If it were a normal, face-to-face training day, the cadet officers would have asked the cadets, “Sino dito gustong mag-COCC?” and a couple of hands would have raised. Then, they’d be pulled out and brought to a different room, only to hear “SQUAT!” That is when the COC hopefuls would have realized, this is the real thing.
The Coronavirus wreaked devastation; it stole our normal and forced the unpredictable. But COVID-19 is not that powerful— It was not able to destroy the passion to serve the nation nor confine the fervor to become a part of something bigger than yourself. At the University of the Philippines Diliman Corps of Cadets, a notable few cadets grasped the opportunity to be who they could become. Despite the pandemic, the sudden shift to online learning and the flagging circumstances of life, they took the step and dared to join the Cadet Officer Candidate Course (COCC).
COCC Batch 71-A was henceforth the “pandemic batch”. Over Zoom video teleconference, these aspiring leaders were interviewed one by one. There, they were tested on their determination and asked the question, “Are you sure you want to become a cadet officer?” It was a heavy one.
However, they pushed on. As COCs, they took on the Military Science 1 course and confronted double the usual ROTC academic requirements. They also began daily Physical Training, after classes and over Zoom for those who had the internet. If they faced lag or frequent disconnections, that was not going to be barrier enough to stop them.
By the time it was announced that the COCs would billet for three and a half weeks at the ROTC barracks, circumstances of COVID-19 pared their number down to ten.
Five women, five men. Those are the numbers that arrived at the UP Department of Military Science and Tactics Complex. After a rapid antibody test, they each experienced a rushed shower and settled into their spartan bunks. There, they had one week of Zoom lectures. At the barracks, also known as Granadillos Hall, they remain isolated in their respective areas and even had separate meals in compliance with COVID protocols. By the end of the quarantine period, they were down to five women and four men.
Now, the real training began. One full week of minimal sleep, strict time management, and unending exercises; the COCs could not have expected how rigorous, how intense, how exhausting it was going to be. The overused adage of “blood*, sweat, and tears” was not a metaphor anymore, but their literal reality.
There were amazingly fun parts, too. The food was good, the camp visit got their adrenaline pumping, and each got to experience how it was to hold a real weapon and shoot several rounds at the firing range, rappel from high towers, practice close quarters battle, study navigation and strategy, and learn from the very best military leaders. But the fun times don’t always sustain you through the tough ones. To demonstrate just how difficult it truly is, I’ll let you in on a secret: Historically, more than half of cadets who begin the Cadet Officer Candidate Course quit.
The COCs of Batch 71-A Sandugo were nine when training began. How many were they when it ended? Nine, still.
“Unity is the beginning, success is the ending.
Though our ordeals are hard, let patience be our guard.
For the stakes are high, and our time is nigh.”
“Kulang kayo ng unity,” said one of the second class cadet officers. “Kailangan niyong makipag-communicate.”
In any group, communication is essential; in a military organization, it is doubly so. Under pressure, Sandugo’s communication failed; they became inefficient and slow, unable to complete their tasks in the short time available. After that, they fixed this issue and became faster and better, functioning cohesively as a unit. But more and more problems came.
“Do not go to us for every problem,” said a first class cadet officer. She continued, “Learn to solve them among yourselves. You will be cadet officers, Platoon Leaders. Sinong pupuntahan niyo kapag kadete niyo nagkaproblema? They will look at you. Exhaust all means.”
There is no other answer to that than Ma’am, yes, ma’am.
“Sino dito mga nag leadership training na dati?” said the COCC Cadet-Officer-in-Charge. “I’ve been to several—in school and Youth City Council. But out of all those leadership training programs, COCC lang ang naencounter ko that trains you as a team.”
“I am only one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
What I can do, I ought to do.
And what I ought to do, by the grace of God, I will do it.”
It was in the daily grind, the chants as they did their morning jog, the drills as they followed the voice of today’s brave marcher. It was in eating their meals as one, in rushing to clean the barracks, in yelling “Sir, 100 squat thrusts complied as ordered, sir!” It was in each drop of their steps made in cadence, in every task for which they covered each others’ backs, in all the coffee cups they shared and passed around.
“There is no you,” said one of the members of COCC Batch 71-A Sandugo. “There is only your team. One’s mistake is everyone’s mistake. One’s success is everyone’s success.”
“Lahat sa Sandugo, may sari-sariling strengths,” said the Batch Valedictorian. “Nakakatuwa kasi pag mahina yung isang tao sa isang bagay, yung magagaling doon, talagang tinutulungan yung mahihina na mag-grow.”
The Batch Commander himself said, “Everytime na tatanungin ako if kaya ko pa, sumasagot lang ako ng ‘KAKAYANIN!’, and it brought me here today as a proud cadet officer of the UPD Corps of Cadets.”
On 24 February, the probationary cadet officers rushed to prepare the stage. On 25 February, nine new Cadet 2nd Lieutenants graduated as one.
“COCs,” said an upperclassman. “Recite Commitment.”
“Sir,” the COCs breathed, “Commitment, sir. Sir, Commitment is what transforms a promise into reality. It is the words that speak boldly of your intentions, and the actions that speak louder than words. It is making time when there is none, coming through time after time after time”—they took a breath as one—“year after year after year. Commitment is the stuff character is made of; the power to change the face of things. It is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism. Sir. Sir, Commitment, sir.” Throughout the hall, their voices rang.
“Lagi kong naiisip na, What if nag-quit ako?” said one member of Sandugo, no longer a COC, but a CO. “I’ll never have these kinds of memories with my fellow COCs, and I’m so happy na kumapit ako hanggang dulo.”
“Kayo,” said the Corps Commander, “ang pinaka-united na batch na nahawakan ko.”
Another of Sandugo added, “I’d say it’s the hardest, most extreme moments that strengthen you and keep you alive. May mga days na ‘di na talaga ako makalakad ng maayos from the body pain of the drills or the work. But then you’ll wake up the next day realizing that you lived through it and that you’re a better person than you were yesterday. You’ve been through so much, so what’s to say na hindi mo kayang malagpasan yung other challenges in life?”
“They have completed one of the hardest, if not the hardest, leadership training programs in the university,” said the Corps Commander.
At the time of writing this article, Friday, 05 March, what looms in front of the newly minted C2Lts is yet another challenge. Most are about to serve as Platoon Leaders for over 40 cadets each for the entire semester, and maintain their academics while at it.
“Hindi na kayo matatakot,” as the Corps Commander had told them during COCC. “Hindi kayo ma-intimidate, kasi naranasan niyo na ang lahat.”
When asked about how she felt about tomorrow, one of the new C2Lts said, “Excited na kinakabahan. I’ll try my best to make sure that the cadets will feel comfortable (but not too comfortable) under my command.”
The cadet officers of Sandugo are ready for action. They are leaders; leaders individually, but more importantly, leaders as a team. They entered the fire as separate, divergent pieces of metal and came out a single alloy— refined, reinvented, resilient. Stronger.
Mind and heart, Sandugo is united. Batch 71-A has overcome their COCC journey and triumphed over the odds. As one, all nine shout: “Isang diwa, isang puso, Sandugo!”