Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Unsinkable Alexander Pama

By Alexis Romero
Philstar, Monday, Mach 28,2011

The Philippines has the world’s third longest coastline after Canada and Indonesia with 36,289 kilometers, almost twice that of the US. And with over 7,000 islands and about 60 percent of the population living in coastal communities, the Navy is one of the most important forces protecting the country.

Rear Adm. Alexander Pama, who assumed as 32nd Flag Officer-in-Command of the Philippine Navy on Jan. 4, vows to continue the Navy’s capability, upgrade programs and improve the skills of Navy personnel.

Pama admits that his new position is very challenging, given the current state of the Navy. “I am facing an enormous responsibility,” he tells STARweek. “Reality hit me. I am getting the position and responsibilities go with it.”

Pama surely has his work cut out for him – Navy data shows that out of the 53 patrol ships in the inventory, only 25 are operational. These patrol ships are on the average 36.4 years old. The bigger of these vessels, like the Mine Sweeper Frigates and patrol craft escorts, are 66 and 67 years old, respectively.

The Navy chief meets with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin (above); assists Mayor Celso Lobregat in pouring cement over the hollow blocks in a Gawad Kalinga project in Zamboanga City (left).

Only two of the seven Navy transport vessels are operational and are these are already 15 years old. The non-operational vessels are 64 years old. Meanwhile, only four of the 10 Navy auxiliary ships are operational. From among the 32 small crafts, 23 are operational and are of an average age of 21.3 years. Not a very encouraging picture of the country’s major line of defense.

But Pama is not discouraged, and says that among his priorities is to follow the Navy Sail Plan 2020 through modernization and asset acquisition.

“We will correct drifts in our journeys. I have noticed primarily that the emphasis of modernization is acquisition (of equipment). I also want the capacity, which is improvement of skills and education. They should go hand in hand,” he explains.

Pama says the modernization of the country’s naval forces is crucial, given the Philippines’ archipelagic character, and is brought into focus on the country’s claims on the Spratly Islands.

The Spratly chain of islands – locally known as the Kalayaan Island Group – is a cluster of rocks and reefs in the South China Sea believed to be rich in oil, gas, and minerals. Owing to its richness in natural resources, it is being claimed by the Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

It has been recently noted that the Philippines is lagging behind in asserting the country’s claim on the islands. In fact, a survey vessel conducting seismic studies commissioned by the Department of Energy was harassed early this month by two Chinese vessels near the Reed Bank Basin.

“My stand on that (Spratlys issue) is to push for the modernization of the Navy…We are the force provider and we provide the necessary assets and equipment to be operated by the unified commands,” Pama says, adding that the government has been supportive of their advocacy for modernization.

The Philippine government, in fact, has shared plans of upgrading facilities on Pag-asa Island, part of the disputed Spratly chain of islands. Plans include the immediate rehabilitation of the island’s Rancundo Air Field, which can now only accommodate small military planes due to erosion at both ends of its airfield.

“For us to be taken seriously by other claimants, we have to back up our claim with credibility. We cannot rely on mere words,” the Navy chief says. “We will not join the arms race. We subscribe to the code of conduct (for claimants) but you should look respectable when you are talking.”

Modernizing the naval forces would be beneficial to the national interest. “It’s not just a question of what the Navy wants. This is a question of national will,” he says.

Asked for his instruction to troops monitoring the areas in South China Sea, Pama says: “My instruction was to perform their job and perform their duties despite the limitations in the equipment. This limitation is not an excuse for not rendering service.”

Pama also plans to support efforts to find funding sources to bankroll the Navy’s capability upgrade thrusts. His leadership vision puts emphasis on the need for a trustworthy organization, empowered leaders, action-oriented, competent resource managers, and humane and disciplined personnel.

“I’m a task master, meaning pag trabaho trabaho, pag laro, laro (when at work, you work, when you play, you play). Give it your all. I don’t take things personally. I may dress my people down but after that, we’re friends.”

Perhaps it’s destiny that Pama would eventually lead the 22,000-strong sailors and Marines of the Philippine Navy, overcoming many obstacles to reach the Navy’s top position – including almost failing the physical examination at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) and nearly being dismissed from the academy because of a misunderstanding with a schoolmate. And if not for the concern of a friend, he would have ended as an Army man.

The seasoned officer, however, believes it was not luck but hard work and integrity that brought him to where he is now.

“I don’t know if I should call it destiny. I would like to think I am an instrument of His will. But I’m not saying I’m fatalistic. I work for it,” he says, adding, “I was not tagged in any controversy. I maintained that image. Perhaps there is what I call the integrity factor.”

Pama is described by subordinates as a “strategic thinker” for overseeing the drive against terrorists in Western Mindanao. The media called him an “anti-terror specialist” and an “ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group) fighter.”

“I would be a hypocrite if I’ll say I’m not happy (to be Navy chief). Every Navy officer who has gone through the necessary requirements, position, training, and education would entertain ideas that somewhere, somehow, he would achieve the apex of professional life,” Pama says.

Pama’s interest in ships started when he was an elementary student in Zamboanga City. “It happened during my formative years. The younger brother of my father would bring me to the ship. I played there. I collected casings of bullets. When you blow them, they would produce sounds,” Pama recalls. “I mingled with the enlisted personnel of the Navy. They made me their mascot. I did that when I was in grade two until grade five…That started my interest in the Navy.”

Pama’s family then moved to Passi, Iloilo, a landlocked town, so he temporarily “abandoned ship” and channeled his energy to his tasks as a boy scout. In high school days, Pama became active in the preparatory military training, the precursor of the Citizens’ Army Training.

“When I reached college in UP (University of the Philippines) Iloilo, now UP Visayas, I became an evader of ROTC (Reserved Officers’ Training Corps)…I did not want to march,” he reveals.

Peer influence led him to take the entrance examination at the PMA. “I took the (PMA) exam because that time, hindi ko maintindihan yung grades ko. namemeligro (I was in danger of failing),” he says.

He was initially not accepted (his grade in Math was sa few points short of the cutoff), but was delighted when he was asked to take the physical exam – which he almost flunked.

“When it came to pull-ups, I could only do four. The minimum requirement was six. It happened that my uncle, a Marine, was there and he threatened to punch me if I failed to make it,” he says.

Needless to say, he made it. “When the results came out, I passed both the academic and physical tests.”

Pama was a diligent student who was active in their school paper The Corps Magazine. But during his second year, he was recommended for dismissal when he was implicated in a fight that his squadmates engaged in. Pama appealed the recommendation and the school administrators decided to keep him.

When it came to filling the slots for the major services, it was again a close call for Pama. Three slots were allotted to the Army, three for the then Philippine Constabulary, two for the Navy, and one for the Air Force.

“You will be assigned numbers depending on your grades. It was by order of merit. For example, if you are the valedictorian, you are the number one in your group. You will be the first to choose your major service,” he explains. “In our group, I was number nine. Only the Army slot was left.”

Fortunately, a classmate who was the number two in their group agreed to swap places with him. “He knew that I am a die-hard Navy.”

The Navy chief graduated from the PMA in 1979 and is a member of the Matapat (honest) class.

There was a time in his military career when he no longer wanted to be assigned to ships. “I was enjoying my assignments in the GHQ (General Headquarters). I was chief of operations of a division in J2 (office of the deputy chief for intelligence),” he says.

But he changed his mind after learning that none in their batch had been given a ship assignment.

“In 1995, our class talked. None of us was interested to go back to ship. I told them I would go back to the ship. I was already a commander then,” he recalls.

Pama had to work under lower-ranking officers to comply with the regulations of the Navy on shipping assignments. “I don’t mind doing that. That was for the sake of professionalism and going through the mill, going through ropes of billets or position. If I did not do that, what credibility do I have to command?”

He adds, “If you resort to shortcuts, you lose your credibility, and more important, the knowledge and experience.”

Pama’s persistence and positive attitude paid off as he was assigned to vital positions in the armed forces, including commander of the Naval Forces Western Mindanao Command and head of Task Force Trillium, a joint military and police group formed to address kidnapping in Basilan.

Pama was also leader of the anti-terror unit and commander of Navy task groups operating in the critical areas of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan. He was also designated as the commanding officer of six Navy vessels, Navy inspector-general, and Navy vice-commander.

Pama’s efforts were not unnoticed as he received numerous military honors and civilian awards, including the Philippine Legion of Honor, five Distinguished Service Stars, two Distinguished Navy Crosses, and a host of others.

While he takes his job as a navy man seriously, equally important to Pama are his family and his faith. Pama is a loving husband to wife Carmela and father to teenaged sons Gorby and Archie.

“I want to spend whatever precious free time I can wiggle out of my schedule with my family. I want to spend time with my two teenage boys,” he says.

Pama said he also engages in recreational activities when his schedule allows. He reads, plays golf, bikes or jogs, and watches historical DVD movies. He is a devotee of St. Pio de Pietrelcina, a Capuchin monk known for miraculous healings and stigmata.

“Spirituality plays a significant role in my personal life,” he says. “After going through lots of unexplainable things, I can say there is divine providence who directs all things.”

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