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Two Officers and Gentle(wo)men

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How two female soldiers defied traditional roles, prevailed in a ‘man’s’ world, and promoted gender equality

By Mylene C. Orillo

The military is a traditional place – a man’s kingdom they say. But the reasons why a woman would enter a male-dominated world are often the same reasons as men – to serve the country, it runs in the family, longtime dream, job security, among many others. So why women soldiers?

For retired Army brigadier general Ramona Palabrica-Go, she entered the military service out of curiosity. Although her father was a member of the defunct Philippine Constabulary (PC), Go said his father did not influence him. It was not even her ambition or dream.

However, when she started looking for a job after college, she just found herself taking exams in the military and passing them all. When she got in, Go aimed to be an officer, but it was difficult that time and there was a very tight competition.

“There’s this Presidential Decree that allows a woman to become an officer, but she has to become an Enlisted Woman of the Year. She must receive various awards. It’s like you’re so old to become an officer already so if you notice there were very few female officers before,” said Go.

Retired Army brigadier general Ramona Palabrica-Go

A year and a half after being enlisted, the Australian government opened the door for Officer Candidate School for Women. Out of all applicants from all branches of service: the Philippine Navy, Philippine Air Force, Philippine Army, and then PC (before it was separated from the AFP and became a civilian entity during the term of President Corazon Aquino) only two of them passed: then Private First Class (PFC) Go and now retired Colonel Jovita Ferrer of PC.

Go and Ferrer were sent to Australia for a year to undergo the officer’s training. When they came back to the Philippines, they were immediately commissioned or called to active duty and become regular officers of the AFP.

Go became the first woman regular officer of the AFP and PA, and subsequently, the first-ever female general of the Philippine Army in its 114-year history in 2011. Go retired from the service in September 2012. Six months prior to her compulsory retirement, she entered politics and won as mayor of San Enrique, Iloilo city on May 16, 2013.

To serve the country

Cliché as it may sound, Lt. Col. Raquel Vilchez, a member of PMA Class 2000, entered the military service at the age of 19 to serve the country.

“When I was a kid I used to watch war movies. I was inspired by the dedication of the soldiers to serve our country. For a young impressionable mind, I think, it was a major influence in my choice of career. My parents allowed me to pursue what I want, to do what I want to do,” said Vilchez, who was training to be a teacher prior to entering the academy.

Upon entering the academy, she revealed she was mocked at how training was made easy for female cadets like her. But she coped by focusing on her tasks, be it leading a platoon, company or a squad and made sure she accomplished her tasks with flying colors.

Go addresses the troops in one of the Command-directed activities in Camp Aguinaldo

“I was once told that if I were a man, I could best my male counterpart. Those words, though demoralizing, were taken as an inspiration. I also remembered them telling me that women in training is cumbersome. Looking back, I realized those harsh words were uttered due to immaturity and insecurity,” shared Vilchez.

But the challenge did not end in the academy, it went on when she became a young lieutenant as military assignment is the “real and actual application of all education and training received during cadet years.”

“I had to prove to them (the troops) that I can lead them and that I will not leave them hanging. One of the challenges I had was how to discipline them. I had to be firm but mindful of their field experiences. I had to be tough without challenging their manhood. I had to show them who’s in-charge and I know what I’m doing,” said Vilchez.

Prior to Vilchez’s current assignment, she was designated as battery commander of C battery, 2nd Field Artillery Battalion, 5th Infantry Division. Later on, she was designated as battalion staff, secretary to the General Staff at the 5th Infantry Division.

Most recent after taking her master’s degree in Australia was as Chief of Capability Weapons Systems Branch and Strategic Basing Branch of the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans, J5. It is where she took a major role in the AFP defense and capability development program.

Balancing career and family

Vilchez revealed that having supportive people, a trusted kasambahay, and loving parents who will look after her kids are crucial in her service, especially when she and her husband who is also an Army lieutenant colonel are away on deployment.

“My eldest was born when I was assigned in the field. I brought her in my areas of assignment. She is 16 now. My second child was born in 2014. With my children, I get help from my soldiers and wives. I also had a kasambahay. I also have my parents. They played key roles in raising my kid especially when my husband and I are not around,” said Vilchez.

Devoting quality time and creating memories with her kids are important to Vilchez. When she’s at home, she makes sure she has time for her kids and attend their school functions. She also talks to her husband regarding schooling and assignments and make a compromise.

“We do not interfere with each other’s choices and work. We respect boundaries and rights. We weigh responsibilities as partners and parents. We support each other. We also involve our children because any decision we make will affect them,” shared Vilchez.

Military service as a career

Although rewarding, Vilchez warned young girls that military service is a very demanding job that will take most of your time and attention. One has to prove her capability and willingness to make sacrifices.

Lt. Col. Raquel Vilchez, a member of PMA Class 2000

“Expect difficulties. Nothing in this world is easy, but it is rewarding. Do not expect special treatment. You must be physically, mentally, and emotionally fit. Competition is hard but it is harder for females because we are outnumbered. We are being watched constantly, not only inside the organization but also outside,” said Vilchez.

Taking as an example her current assignment as the Chief of the Army Gender and Development Office, she admitted that working in gender and development is a challenging job. It takes real passion, patience, and understanding of the objectives of GAD and how the Army or the AFP system works. One has to understand the Army’s mission and why mission accomplishment is very important to the organization.

“Truth is, not everybody understands GAD and even us women need to be educated. GAD issues are deeply rooted in the cycle of life. Change of perspective in order to happen must use deliberate approaches,” explained Vilchez.

Understanding GAD

Vilchez revealed that one of the misconceptions about GAD issues is that it is a woman’s concern only, but it’s not. The Army deals with sexual harassment or gender and development with male soldiers just like in females.

“I personally believe that inequalities and abuses are results of distorted values that can only be addressed through the efforts of everybody. If we allow inequality and abuses to persist, we will – in the end – have a dysfunctional society,” she said.

Vilchez speaks to personnel from different offices during one of Army-wide GAD seminars

The Army’s vision is to have a gender-responsive organization where personnel are gender-sensitive and that gender perspectives are integrated in the Army’s strategy and approaches, including systems and processes.

“To promote GAD in the Army, the organization has adopted gender mainstreaming as a strategy. They implement GAD through the four entry points – policy, people, enabling mechanism, and Army plans and programs,” explained Vilchez.

Under policy, gender perspectives and principles are either directly translated as Army policies or integrated in the Army’s existing policies. One of GAD direct policies is the creation of the Army GAD Focal Point System, which involves Army top leaderships and staff.

The Office of the Army Gender and Development (OAGAD) was also created as the primary policy making body on all matters pertaining to gender and development. GAD budget, which is at least 5 percent of the Army’s total budget is now part of the organization’s planning and programming cycle.

The Army also conducted training of trainers, a pool of qualified lecturers who can talk about Gender Sensitivity Training (GST) Pack to the personnel deployed in the combat zone.

Vilchez trains officers as well to have better understanding of GAD

“The training was designed for Army personnel to influence better working relationship between women and men of the Army and to help them have a better stakeholder engagement,” said Vilchez.

Gender equality in the military Since the integration of females in the military training institution, Vilchez said that gender equality is slowly gaining grounds. In fact, the Army has recently designated its first female brigade commander, Colonel Joselyn Bandarlipe at the 53rd Engineering Brigade in Lapu-Lapu, Cebu City.

Then there’s also Lieutenant Colonel Lea Lorenzo-Santiago, one of the seven magnificent female graduates of PMA Class 1997 as Artillery battalion commander.

“Now we can see female soldiers being deployed in front line areas and given responsibilities that were once exclusive to male. We expect more to follow as policies are continuously being updated and implemented to allow and equip women to occupy positions and specialization they would to pursue,” said Vilchez.

“To say there is no sexual harassment in the service is a lie,” said Vilchez.

Although there are no exact figures, Vilchez explained that most cases are already being addressed in the line units or are not being reported.

“This is the reason why we conducted an Army-wide survey on sexual harassment and abuses of sexual nature within the organization. My office is currently tabulating the results, which will set the baseline and reference to make necessary changes in the sexual harassment policy,” said Vilchez.

For violence against women and their children (VAW-C), the most common case is insufficient support and abandonment. Vilchez emphasized that the Army implements very good policies to address VAW-C related offenses for soldiers.

“We make sure that moral, discipline, law and order offenses are given due attention. The Army does not tolerate VAW-C offenders,” she said.

Special thanks to Col. Eliglen Villaflor, Director, Army Personnel Management Center; Major Ella Dela Paz, Ms. Anna Yumol, and the Office of the Army Chief Public Affairs for the assistance.

“Now we can see female soldiers being deployed in front line areas and given responsibilities that were once exclusive to male”


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