Neuropsycho Division Chief Julie S. Mama, RP (extreme left) and 1Lt Allan Wadsilang of the 2nd Scout Ranger Battalion (2nd from right) welcome Fr. Gabriel Jose T. Gonzalez, SJ, Paolo Antonio Jegonia, and Rodge Lelis at Camp Evangelista Station Hospital in Cagayan de Oro City.

By Rogelio P. Lelis, Jr

Troops wounded in the ongoing final assault on the constricted Marawi City stronghold of the Maute Group had been evacuated to the Camp Evangelista Station Hospital (CESH) in the headquarters of the Philippine Army’s 4th Infantry “Diamond” Division. The influx of battle casualties on 31 August 2017 prompted the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services (COPERS) to send a Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) mission to CESH.

On 1 September 2017, COPERS gathered a 24-man team of psychologists, counselors, and helping professionals to assist the CESH Nueropsychology Division. The 3-day mission was the seventh and the biggest volunteer contingent COPERS deployed in support of the government troops since the Psychological Association of the Philippines (PAP) issued the 07 June 2017 board resolution appointing COPERS director Dr. Gail Ilagan to head the Task Force for PAP response to the Marawi Crisis. The resolution instructed her to deploy COPERS psychologists and allied helping practitioners to meet the needs not only of the displaced civilians but the soldiers as well. Since June, COPERS has reached over 300 soldiers recuperating in CESH and in the Adventist Medical Center in Iligan City for MHPSS services.

Ilagan, who authored the 2010 book War Wounded to earn her PhD in Clinical Psychology degree, is a firm advocate of the need to provide early trauma-preventive interventions to soldiers who come off intense combat encounters.  Among others, she has worked for the mental health management of the survivors of the 18 October 2011 Albarka encounter as well as with the sniper teams deployed to help quell the Zamboanga siege in 2013.

“Evidence suggests that early MHPSS interventions help prevent the development of adverse and unmanageable sequelae to combat and operational stress reactions, such as dissociative and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. This is why we insist on supporting the military establishment. Also, we would like to avoid soldiers figuring in unnecessary post-combat accidents, such as what apparently caused the unfortunate killing last week of Corporal Rodilo Torres Bartolome in Aurora (in Zamboanga del Sur),” she said.

 

Soldiers recuperating at Camp Evangelista Station Hospital undergo psychosocial stress debriefing courtesy of a volunteer team sent by the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services.

Fresh off the Marawi battleground, Bartolome had been looking forward to his homecoming with his loved ones. But the family had changed residence while he was in Marawi. It was just a short time after he had called his wife for directions to their new home when he was fatally gunned down by responding policemen who came to investigate reports from concerned residents about the suspicious behavior of an armed stranger loitering in the vicinity.

“He was apparently disoriented and alone in an unfamiliar place. It might have set off his hypervigilant, battle-ready mode, and that indeed must have looked suspicious to others. It could happen that way. The psychological cost of war can exact its fatal toll on the combatant even after he had already left the battlefield. The combat mode stays with him,” explains Ilagan.

While it is regrettably too late for Bartolome, it is not too late for other soldiers to access MHPSS support. Ilagan observed that the military organization now welcomes psychosocial missions, unlike in the past when stigma surrounded the soldiers’ experience of combat stress. Ilagan is working closely with the Office of the Army Gender and Development (OAGAD) to establish an effective referral mechanism for the MHPSS provision to Marawi troops.

 

Team Leaders Dr. Joey Jegonia and Rodge Lelis confer with 4th Infantry “Diamond” Division commander BGen. Ronald Villanueva prior to exit from CESH.

This latest COPERS deployment in support of the wounded-in-action (WIA) was able to serve 107 troops for stress debriefing, psychosocial support, risk assessment, and individual counseling on grief, physical disability, and trauma issues. Serving on the team were Dr. Joey Jegonia, Fr. Gabriel Jose T. Gonzalez, Dr. Ruel Billones, Luel May Contreras, Rodge Lelis, Jerson Trocio, Alex Montojo, Monna Sawan, Cheene Manalo, Paolo Suelto, John Raymond dela Pena, spouses Elmer and Christine Menor, Marz Solidum, Samantha Moral, Paolo Jegonia, Ralph Elusfa, Thomas Kellenberger, and six volunteers from the Xavier University Department of Psychology.

First Lieutenant Allan Wadsilang, commander of the 6th Scout Ranger “The Cutting Edge” Company, whose troops were among those served by the team, expressed his gratitude for COPERS’ assistance. He observed that stress debriefing and counseling by civilian experts help his troops recalibrate mindset to focus on their mission with renewed commitment.

Mas maipalabas namin ang aming saluobin. Nakakagaan. Sobra-sobra ang suporta ng COPERS. Di na kami makakabayad ng utang. Pero gagantihan namin ng ibayong lakas para ipaglaban ang ating bayan (We can disclose more fully. It feels lighter. COPERS’ support has been overwhelming. We can’t pay them back enough, but we will definitely give back with more resolve in fighting for our country),” he said.

Wadsilang is among the young commanders who recognize the importance of mental health support for soldiers.