Noel Dela Cerna and his family
When the hail of bullets rained on them that fateful day on January 29, 2010, militiaman Noel Dela Cerna, 26, thought it was the end of him.
He found himself helpless in the midst of a literal valley of death, pinned down by murderous enemy fire.
An NPA ambush brought down Sicad and shattered Escano’s left arm.
He and his fellow militiaman, Enrique Sicad, were unarmed because of the election period’s firearms ban when they responded to reports of rebels extorting money in a village.
His detachment commander, Staff Sergeant Montano Escano, was a bit luckier since he risked bringing his pistol despite the gun ban.
Leave no man behind
Hearing the loud voice of Escano to go for cover amidst the murderous explosions of rifle grenades and staccato of gunfire, Dela Cerna rushed to a tree to shield himself from enemy fire.
Bullets ripped the shrubs beside him every time he bobs his head to observe the attackers. He saw Sicad on the ground groaning in agony.
About three meters from him, Sergeant Escano, courageously fought the rebels using his Cal .45 pistol. He can see the blood dripping in rivulets from his wounded left arm.
“Drag Enrique towards the ditch, I will cover you,” he heard Escano’s distinctive voice. He promptly crawled towards Sicad who was already gasping his last breath.
He was pulling his friend towards their position when he felt a ‘slap’ on his butt. “Sarge, I think I am hit by that stupid rebel in the high ground,” he shouted at Escano.
The reign of automatic fire continued. Thinking that they were already dead, the rebels crossed the road towards their hiding place. Escano signaled him to calm down and to feign death.
Fighting like cornered wolves
They kept silent and waited as three rebels came nearer them, guns pointed at their general direction. Both of them remained motionless, Escano tightly held his pistol by his uninjured right hand.
“Let’s finish them off,” he heard one of the rebels saying. From his position, he could see that two rebels were approaching Escano.
He saw the jubilant, devilish smiles from the rebels who thought they were all dead.
He sent his quick prayers to the heavens. “God please protect me.” He readied himself since his only hope was to wrestle a weapon from one of the rebels.
All of a sudden, Escano shot the approaching rebels at point blank range.
One died instantly while the two other rebels, though wounded, were able to run howling back towards the positions of their comrades.
Covering fire from the rebels immediately plowed the ground in front of the soldiers.
“Grab their weapons,” he heard Escano’s earsplitting order.
He instantly jumped towards the dead rebel to snatch his belongings while bullets whizzed all around him.
Taking the enemy’s M16 Armalite Rifle and hand grenades, he swiftly ran back towards their defensive position.
Removing the safety pins, he threw the grenades back to the rebels, shredding their general locations. He then shot the rebels with the M16 Rifle that he confiscated from them.
In a stroke of luck, their fierce counter attack struck the rebels with mortal fear and they began running for their lives, shouting, “Grenades, withdraw, withdraw!”
An expert shooter, Escano swapped his pistol with the M16 Rifle and shot the retreating rebels, who scampered in disarray.
When reinforcements from their camp arrived moments later, Dela Cerna gradually felt the gnawing pain on his butt------ he felt that a bullet was stuck on his bun!
Arriving at a government hospital in Legaspi City later in the evening, he was greeted by a bubbly lady doctor who looked unhappy with their predicament. Her nameplate said she was Dr. Marissa Reyes M.D.
“Bakit kasi kayo nagpapatama at bakit dyan pa sa pwet,” she commented. “Why did you fight with those rebels? During encounters, you should just run and hide,” she added with a wide grin...
As if pouring salt to his wound, the lady doctor continued with her flurry of unwanted comments.
“What will you do with your medals for heroism if you end up dead?” she said.
By that time, his ego was hurt. He felt the need to defend the dignity of the soldiers especially the likes of Sicad who had offered the ultimate sacrifice.
“Ma’am, we have performed our sworn duty to protect our country from these terrorist rebels, so please do your own duty which is to treat patients like me,” was his straightforward response. Dr. Reyes was caught off-guard by his candid reply.
“Well, my father is a police Colonel,” she said, as if ‘threatening’ him.
“Dr. Reyes, I am a proud CAFGU member and my father is a farmer who plows the fields,” he replied.
Dr. Reyes became tight-lipped but she can hear muffled laughter from among the nurses who were entertained by the playful argument.
They were aware that the doctor was ‘outgunned’ by the smart militiaman.
That ‘debate’ was the start of their succeeding personal interactions.
That same night, the doctor returned with two nurses in tow. “We will take blood samples from you,” the nurse told him. Using his peripheral vision, he saw that Dr. Reyes was observing him while sitting on a bed nearby.
The nurses jotted down his name and other personal details. He entertained them with some funny remarks while blood samples were taken from his arm.
Though in pain, he rose to his feet and tried walking around. He knew Dr. Reyes was keeping an eye on him, smiling with an amazed look on her face.
Another physician, Dr Nick Manzano was surprised upon seeing him walk. “You are really a brave soldier. You do not mind your wound. Probably, you will be out of this hospital by tomorrow morning” he said. The nurses nodded in agreement.
Passing near Dr. Reyes, he saw a different expression on her face. “Kaw ha, nag-papa-cute ka sa mga nurses,” she said, with a tone of jealousy.
He suspected that the lady doctor was attracted to him.
Soldiers are ‘womanizers’
The next morning, the Dr. Reyes together with nurses came to visit the ward, which accommodated ten patients at that time.
She normally requires the patients to sit on their bed during these routine visits.
Seeing that he was lying on his stomach, she asked, “Why don’t you sit like the others? That is our policy here in this hospital during the doctor’s rounds.”
“Please understand my situation Dr. Reyes, I have a bullet wound in my butt,” he pleaded with a smile. He felt that she was ‘playing’ practical jokes on him.
Later in the day, Dr. Reyes came back to see him. He was surprised that she cleaned his butt wound herself. As the lovely doctor worked on his injury, they shared some funny stories.
When he asked for her cell phone number, she looked excited but she hesitated. “Soldiers are known womanizers. I don’t believe that you’re still single, show me your ID,” she joked.
Using his charm and power of persuasion, he finally convinced her to give in. Before she left the ward, she told him, “Honestly, I really think I have met you in the past.”
Still nursing from his previous heartache, he found some relief in her presence. It was only about two years back that he lost his wife, a school teacher, in a freak vehicular accident.
He can see the sparkle in the eyes of his attending physician. When she was out of sight, he can sense an unexplainable poignant feeling in his heart.
However, he was unsure about his feelings. He kept it to himself until the time that he was about to be transferred to the AFP Medical Center in Quezon City.
He could not find her when a military ambulance unexpectedly came to pick him up. He texted her and she rushed to his location. The last thing he saw was her lonely face when the ambulance departed from the hospital premises.
After the military doctors removed the bullet from his butt, he was told to stay in V.Luna hospital (AFPMC) to recuperate for the next two months.
Life would have been boring if not for the daily greetings in his cell phone from Dr. Reyes about 500 kilometers away in Legaspi City.
They shared some jokes, anecdotes, and personal experiences on a daily basis. Somehow, she had started to ‘cure’ his bleeding heart.
Some days, they would also quarrel especially if he fails to answer the phone immediately.
Escano, who shared a bedroom with him at the AFPMC’s heroes ward, became his trusted adviser.
“Don’t play games with her, she comes from a respectable family,” came the advice of his Detachment Commander who was also recovering from his injured upper arm.
In their daily communication, he also learned that Dr. Reyes has a sister, Alma, who is an officer of the Philippine Navy.
She has a police colonel for a father and a naval officer for a sister. For obvious reasons, he could not possibly mess with the lady.
He heeded the advice of his Commander. He sees him as his guardian angel especially after saving his life in that encounter.
“If you are serious about courting her, propose to her personally when you are back in Albay,” Escano told him, a brotherly advice that he respected.
Braving the odds
Disembarking from the bus that carried him back to Legaspi City, his first destination was the hospital where his love interest was working.
“I came here to personally tell you that I love you with all my heart,” he told Dr. Reyes, whose tears welled as they embraced.
Their love blossomed and they became almost inseparable. When he is not able to come to Legaspi City, Dr. Reyes would travel to his detachment to visit him.
He introduced her to the life of a militiaman. “I love my profession in the same way that I love you,” he explained.
Though he had won her heart, he failed to get the nod of her father. He did not approve of their budding relationship and refused to talk to him.
He was lucky that he got the ‘naval support’ of Alma who asked him to marry Dr. Reyes if he truly loved her.
He felt even more fortunate that “Baby,” as he fondly addresses Dr Reyes, unwaveringly fought for their love.
He felt sorry for the deaths of his buddy and the rebel who tried to kill them but the bullet which hit his buttocks that day turned out to be his greatest luck.
He has kept it as a memento of his second chance at life. Somehow, it became his lucky charm.
Despite the disapproval of Marissa’s father, they were married before Judge Alben Rabe in Ligao City on August 24, 2010, about six months after they first met.
He was so happy that Marissa did not falter even though her father had expressed disappointment over the wedding.
Someone asked Marissa what made her love him most.
“He has the cutest butt which I happened to see and care for due to that ‘lucky’ bullet,” she explained. Boisterous laughter filled the room.
“I will love Marissa till bullets do us part,” he said in jest.
(I wrote this article in honor of all the CAFGUs who risk their life in the line of duty)