My Vow for Undang

 Typhoon Undang (Agnes) (Source: Wikipedia)

Typhoon Undang (Agnes) (Source: Wikipedia)

“Naga-grabe ro bagyo!  Dae-ha ro mga onga sa pihak it karsada kanday Bebe nga baeay!   Mataas ro andang haligi ag nagatinaas ro baha! (The typhoon is getting worse!  Take the children across the street to Baby’s house!  Their house sits higher and the flood is getting deeper!),” screamed Jona, my neighbor, as she gathered her children to transport them to my family’s house.

 “Usuya ro mga urok ag ikulong kanday Marlyn nga tang-kae.  Sigurado nga gakaeamatay ron sanda kon maeonud sa baha ag mabaskog nga hangin!” (Gather all the pigs and quarantine them into Marlyn’s pigpen.  For certain, they will all die drowning from the flood and strong winds!),” yelled my uncle Massimi while frantically looking for all his pigs and chickens. 

It was November 5, 1984. Typhoon Undang hit Aklan, inflicting massive damage. Within a few hours, all the houses in my neighborhood, except those made of concrete, were wiped out. Our kitchen toppled to the ground, and my family, together with about five other neighbors, reverted to half-cooked rice and canned sardines for dinner that night. It was the scariest day I remember while living in Aklan. Every drop of rain hurt as it hit my skin. The wild wind carried kisses of death and took away possessions, houses, livestock and people. Children were being swept away by the wind as they attempted to run to safety. It was a cold, wet and awful day, and I felt helpless. Everything in the world I knew seemed out of control. When the typhoon quieted down that night, I cried myself to sleep. Safety, as I knew it, was no longer guaranteed. That night, I vowed to myself that if I ever I get into a situation where I am responsible for the safety of others, I will never let it go out of control. Not in the way of panic and helplessness. If I can help it, I will never subject people to such chaos and fear. Never. It was a disheartening sight.

Fast-forward 16 years to October 5, 2000.  I was sitting on the flight deck aboard USS Normandy (CG-60), facing aft, as she barreled at 30 knots northbound off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt.  The ship’s wake was active, loud, bubbly and magnificent.  The sea was dark blue, and the sky was garnet as the sun was slowly setting.  My headphones played the song “Por Amarte Asi” by Cristian Castro.  After one deep breath, I released a sigh of long-awaited and well-deserved relief.  Inspecting my surroundings, I found nobody else around.  I was the only one outside the skin of the ship.  Most of the sailors on board, I was certain, were either creeping into their bunk beds to rest, or finally getting relieved after their 17-hour watch from the ship’s transit through the Suez Canal.  It was a peaceful moment—I was alone with the vast ocean in front of me.  From afar, I saw the city of Alexandria, ever slowly disappearing on the horizon.  She seemed to bid a sweet farewell after my moment’s brush with her landscape.  The cool wind touched my face, so as to gently say, “Well done, Pat, well done.”   I briefly closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I noticed the American Flag hoisted on the fantail, waving proudly as we re-entered the Mediterranean Sea.

 USS Normandy (CG-60)

USS Normandy (CG-60)

For the first time in my life, I felt my self-worth soar -- my value as a human being, especially as a Filipino woman from the small barrio of Tigayon in Kalibo, Aklan, Philippines seemed to have reached its highest peak.  I felt elevated, not by other people, but by my own silent self-respect.

Three months before that date, USS Normandy (CG-60) left the dock of Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia with me as the navigator.  I was promoted to lieutenant in the US Navy and was assigned to be the ship’s Navigation Officer to take the Normandy through a six-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf (now the Arabian Gulf.)  I remember being scared as the ship’s horn announced to the world that we were underway, scared not so much of the assignment but of the responsibility.  I was about to take a billion-dollar vessel with 360 men and women on a long voyage, and their safety was in my hands.  Captain Bernard McCullough, the ship’s commanding officer, was beside me in the pilothouse as we pulled out of the dock.  As we began our journey along the Chesapeake Bay that warm June morning, he looked at me and nodded.  I was one of his advisers now.  He grinned in approval of our partnership, although whether or not he could trust my hands to drive his ship for six months was still questionable.  I was petite with a soft voice and certainly atypical, compared with all other naval officers he had worked with before.

 Lt. Pat Teston

Lt. Pat Teston

In 20 days, we sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Strait of Gibraltar, across the Mediterranean Sea and headed to Port Marmaris, Turkey.  After two days of port visit, we were underway bound to the Persian Gulf where the first half of the deployment would be spent.  The Gulf was and still is a hostile environment.  At the time, Saddam Hussein was refusing NATO’s entry to Iraq for a nuclear weapons inspection, and the area was in high alert.  I received three of the six anthrax vaccine shots, wore a gas mask during general quarters and was trained to administer first aid in case of a chemical, biological or nuclear attack.  As a Surface Warfare Officer, I knew how to strategically fight a battle at sea, and I knew my ship inside and out.

We spent the months in the Gulf.  It was hot, stressful, and our every move was urgent.  I practically lived in the pilothouse, always making sure that we did not collide into anything—both seen and unseen. Finally, in October, it was time to leave and change missions.  This time, back to the Mediterranean.

*******

October 5, 2000.   After 17 grueling hours of northbound transit through the Suez Canal, I felt free.  I had not slept for about three days, but I felt free; so free that I had to celebrate that moment by sitting silently on the flight deck to reflect on what I had just undergone.  Pictures of recent activities raced through my mind.  The three days prior were spent preparing for the Suez transit, managing Egyptian government officials (who disliked working with women), putting a ship-wide watch bill together, and executing the arduous navigational plan.

(A week later, on October 12, 2000, our sister ship in the GW battle group, USS Cole (DDG-67), was attacked by terrorists while refueling in Yemen.  She was on her way to relieve the Normandy from our mission in the Gulf.  Seventeen sailors died that day, and that was the most humbling day of my life.  Had Captain McCullough decided to refuel before we reached the Med and actually abided by the policy that if the ship is down 30% on her fuel, the tanks must be filled, we would have stopped in Yemen, and that would have been us.) 

 USS Cole bombing

USS Cole bombing

I reflected on all the dangerous activities I experienced in the Persian Gulf--navigating on top of undersea minefields without ever detonating a mine, avoiding seemingly radar-proof dhows populated with seafaring families, maneuvering around oil wells and oil drills, monitoring the international waters to catch cargo vessels carrying illegal oil, and being the wingman with the aircraft carrier George Washington during her countless hours of flight operations.  I was dead tired.  But now, Cristian Castro’s “Por Amarte Asi” was blasting through my headphones as I looked at the ocean, and I was at peace.  I could not believe the three months in the Persian Gulf had now become only a memory, and I managed the transits safely without accidents.  Three hundred sixty men and women exited the Suez unscathed.  The ship was without a scratch.   After all we have been through, no damage was done; nobody was hurt on my watch.  Everybody was safe.  My mind was screaming: “This is for you, Undang!  This is my sweet revenge for your atrocities 16 years ago!” 

 Lt. Teston and crew

Lt. Teston and crew

At that moment, I knew I was on top of the world.  If there is a heaven, that was it.  I made my ancestors proud.  I made myself proud.  And although that was only a quick moment, I was at the height of my existence.  It was hard to believe that a little girl from Aklan, who once lived in poverty and was shy to rest of the world, grew up to lead a military command in a truly hostile environment.  Most importantly, I have kept the vow I promised myself as a little girl 16 years prior-–to take care of the people I am responsible for, keep them safe, and never let any situation get out of control.  To realize that was profound.   I did not need recognition—my realization of the moment was reward enough.

One more time, I inhaled the cool, salty Mediterranean air.  I arose slowly, glanced at the ocean again, and headed back to my stateroom.  Now, three more months of work would begin before I could actually go home.  Three more months on the Mediterranean Sea for another mission.  More tasks were to be completed, more navigation to be accomplished.   And so, I went to sleep soundly.  I knew the next morning would bring yet another adventure, another opportunity to keep my vow alive.


 Patricia Teston

Patricia Teston

Patricia Teston, a Surface Warfare Officer, left the US Navy in 2003 and is now a Project Lead at Biosense Webster, a Johnson & Johnson company.  She currently resides in the Greater Los Angeles Area.  She holds a BS degree in Geophysics from UCLA and Master’s Degree in Business from Regent University.