Meet Sonny Busa, Mr. Personality

 The author (second from left), Ceres (second from right) and Sonny Busa (right) at the wreath-laying ceremony at the Arlington National Cemetery.

The author (second from left), Ceres (second from right) and Sonny Busa (right) at the wreath-laying ceremony at the Arlington National Cemetery.

I first met Santiago “Sonny” Busa, Jr. on August 21, 2011 at the Prayer Forum and Townhall Meeting for Peace in the Spratlys, which was held at the Philippine Multicultural Center in Oxon Hill, Maryland. He was listed as one of the speakers, which included then-Philippine Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. and Dr. Abraham “Junjun” Rasul Jr. of the Philippine Medical Association of the Metropolitan Washington, DC (PMAMWDC).

I was at the townhall meeting because of my involvement in rallies against China. I had joined a small but loud group of Filipinos in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC in July 2011. “Our soil. Our oil.” That was our slogan. The heat of Filipino indignation against the land-grabbing Chinese occupation in the Spratlys was at its height.

H.E. Jose Lampe Cuisia, Jr. was the newly appointed Philippine Ambassador to the US. He arrived in April 2011. Dr. Rasul’s family claimed historical ties to and ownership of Sabah. Both were known personalities, whereas Sonny was a new face in the Washington, DC Filipino community.

 L-R: Mitzi Pickard of PAFC, Sonny, the author, Butch Dalisay

L-R: Mitzi Pickard of PAFC, Sonny, the author, Butch Dalisay

“Who is he?” I asked those seated around me. Raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders greeted me. None of them knew him either. I fidgeted. It was a long drive from my home in Fairfax, Virginia to Oxon Hill, and the last thing I wanted to do was listen to bombast.

But when Sonny started to speak, he got our attention. Although he spoke with authority, there was no hint of arrogance. The audience enjoyed him, warmed up to his folksy and easy banter. “Look, here’s the thing…” I would learn to perk up and listen whenever he prefaced our conversations with that phrase.

He was smart. He was well-informed. And he was funny. I secretly nicknamed him Mr. Personality.

I later learned he gained that political acumen and insight from 24 years with the State Department (1987-2011) as a Foreign Service Officer. As a diplomat he had decades of extensive involvement in international affairs to back up the confidence.

That was seven years ago. Sonny and I and our spouses became friends in the interim.

On paper, Sonny’s qualifications describe a man who excelled in the military, in the diplomatic corps, and as I stood witness, he excelled in speaking in front of audiences from podiums as well. But a curriculum vitae, no matter how glowing, could not make the man jump out from the paper and become flesh. It needs accounts from friends, like me, to reveal his humanity.

 Sonny Busa at the Air Force memorial

Sonny Busa at the Air Force memorial

So, who is Sonny Busa? Let me begin with what is publicly known about the man.

He was born in Manila, Philippines in 1953. His family moved to California when he was very young. Sonny graduated from West Point in 1976 with double degrees -- Bachelors of Science in Engineering and National Security Studies. He earned his master’s in Government and Political Science from Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina in 1984.

As an army officer he commanded an infantry rifle company and served as an assistant brigade operations officer. He was a US Army Ranger, a parachutist, and a pathfinder, a human GPS. In other words, a total badass.

He taught political science entirely in Spanish at the US Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. He can speak Cantonese Chinese and Arabic, and studied Korean, Amharic (Ethiopian). And he studied Tagalog.

(I must explain something personal at this point. It is a source of incredulity and hilarity when people gather at the Busas’. Although he is Manila-born, Sonny calls California home, care of their family’s move to the US when he was very young. At least that is the reason he gives for his deficiency in Tagalog. Really? A man who can switch his language brain cells from Chinese to Arabic can surely converse in Tagalog.)

Sonny attained the rank of major then switched careers after eleven years in the US Army. In April 1987, he began what would become a quarter of a century as a loyal soldier of a different kind -- as a Foreign Service Officer of the State Department. He was sent to the US Embassies in the Philippines and Hong Kong in Southeast Asia; Honduras in South America; Kuwait in the Middle East; and Ethiopia in Africa. He served as Consul General in Kuwait and Ethiopia.

His last assignment with the State Department was as the Visiting Professor of International Relations at West Point. He taught the International Relations course which was required for cadets.

He retired in December 2010. The man can finally breathe. But rest and recreation, hallmarks of a retiree, must not have agreed with him. He soon immersed himself in community affairs. Hence his appearance at the forum.

After that initial meeting in Oxon Hill, it would take several months before I saw him again. I joined him and two other Philippine American Foundation for Charities (PAFC) pals for coffee at Sweet City Desserts in Vienna, Virginia on at least three occasions. He and Froilan Tiglao traded barbs and tried to outdo each other on who’s the better history buff. I didn’t know him well enough then, so I rolled my eyes in secret. “Boys and their pissing contest,” I thought to myself.

 Sonny and author at a PAFC gala

Sonny and author at a PAFC gala

Our friendship developed through our mutual respect for PAFC. Mitch and I chaired the Philippine Festival and Parade in June 2006, which marked the hundredth-year anniversary of the Filipino immigration to America. The festival, which has since been abandoned due to rising costs, used to be PAFC’s main fund-raising event and showcased Philippine culture (food, entertainment, products). The organization, an umbrella group of 88 Filipino American associations in the Washington DC area, used the funds for charitable projects in the Philippines.

Sonny served as its Chairman of the Board during the past four years. He seemed to have a ready supply of energy and showed willingness to serve in any capacity the community required. He even joined a group of friends in a slapstick skit for Paskong Pinoy presented by PAFC. The man was not averse to poking fun at himself. Inhibitions be damned.

 The author (second from right) with Sonny Busa (right) and Jon Melegrito (second from left) at a PAFC Paskong Pinoy presentation

The author (second from right) with Sonny Busa (right) and Jon Melegrito (second from left) at a PAFC Paskong Pinoy presentation

He also served on the executive board of the Filipino Veteran Education and Recognition Project (FilVetREP) which gained the Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino veterans of World War II when President Obama signed into legislation the bill authorizing the medal in December 2016. Since then, Sonny has actively raised funds to pay for replicas of the medal for the 260,000 deserving Filipino war veterans.

He continues to lecture on international affairs and security studies at universities -- West Point, George Mason University, George Washington University, Virginia Military Institute, University of Maryland and University of Rochester. In September 2017, he accepted an unpaid assignment as a Visiting Professor of International Relations at the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio, Philippines.

One would think a schedule such as his would limit and even exclude a social life. But he is as generous with his time (and opinions) with friends. Mitch and I have accompanied Sonny and Ceres on concerts, dinner dates, and picnics. Even our grandsons are welcome to some outings.

 L-R: Sonny Busa, the author, Grace Gentiles, Ceres Busa, Col Jojo Gentiles

L-R: Sonny Busa, the author, Grace Gentiles, Ceres Busa, Col Jojo Gentiles

We have open invitations to join them in the annual “Bataan Death March in New Mexico” and another to visit him in Baguio. (Me: “I thought PMA was a one-year stint?” Sonny: “Well, here’s the thing, they gave me a stipend.” What can I tell you? The man drove a hard bargain.)

The Bataan Death March, where soldiers and civilians march across the New Mexico desert for more than 26 miles, is to commemorate the tragedy. We pass, even though Ceres’ father was on that infamous march. The Busas have been marching for more than two decades.

We are considering the latter. It’s been seven years since our last visit to Baguio and it was a brief one. It would be refreshing to escape Manila’s heat and traffic on our planned Philippine trip next year.

Ceres is on an extended visit in Manila. And Sonny complains he’s not eating properly. Mitch and I will have the chance to host him before we take advantage of their generosity once again.

 Sonny and Ceres Busa (right) at the author's home for dinner

Sonny and Ceres Busa (right) at the author's home for dinner

As a spectator and friend, I am amazed at his energy, impressed by his dedication, and frankly dismayed. I am unable to match such enthusiasm. Puts my life-a-holic attitude to shame.


 Myrna Montera Lopez

Myrna Montera Lopez

Myrna Montera Lopez is a nurse by profession but has since reinvented herself. She has been a regular columnist for Manila Mail US under her own byline, “Sa Atin Atin” since 2012.