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Tricycle driver's son is top PMA grad
Tue, Feb 23, 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network

FORT DEL PILAR, BAGUIO CITY-A few years ago, Eraño Belen thought loftily of becoming a soldier of God. Today, he still aims for the heavens-as a military pilot.

Cadet First Class Belen, who earlier studied to become a minister of Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), will receive the Presidential Saber from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on March 1 as this year's top graduate of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA).

A son of a tricycle driver and a beautician, the 23-year-old Belen leads PMA Masidlak Class of 2010. Masidlak is short for "Mandirigmang Sibol ng Dakilang Lahing Kayumanggi (warrior seed of the great brown race)."

"It was never my ambition to graduate as valedictorian, but I just did what I had to do and complied with all the requirements," the Dumaguete City native told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in a phone interview Monday.

Belen, who was named after and shared the same birthday with the late INC Executive Minister Eraño Manalo, had been earning praise for his scholastic prowess during his four years in the academy-but his family was always the last to know.

"He never told us about his achievements at the PMA. We only knew about it from friends," said younger brother Jeffrey, 20. "He just wants to surprise people."

In fact, his parents Julito and Flor Belen had left Dumaguete for Baguio last Monday for the March 1 rites without knowing that their son would be graduating valedictorian.

"Nanay started packing (for Baguio) a good one month before the graduation," Jeffrey said, referring to mother Flor, 50.

Jeffrey recalled that his brother trained to become a cadet officer under the Citizens Army Training (CAT) program at Ramon T. Pastor-Dumaguete Science High School, "but we never thought it would go beyond that."

Belen spent two years studying electronics and communications engineering at Negros Oriental State University. On the side, he also took up subjects necessary for a bachelor's degree in Evangelical Ministry.

He decided to take the PMA entrance examination in 2005.

"I was attracted to the education that the PMA offers because it is holistic," Belen said. "We not only learn technical subjects but we also learn about humanities."

Salute to father

For topping the 226-member Masidlak Class, Belen has also earned the Presidential Achievement Award for Academic Excellence.

He will also receive the Philippine Air Force Saber, which is given to a PMA top graduate joining the PAF.

In an essay he wrote and was later distributed to reporters, Belen spelled out his motto for success: "Determination against catastrophe is pleasure and honor."

The eldest of two children, Belen said all his life he had looked up to his father Julito, 59, a tricycle driver who taught him the value of education.

"After classes, my father would always ask me to memorize the multiplication table and recite it in front of him," he fondly recalled.

In order to practice his religion without disrupting his studies, Belen, together with six other INC members in his class, would go to the INC chapel in nearby Barangay Kias every Sunday.

Other top grads

Cadet First Class Froilan Pinay-an, a son of a farmer and a storekeeper from Hungduan, Ifugao, placed second in the graduating class, while Cadet First Class Nolito Ebal Jr. of Opol, Misamis Oriental, finished third.

Completing the Top 10 graduates are Cadets First Class Jhonson Gonzales of Pamplona, Camarines Sur; Jacob Jorge Kho of Baguio City; Joel Perante of Tacloban City; Erwin Villanueva of Dasmariñas, Cavite; Alfie Agarao of Carles, Iloilo; Karen Padayao of Ormoc City; and Ric Ivan Joven of Surallah, South Cotabato.

Like Kho, a BS Biology cum laude graduate of the University of the Cordilleras, four other class members finished college before entering PMA.

Among them are Ebal, who holds a BS Mathematics degree from Mindanao State University, and Villanueva, who completed electronics engineering at Technological University of the Philippines.

'Cream of the crop'

Rear Adm. Leonardo Calderon, PMA superintendent, said this year's graduates were a product of the academy's new recruitment drive, which only selects the "cream of the crop" among Filipino students around the country.

Batch 2010 included six high school valedictorians, three high school salutatorians and 27 cadets who received academic honors before entering PMA, he said.

Most of them belong to families who work in government or in military and police organizations, Calderon said.

He said 31 class members are Cordillerans, making them the largest regional group to graduate this year. Five class members are Muslims.

Col. Fermin de Leon, dean of the PMA Corps of Professors, said the PMA recently received new guidelines allowing the academy to accept more applicants from indigenous peoples who are usually shorter than the minimum height requirement of 5 feet, 4 inches.
"The PMA traces its roots to Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo but its foundations are American, who wanted tall cadets. We felt it has restricted us from getting the brightest simply because they are short," De Leon said.

Calderon said the new regulations concerning height could boost PMA's recruitment drive but that a review may be in order before it is implemented on the recruits for Class 2015.

Salutatorian

The class salutatorian, Pinay-an, will receive 10 awards, including the Vice Presidential Saber, Philippine Army Saber, Tactics Group Award and Sports and Physical Development Plaque. He is also one of the class' three starmen (distinguished cadets).

Ebal will receive the Secretary of National Defense Saber for finishing third in the class.

Gonzales, a son of a farmer and a teacher, is also a starman and will be awarded the Philippine Navy Saber and the Navy Professional Courses Plaque.

Like Belen and Pinay-an, Gonzales will undergo training in the United States for garnering the Joint United States Military Advisory Group (Jusmag) Award.

Class with most women

Masidlak will also go down in PMA history as the class with the highest number of women graduates, Calderon said.

Padayao, the only woman in the Top 10, said 31 women cadets will march this year out of the original 33 who entered the academy in 2006.

"[The women cadets] have developed strong relationships and a strong will to make it," said Padayao, who will receive the Army Professional Courses Award.

Another female graduate, Cadet First Class Katherine Dueñas, will receive the Leadership Plaque.

Calderon also noted that this year's women cadets have broken the statistical pattern wherein each class is expected to lose 10 percent of its original number due to the rigors of military and academic training.

The first batch of women cadets graduated from the PMA in 1997.

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