Sunday, November 23, 2014

Leading from the front: The story of Lt Dante Espiritu



Lt Dante 'Sprite' Espiritu proudly wears the 'tabak' on his left breast pocket after completing the rigorous Scout Ranger Course in 2011.

Since his college days, 1st Lieutenant Dante 'Sprite' Espiritu, 34, of Pagadian City,  always dreamed of becoming a certified Scout Ranger. 

While attending college, he complied all  the ROTC requirements religiously. He earned the admiration of his Tactical NCOs, some of whom were Scout Rangers. 

He can vividly remember the  likes of Msg Ruben Moreno and Tsg Amar. He said that they were higly-respectable Scout Ranger non-commissioned officers (NCOs).

"They inspired me to join the Army. I admired them because of their good demeanor.  I liked the way they conducted themselves during our training," said Espiritu, a B.S. Criminology graduate of Pagadian College of Criminology. 

He rose to become the ROTC commander in his school during which he gained more experiences on how to lead people. 

"I learned in ROTC that the higher your rank, the more responsibilities you will get. I also realized that the best way to motivate the subordinates in doing difficult tasks is to show the best example," he said. 

Army life

After finishing college, he took the Preparatory Officer's Training Course (POTC) in preparation to his journey in the military service. 

"I was quite determined to dedicate my life in the Army. I was no longer interested to pursue any other career," he revealed.
  
He was commissioned as a 2nd Lt in 2009,  and was called to active duty (CAD) a year later when he finished the Officer Preparatory Course (OPC) at the Training and Doctrine Command of the Philippine Army.

He found himself at SOCOM headquarters after spending his short admin break. 

"Perhaps, it was a stroke of luck that two of us from OPC were assigned to SOCOM. I knew that my buddy was a die-hard SF so I let him select a unit first. As expected, he opted to be with the Special Forces Regiment, so, I fulfilled my dream of joining the ranks of the elite Scout Rangers." 

In June 2010, Espiritu was assigned as a Platoon Leader of the 10th Scout Ranger Company that was based in Basilan. He knew that anytime, he would be joining the exciting adventures that every young officer wanted.

1st Lt Rey Daet, his Company Commander and a member of PMA Class of 2002, was his first mentor. He was still a 'non-Ranger' during that time but he wanted to prove his worth as a leader.

"I was lucky that my C.O. was an excellent leader and mentor. He taught me how to gradually immerse in the company that was composed of highly-experienced soldiers whose fighting tradition of 'walang iwanan' was widely known," he said. 

A few months later, he received his baptism of fire during a patrolling mission in Baiwas village in Sumisip town. 

While reconnoitering deep inside the jungle lair of the Abu Sayyaf, he found himself in the middle of an enemy encampment. 

"Visibility was almost zero during that time when we stealthily stalked the enemy deep in the forest. It was almost 4:00 am when we stumbled upon people who were sleeping on a makeshift tent," he said. 

"All of a sudden,  two people rose and scampered away, announcing our presence. In a few moment, the burst of gunshots commenced, hitting two of my teammates and prompted us to retaliate, triggering a heavy exchange of fires."

He would later experience another firefight in the succeeding patrols. He said that the presence of well-experienced SR NCOs mattered most in those encounters. 

"I was inspired more by the good examples shown by my NCOs in those bloody skirmishes. They took care of me and helped me in leading our patrols," said Espiritu. 

He remained unscathed in all of those bloody firefights which injured some of his subordinates. 

He already had the bragging rights as a 'mandirigma', but he lacked something: the SR "tabak".


Capturing "Musang"

When he was sent to the Scout Ranger Training School to join the Scout Ranger Course Class 180-11, he was very excited. 

He had long wanted to wear the much-coveted Scout Ranger 'tabak', the same one that was proudly worn by his ROTC mentors and NCO-leaders of the 10th Scout Ranger Company . 

"I have no other goal in my life during that year. I was determined to capture Haring Musang and become a true-blooded warrior,"he said. 


During my visit to the home of the First Scout Ranger Regiment last year, I gathered all Scout Rangers to pose for a 'look up' photo with "Haring Musang", the official SR mascot. Some of my subordinates from the 10th Scout Ranger Company joined me in this souvenir picture.

He said that he learned more of the art of combat leadership and counter-guerilla tactics while studying at the school. 

"I mastered the techniques, tactics and procedures in leading soldiers to combat under difficult conditions. I learned small-unit tactics from NCOs who had experienced real-life battles against different adversaries like the Abu Sayyaf, MILF and NPA bandits," he said. 


Lt Espiritu (2nd from left) and his batchmates pose for a souvenir photo during the lull of their SR Course training that was conducted in San Miguel, Bulacan sometime in 2011.


Espiritu and his batchmates later found themselves in the battlegrounds of Basilan for their Test Mission in 2011. 

Armed with his valuable experiences as a Platoon Leader in the same area, he was no stranger to the tactics used by the lawless elements.

His team figured in a fierce clash with Abu Sayyaf bandits somewhere in the boundary of Tipo-tipo and Al-Barka. They fought fearlessly, killing numerous bandits and grabbing 3 high-powered firearms including two M16A1 Assault Rifles and an M14 Assault Rifle. He earned his first Gold Cross Medal in that encounter.


Lt Dante Espiritu was awarded the Gold Cross Medal for acts of gallantry during the AFP Day in 2012. He was congratulated by the former CSAFP, General Emmanuel Bautista.

He finally fulfilled his dream of becoming a full-blooded Scout Ranger when he was pinned the Scout Ranger tab during the graduation rites in Camp Tecson in Bulacan. 

Ranger tradition: "Walang iwanan"

He was a certified 'Musang' when he came back to 10SRC in January 2012. 

1st Cpt Rodrigo Babaran was the new Company Commander when the unit figured in another major encounter with the Abu Sayyaf bandits in Baiwas village in Sumisip town. 


The warriors of the 10th Scout Ranger Company celebrated their victory after capturing an Abu Sayyaf camp in the hinterlands of Sumisip town, Basilan in July 2012. (10SRC Photo)



Cpt Arcel Soco, 32, a member of PMA Class of 2006, once mentored 2nd Lt Espiritu. As the former Executive Officer of the 10th SRC, they were together in at least three clashes in 2012. 

"He can lead people to fight under intense pressure. He can be trusted to perform dangerous missions," said Soco, one of the battle-hardened officers of the FSRR.

Soco said that in one instance, he tasked Espiritu's platoon to save civilians who were caught in a crossfire when their camp was attacked by bandits on July 1, 2012. 

"He fought bravely with his men to suppress the attackers and collect the civilians who were caught in the middle of the firefight. They used their own bodies to shield the people and brought them to safety," he said. 

Soco was again with Espiritu when their unit dashed towards an encounter site where members of the 11th Scout Ranger Company were pinned down by an overwhelming number of bandits on July 26, 2012. 

Soco entrusted his men to Espiritu when he and 10 others were wounded while fighting against the attackers of 11th SRC.

"Our C.O., Cpt Babaran, was also slightly wounded during that time. Though he (Cpt Babaran) chose to remain with the troops, we both relied on Sprite to spearhead the evacuation of all casualties from the encounter site. He courageously performed his task and we were able to save our wounded men," he said.

Helping engaged Scout Ranger buddies became a routine for Espiritu during his stint in the 10th SRC. 

In 2011, he also reinforced Lt Michael Asistores' platoon in a fierce encounter against bandits somewhere in Al-Barka. Asistores was was wounded in that clash but the unit managed to seize several high-powered firearms. 

In October 2013, he also reinforced the troops of 11th SRC when it incurred casualties in a firefight with bandits in Tong Bato village in Ungkaya Pukan town. 

"We are proud of this tradition of 'walang iwanan' among the Rangers. We better end up dead than leaving our fallen brothers behind," he said. 

Two hours of hell

On November 14, 2014, he was part of the operating troops of the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion who were tasked to hunt down the elusive bandits in the boundary of Patikul and Talipao. 

Since the release of the German hostages about a month ago, the bandits simply disappeared in the hinterlands. Except for the brief skirmishes, the soldiers always came hours behind the bandits who successfully evaded the pursuers. 

When his unit was pulled out from its deployment area in Visayas, he knew that they would be facing new challenges. Though he had experienced fighting the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan, he was not familiar to the new terrain in Sulu. 

"I have experienced the Abu Sayyaf's battle technique of swarming small patrols. Since I am a newcomer in Sulu, I have to be very careful because the terrain is different," he said.


The troops of the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion led by Lt Col Eugenio Boquio, hopped from one island province to another during their deployment in the Visayas region. (1SRB photo)

Early morning that day, he led a patrol to conduct area reconnaissance near the foothills of Bud Bagsak and Bud Tunggul, the known lair of Radulan Sahiron. 

His team spotted human traces but he could not ascertain if these were the bandits that they were looking for. Just before noon, he rejoined the Command Group led by his Battalion Commander, Lt Col Eugene Boquio to report his findings and to take some rest. 

It was about 12:30 pm when his Bat Com directed him to conduct another reconnaissance near the vicinity of Bud Bunga which was only about 300 meters away from the patrol base. 

He decided to discard all combat packs to lighten their load. He directed his subordinate leaders to carry only the mission-essential equipment.

"I could not describe my feeling before we left. I felt like someone was watching us. I told my Platoon Sergeant, SSg Ray Grabato to take extra precaution and supervise closely all patrol members during our movement."

Before they left, they prayed the Psalm 91 as part of their S.O.P. before any patrolling mission. Feeling calm and focused, he stayed with the spearheading team led by Sgt Elmer Lazaga. 

His Scout Ranger Course classmate, Pfc Joey Blanche, was with him in the leading team. They were together for 6 months during their training and they were happy to be assigned in the same unit. Sometimes he would pat the back of Blanche, motivating the latter to move on. 

As a Platoon Leader, he is expected to lead from the front where he can best control the operating elements. He trusted his subordinates because the NCOs were all battle-hardened soldiers. 

When he looked behind him, he saw determined faces of Sgt Eddie Lumandap and Sgt Rexelito Octa. Both of them were well-experienced team leaders who had been to countless battles. 

"Along the way, we saw some indications of human presence. There were newly cut branches and signs of ground disturbance," he said. 

Sensing danger, he decided to call for a short halt to observe the surroundings. Everyone froze in their respective sectors as they tried to feel the enemy presence.

"We tried to smell distinct odors that are not natural in the forest. We also tried our best to distinguish animal sounds from human voices," he said. 

Then, they heard something different: faint human voices that traveled through air along with the chirping sounds of birds!


Scout Rangers inspect the hut where bandits were spotted by the recon elements led by 1st Lt Dante Espiritu at 1:20pm on November 14, 2014. (1SRB photo)

In front of him, Cpl Taluyan showed the familiar arm signal, telling them that he saw a hut. Without any command, the whole leading team proceeded to skirmishers line. He signaled the others to form the "L" formation.

"We crawled towards a bamboo tree to observe the surroundings. We were shocked to see armed bandits about 15 meters away. I promptly directed everyone to spread out and maximize our firepower to the front," he said. 

As the teams crawled towards their respective positions, he grabbed his Global Positioning System receiver, lensatic compass and tactical map. He recorded his grid location and grabbed the radio that was carried by Cpl Larroza. 

"I am at vicinity GC 911666, over. 10 armed enemy sighted in a hut, 15 meters south of my position."

Sensing the signal interruptions, he grabbed his cellphone to send a text message. 

"I was lucky that there were 'three bars' of cellphone signal. I encoded the message and sent it to my commander."

When I inspected our position, all of us were in skirmishers formation, guns aimed at our respective targets. We were already excited to fight but we need to satisfy all the priority information requirements (PIR) of my commander. 

He grabbed his notes to write down his observation log. 

"I wrote down the events to complete my SALUTE report while waiting for Lt Asistores. By that time, his team was already preparing to perform link-up operations with me."

He was jotting notes when Cpl Blanche told him that they were about to be compromised.

"When I peeped through our concealment, I saw a bandit heading towards our position. He looked like heeding the call of nature," he said. 

Several meters behind the bandit, they spotted at least 10-15 others. 

"Some of them were cooking food behind the bush. They looked relaxed and unaware that we have our sights on them. Some of them were lying on their hammocks."

As the bandit came nearer, he knew he couldn't wait for the other platoon to arrive. His heart was pounding heavily and he had to make a bold decision: To kill or be killed!

He pulled the trigger while at the same time, shouting on top of his lungs.

 "Fire!"

He saw the bandits fell one by one in front of him. Some of them desperately dragged their dead companions. They were shouting at the others who were also around the place.

"Kabang-kabang!"

In a matter of seconds, the enemy retaliated with all their might, sending bullets flying towards them. 

Observing the source of gunshots, he noticed that they were in the middle of the enemy's engagement area. 


Part of the large harboring area that was occupied by more or less 300 bandits who almost encircled the recon elements of the 1st Scout Ranger Battalion. (1SRB photo)

He counted four M60 General Purpose Machineguns 'singing' a familiar tune. Most of the bandits were only about 10 meters around them. 

"Hold the line! Hold the line!"

He crawled towards Sgt Grabato and yelled at him amidst the deafening explosions. He knew that his platoon was facing a numerically superior enemy.

"Control your men! Keep your head low! Fire only single shots!"

Minutes later, he saw Pfc Blanche bloodied with a chest wound. He was staring at him as if asking for help. 

Bullets kept hissing around him but he didn't think twice to crawl in front to save his wounded friend. 

He told Lazaga and Cajes to give him covering fire as he pulled  his SR course classmate to safer grounds.

"I couldn't allow myself watching a friend die in front of me. I asked for God's protection and rushed towards him."

He successfully carried Blanche to a covered position beside his other teammates. Using his basic first aid skills, he tried to revive him. 

"He was vomiting blood and he was gasping for breath. I did my best but he died within minutes," said Espiritu. 

Returning to his position, he saw that Pfc Rendon stopped firing his K3 Squad Automatic Weapon. His SAW gunner was grimacing in pain due to his injuries.

"He got bullet wounds in his left hand and begged to reposition behind a tree. He couldn't operate the LMG anymore so I assisted him towards the rear."

As the fighting dragged for more minutes, he saw his men hit one by one. M203 high-explosive rounds kept raining around their position, sending countless shrapnel around them. 

Some of his platoon members were hit. One of them was peppered with shrapnel all over his face.

Emboldened by their unfavorable situation, the enemy kept on advancing while shouting 'Allahu akbar!'. They shot them one by one but they kept on rushing forward.

"I directed my men to throw grenades at the enemies who were only about 5 meters around us. Some of them scampered away but one of them threw back one of the grenades, killing Cpl Taluyan instantly."

Listening to the radio traffic, he realized that the reinforcing platoon led by Lt Asistores was already heavily engaged about a hundred meters to his left. 

The gunfire from the enemy gradually waned but his platoon was still confronting about a hundred young fighters who kept on assaulting their position. 

After an hour of trying to repulse the enemy, he saw that most of his subordinates were already wounded including two of his Team Leaders, Sgt Lumandap and Sgt Lazaga. 

There were only two remaining able-bodied soldiers beside him, Pfc Cajes who was also wounded, and Cpl Larroza who was manning the radio while engaging the attackers at the same time. 

About 10 meters away, some of his subordinates took care of the wounded while the others continued fighting. 

"Save your ammo. Let us fight to the last drop of our blood!"

One of his teammates engaged the enemy in a 'psywar'. 

"1st Company, assault! Assault!"

Despite their situation, they smiled when the enemy reacted by delivering heavy volume of fires that they never responded to save on ammunitions. 

"We wanted them to exhaust their ammo supply. We just wanted to fire only at exposed targets," he said.

As agreed, they shot everything that moves behind the bushes around of them. They heard people screaming after being hit. 

Finally, he was able to give the directions of the enemy to his battalion commander who was manning the 81mm Mortar. 

"Sir, 800 mils, 50 meters!" 

When they heard the loud blast near the enemy position, they were motivated to fight. He was down to three 30-round magazines after more than hour of trading fires with the bandits.

"Adjust fire, over! Left 50, add 50!".

He dodged bullets while transferring from one position to another to check on his subordinates. He found out  that some of them were severely wounded while the others sustained multiple shrapnel wounds.

At about 4:00 pm, they heard the attack helicopters hovering above them. 

"The sight of the choppers boosted our morale. They were heaven sent to us."

He gave the enemy's grid locations to the choppers. It looked liked an angry dragon as it blasted the enemy positions with Cal. 50 machinegun rounds and rockets. 

Gradually, the enemies stopped their advance. He directed a team to provide suppressive fires while the others slowly occupied an advantageous ground. They executed the "break contact" SOP.

Returning the favor

Later, he was able to link up with the platoon of Lt Asistores. He was saddened upon learning that along with 16 others, his Company Commander was wounded. 

He directed able-bodied soldiers led by Lt Binias to provide covering fires as the injured soldiers from the group of Lt Asistores were carried to the casualty evacuation point. 

When they accounted their patrol members, he was told that three soldiers belonging to the group of Lt Asistores were unaccounted. 

He learned that three soldiers remained in their original fighting position to provide covering fires, so that the wounded buddies can be evacuated.

Espiritu said that he was also thankful for the soldiers led by Lt Asistores who came to reinforce them. 

"They sustained injuries while trying to avoid the complete annihilation of my platoon. I had to return the favor by fighting for those who launched the counterattack to save us," he said.

In his quick estimate, they were left behind about 50 meters away where the bandits tried to surround the platoon of Lt Asistores. 

"I immediately organized a team to rescue the three heroes who sacrificed themselves so that the others like Sgt Kitong will be saved. I couldn't afford to leave them behind!"

Firing their way towards the enemy's last positions, they were met with resistance but the enemies ran away after a few minutes. 

He found the lifeless bodies of his subordinates who opted to pay the ultimate sacrifice to save many of their fellow Rangers. They were all his dear buddies: Cpl Villaluna, Cpl Caro and Pfc Achas. 

He was teary-eyed but maintained his composure. His team was able to retrieve two guns owned by the dead soldiers.

"I did my very best to save not only my platoon members but all members of my beloved unit, the 1st Scout Ranger Company. I am saddened by their untimely deaths. We are all thankful for their sacrifices. We are alive and ready to fight again because of their heroism."

An hour later, he reunited with the Command Group only to see all 28 wounded company mates including his company commander, Lt. Asistores.

He assisted Lt. Col. Eugene Boquio in preparing the helicopter landing zone (HLZ) where all casualties will be picked up. 

At around 10:00 pm, all wounded men were safely picked up by the Philippine Air Force pilots who dared to fly at night to 'MEDEVAC' the injured soldiers. 

The brave flyboys also airlifted the human remains of 5 soldiers who died fighting heroically that day.

The Joint Task Group Sulu led by Col. Alan Arrojado accounted 10 bandits dead including 2 notorious leaders like Hairullah Asbang and Juli Ekit. At least 15 others were wounded. 

The Abu Sayyaf suffered big losses for the first time in at least 2 years of successfully evading the security forces.

For Lt Dante 'Sprite' Espiritu, the mission is not yet over. He will go back to lead from the front. 


The Scout Rangers recovered personal belongings and solar panels after the encounter in Bud Bunga, Talipao, Sulu on November 14, 2014.


AFP Chief of Staff, General Gregorio Catapang Jr. awards the Gold Cross Medal to Sgt Eddie Lumandap who fought alongside Lt Espiritu against more or less 300 Abu Sayyaf bandits in Talipao town, Sulu on November 14, 2014.


I posed for a souvenir photo with Lt Mike Asistores and Lt Dante 'Sprite' Espiritu during our visit in Zamboanga City. Lt Asistores got wounded for the third time in his career while serving in the field as a company grade officer.


 Sgt Castro 'Caster' Kitong, 38, was my former 'Kaldero 6' in the 10th Scout Ranger Company that I commanded from 2000-2002. Though wounded, he flashed a smile when I came to cheer him up last week. He received his 2nd Wounded Personnel Medal (WPM) from the CSAFP, General Gregorio Catapang Jr.

Sgt Delio Surio, a certified Scout Sniper, experienced one of the bloodiest battles in his life wherein the enemies were only a few meters around him. He engaged a bandit in a 'duel' at around 10 meters using his M16 Rifle. He hit the bandit in the chest but the latter managed to hit his forehead with an M203 Grenade launcher. He was lucky that the HE round did not explode upon impact but he almost passed out.