade, but he never forgot his father’s sacrifice saving hard-earned money for his children’s education rather than spending it on his medication. The eldest sister, who was there on his proud graduation day, became the breadwinner by becoming a teacher. She also chose to delay a prospective marriage in favor of pouring out her efforts into her siblings’ education, seeing to it that a father’s vow was accomplished. 

His story is simple, as simple as fairy tales go among folks in the provinces, where the chance to rise out of poverty is golden. “In our village, people look up to you if you’re a soldier,” Herrera said at an after-graduation party for him, his native tongue easily slipping from the roots of home to the twang of America, sprinkled with expressions he had learned in four years of seclusion at West Point. 

Not long after he had ensconced himself in the school barracks, his mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor, but rescue came in the form of financial help of officers and alumni members. In the end he would have made it to the top fifty of his class had it not been for his weakness in swimming.  

He has known what it’s like to be away for lengthy periods. In high school, he was given free tuition and lodging at a school run by nuns in Cavite province, when he visited his family for only two weeks each year. Then there was Cagayan State University where he pursued his passion for chemical engineering. From there he went to the Philippine Military Academy where, after his difficult plebe year, he took an entrance test for a scholarship at West Point–after which the PMA is modeled–and got his chance of a lifetime. 

During the ceremony, there's a tradition that children run for the caps thrown by the graduates when it's over. (Photo by Criselda Yabes)

What would be waiting for him back home? Would he fit in? Roughly one-third, or only 25 Filipino graduates of West Point have served their full term in the Philippine armed forces, the others resigning or choosing to retire before the mandatory age of 56. This isn’t very inspiring. Many of them have seen the disparity in cultures and values, bad things that happened during a history of martial law, coup attempts, corruption and patronage and internal wars that seemed to have no end.  These conditions have led to a “culture of mediocrity” where the best may not thrive, said Dennis Acop, himself a former graduate who sits as secretary of the West Point Society of the Philippines. ‘The physical inconvenience of command are nothing to endure compared to the prostitution of values that have sustained the military,” he lamented. Herrera’s hope, however, is kindled by the shining example of former President Fidel Ramos, who graduated from West Point in 1950. 

This year alone, there were 15 foreign students, nearly double what West Point had in 1983. Herrera came to West Point five years after the previous Filipino graduated in 2008, one of whom is a woman now based in Davao province. The other was a half-Iranian lieutenant who had seen the dark heart of Mindanao province and is disillusioned with the army. 

At 24, Herrera will serve in the Philippine Army as a second lieutenant. He wants to be a platoon leader right away; he says he wants to be in “contact with the people (because) if the army is going to have an effect, it starts with them.” That kind of thinking might be in sync with the current roadmap for peace that the army has set in place, though it’s a fragile plan threatened by politics and lack of reforms.  

It’s not rank that always matters, the young Herrera added with a tinge of idealism. “It’s internal to me, I will have to ask myself if I have been able to make changes.” 

Soon enough he will find that much has to be changed in his country, and he will be among his fellow soldiers in a field far from the splendor overlooking the rushing waters of the Hudson River.  


Criselda Yabes

Criselda Yabes

Criselda Yabes is a fellow on a one-year writing grant at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She was based in Manila and wrote books on the military and Mindanao.