Defensor assumes top AFP post today
- Paolo Romero () - September 10, 2002 - 12:00am
He has flown to the apex of his career.

Lt. Gen. Benjamin Defensor assumes today his new post as Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff in turnover rites at Camp Aguinaldo to be witnessed by President Arroyo.

Defensor leaves his post as Philippine Air Force (PAF) chief to take command of the 113,000-strong AFP at a crucial time. The AFP is in the middle of "Operation Endgame," the offensive meant to deliver the coup de grace in neutralizing the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group.

Defensor is only the second PAF officer to become AFP chief since Gen. Arnulfo Acedera assumed the post from Nov. 29, 1996 to Dec. 31, 1997.

Defensor is a seasoned combat veteran whose assumption of the top AFP post is seen with optimism by his colleagues. During his tenure, the AFP is expected to play a decisive role in promoting peace and order in the countryside, particularly in war-torn Mindanao and areas infested by the communist New People’s Army (NPA), and in paving the way for the country’s economic progress and development.

The AFP has yet to recover seven hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf and other lawless elements in Jolo, Sulu — three Indonesian tugboat crewmen and four evangelists held by the band of a nephew of Abu Sayyaf leader Radullan Sahiron.

Defensor also has set before him the task of resolving irritants along the country’s borders, such as the dispute over the Spratly islands in the South China Sea, that will be best confronted by an AFP led by a man with extensive experience in the PAF and equipped with a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of national and international affairs.

Various sectors also expressed confidence that the Armed Forces will be in good hands with Defensor at the AFP helm because they feel his character and honesty are "beyond reproach," and because he has a thorough knowledge of the modernization program itself.

However, Defensor will have only 70 days to at least begin all the work on his table, as he retires on Nov. 18. This makes Defensor’s term of office as the fourth AFP chief under the Arroyo administration the shortest in history — shorter than the tenure of Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, who served as AFP chief from Jan. 24 to April 12, 1991.

The President has been heavily criticized by military officials and several legislators for appointing officials whose tenures of office are short.

Defensor graduated from the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) in 1969 as president of his class. He is the only PMA alumnus to be conferred the Master of the Sword and the Defense Press Corps Journalism Awards upon graduation.

Defensor takes over the post to be vacated by Gen. Roy Cimatu, who retires from service today "leaving a considerable legacy" to his successor, according to AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Eduardo Purificacion.

He said Cimatu’s legacy "is that he crafted and implemented a comprehensive anti-terrorist campaign plan that has yielded palpable results in terms of the decimation of the major threat groups."

"The military campaign is now capped by ‘Operation Endgame’ in Sulu, which aims to deliver the final blow against the Abu Sayyaf and other lawless elements, to make the (Mindanao) area conducive to peace and development," Purificacion said.

AFP Public Information chief Lt. Col. Danilo Servando said Cimatu was credited for breaking the backbone of the Abu Sayyaf with the killing of the bandit group’s spokesman, Aldam Tilao alias Abu Sabaya, last June 21.

It was during Cimatu’s watch, Servando said, that the Balikatan 02-1 joint exercises of American and Philippine troops took place. It was during the Balikatan exercises in Basilan that the anti-terrorist training and equipping of the elite Light Reaction Companies took place.

Cimatu earned the moniker "General Pacman" in 2000, when he was commander of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division based in Cotabato. At that time, Cimatu’s unit overran several camps of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Cimatu was designated AFP chief by the President on May 18, less than two months before his retirement on July 4. Mrs. Arroyo extended his term to Sept. 4 and later moved it further, to today, in order to give him more time to finalize the military operations in Sulu.

Cimatu graduated from the PMA in 1970 as second lieutenant and immediately saw action in Cotabato as a platoon leader and executive officer of the Alpha Company of the 11th Infantry Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division.

The outgoing AFP chief is a certified helicopter pilot and holds a master’s degree in business administration from the Ateneo de Manila University. Cimatu is also a product of the United States Army Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

After a full career, Cimatu plans to begin his retirement by taking a long vacation in his hometown of Bangui, Ilocos Norte with his wife Fe and his only son, Dennis, an architecture student at the University of Santo Tomas (UST).

But before all the relaxation commences, Cimatu must report to his 82-year-old father, Fidel. "I will report to say nalpasen (it is finished) Dad," Cimatu told reporters in Zamboanga City during his last tour of the Southern Command (Southcom).

Cimatu said it had been his father’s desire to see him climb to the top AFP post since he earned his first star.

"At first, my father’s wish was just to see a star on my shoulder. But, after seeing one (star) he said, ‘you could have more’," Cimatu said. "I think I owe it to my father, who motivated me a lot."

Replying to questions about whether Cimatu intends to return to public service in other government offices, he said, "I still have to think whether to accept a position in the government. So far, the President has not offered me (any post) yet."

"I would say I am happy and sad," Cimatu said of his short tenure as AFP chief. "Happy because I was able to lay the groundwork for the betterment of the AFP. Sad because all that I have dreamt of for the AFP was not fully realized under my term."

His dream is a soldier’s dream: The full modernization of the AFP, more troops and improve individual capability for these troops.

Cimatu foresees that it will take two to three years for the AFP modernization to be completed - a process he put into motion by being the first AFP chief to sign two purchase contracts for the AFP.

Cimatu was signatory to the purchase contracts for Jacinto-Class Navy vessels and the upgrading of the Navy fleet worth P800 million and the acquisition of P200 million worth of Squad Assault Weapon (SAW) light machine guns.

Cimatu also said the AFP’s budget for hiring and training 7,000 additional troops has already been included in next year’s budget bill.

"I would only call myself a fulfilled military officer if I can see all my dreams for the organization realized," Cimatu said, even as he expressed confidence that his successors to the AFP top post will be able to see these dreams come to fruition upon the groundwork he laid.

The Bangui native wants to be remembered as a "thinking commander," as he made all his decisions as AFP chief of staff with the best interests of his soldiers and his nation at heart.

Cimatu also called for a united AFP, and he asked military officials dissatisfied with the President’s appointment of Defensor to the top AFP post to stop making negative comments on the matter.

"They should be good soldiers and follow the tenets of the military. They must stop all these negative comments," he said. "They will have their time, God willing."With Roel Pareño

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