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Warrior-diplomat : Fighting on a different front

SEMPER FIDELIS. Official photo with the national ensign and the Marine Corps colors – Photo by the Armed Forces of the Philippines

Marine Colonel Edgard Arevalo, who was trained to fight enemies on the battlefield, is now fighting a different war as military spokesman using newer skills.

His training as a lawyer and his wit and eloquence have stood him in good stead in his present position, especially when it comes to parrying probing questions from reporters.

Graduating in 1990 from the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) – the country’s premier military school – Arevalo has been either chief of the Public Information Office or Spokesperson in primary or concurrent capacities of different military units through most part of his career.

He has served as Spokesperson seven times, for the smallest military unit, the Philippine Marine Corps (PMC) under the Philippine Navy, to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) General Headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo. He holds the distinction of being the first Marine officer to head the AFP Public Affairs Office (AFP-PAO), the military’s mouthpiece.

Arevalo was the team captain of the PMA debating team while a cadet. True to form, his communication skills played a big part as he graduated  “With Distinction” and garnered the “Communication Skills Plaque” when enrolled in the Naval Command and Staff Course,  the Philippine Navy’s Advance Officer Leadership Course.

Proud member of the first graduating class of PMA under the administration of President Corazon Aquino – Photo by Col. Edgard Arevalo

As a young boy, he recalled that he loved to talk to people in the streets and convince them to buy what he was selling in his hometown in Batangas province, which most probably led to his ease in interacting with people and getting his message across

“I believe I have the academic credentials and the right attitude as well as the aptitude to undertake this sensitive job as Spokesperson,” he said.

Arevalo’s excellent communications skills were harnessed at the University of the Cordilleras (formerly Baguio Colleges Foundation) where he pursued a Bachelor of Laws degree, passing the tough bar examinations in 2007.

Much earlier, his knack for conveying the word was honed at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos where he earned a Master of Science in Development Communication in 1998 and membership in the prestigious Honor Society.

Arevalo’s job as AFP-PAO chief requires him to keep his cool even when answering irrelevant or irritating questions from the media.

Face-to-face with change – President Rodrigo Duterte – Photo by Col. Edgard Arevalo

Becoming a military spokesman

Arevalo joined the PMC because he wanted to fight in the field and defend his country alongside elite soldiers.

For his first assignment as a young Marine officer, he volunteered for duty in Basilan province, a hotbed of Muslim insurgency in Southern Philippines. “Being a young graduate, my first impulse was to test my mettle, and to put into practice whatever I had learned in the Academy,” he said.

His stint on the frontline was cut short when the battalion he was serving was reassigned to Palawan. Plucked from the field, he became the first Public Information Officer and Spokesperson of the Marine Corps, a position he held from 1994-1995 The then PMC Assistant Chief for Personnel, a classmate who had taken part in many debates and speech contests alongside Arevalo in the PMA, had recommended him to the Marine Commandant.

Getting strength from the Almighty – Photo by the Armed Forces of the Philippines

From 1998 to 2000, Arevalo served in the Presidential Security Group. There, he was asked by the Commanding General to be Media Relations Officer until he went back to school to take up an advanced officers’ course.

He was then moved to the PMA for the Instructor Duty tour, a wise career move. He later became the Academy’s Public Information Officer and Spokesperson, serving four PMA superintendents from 2001 to 2003.

Arevalo’s reassignment to the Navy after his PMA stint proved to be a turning point in his career.

“For many years, I had always followed orders without question. But during that particular time, when I was asked where I would wish to be assigned, I requested to be a Marine once more,” he recalled. “My superior asked how many years I had been on duty outside the Marine Corps. I replied: ‘12 years, sir,’ He said, ‘By golly, by all means, go back to the Marines.’”

But that did not happen.

Arevalo was ordered by the Board of Senior Officers to take on the post of Naval Public Information Officer. He was told he would stay for only 6 months on the job, but this stretched to 28 months.

In 2013, Arevalo was reassigned to the Navy after finishing his Command and General Staff Course at  Australian Defence College as head of the Civil Military Operations Group and to serve as Navy Spokesperson for the second time.

“I started to wonder why I was being boxed in with this kind of job.  I was puzzled because I wanted to serve with the Marines Corps in the field, but for some reason, the same task was always given to me.”

Seeking guidance from Armed Forces of the Philippines Gen. Eduardo Año during a troop visit to Ormoc city – Photo by the Armed Forces of the Philippines

A good Marine follows orders

When Arevalo was interviewed by the Navy Selection Board for promotion, he was asked how he felt about not being able to command a battalion.

To be a full-blooded Marine, the interviewer said, one has to go through the different levels of command such as joining a battalion and brigade. Arevalo insisted it was not his fault he was unable to command big Marine units, saying there was a body that had decided his career path to become a spokesperson.

A Navy admiral sitting on the board then spoke up.

“I think you have served the AFP well by being the spokesperson and voice of the Armed Forces in various capacities. You will be able to contribute to the information warfare aspect of our service in a higher capacity,” Arevalo quoted the admiral as saying. What followed was Arevalo’s promotion to full Colonel.

Taking time off work to celebrate his special day with family members – Photo by Col. Edgard Arevalo

He was later assigned to yet another strategic civil military operations unit as Deputy Commander of the Civil Relations Service AFP in Camp Aguinaldo. Hardly had he warmed his seat when Ricardo Visaya, AFP Chief of Staff, asked him to be AFP-PAO chief until the latter’s retirement. Today, Arevalo continues to work under the current AFP Chief, Gen. Eduardo Año.

His posting as AFP-PAO chief, in a way, defies military tradition. Since PAO officers are the personal staff of the Chief of Staff, logically, a PAO chief who belongs to the same branch of service would be appointed.

“If the Chief of Staff comes from the Army, his PAO chief and spokesperson would also be from the Army because he would certainly know the capability of that officer,” Arevalo said. “I thanked General Visaya for trusting me because he is an Army general and I am a Marine colonel.”

Hoping for field action

For years, Arevalo has been taking advanced military courses, hoping to go back to the field. His only regret, he said, was not being able to command a battalion.

“But God gave me this opportunity to fight a different kind of war. As the saying goes, you may win the battle but lose the war. I console myself with the thought that in the field of public opinion, you need to put across the message to win the people we serve.”

Arevalo added that although most officers would avoid holding such a sensitive position, his career has given him a sense of fulfillment.

“Any wrong word or pronouncement could spell disaster for your career. Many officers were relieved (of their position) for committing a mistake,” he said.

Bonding with the family – Photo by Col. Edgard Arevalo
Post wedding ceremoy of Arevalo’s eldest daughter Raechell Emeli on Dec. 14, 2016 in Tagaytay City – Photo by Col. Edgard Arevalo

On the plus side, his regular appearances on all media platforms have boosted the morale of his family, especially his children.

Still, there are tradeoffs.

He jests that his wife often scolds him for leaving the church in the middle of a Mass to answer queries from the media. “I told her that my job is to be available to members of the media all the time because they are our conduit to the people. If I cannot do that, then I might as well quit my job,” he said.

Arevalo calls himself a warrior-diplomat.

“Fighting the insurgents means winning over the masses. To do that, we must be able to communicate effectively,” he said, adding that it would be useless for the Armed Forces to do good but not tell the public about it.

However, Arevalo does not believe a military spokesperson should resort to propaganda to be effective.

“We should give the public what is factual, what is truthful,” he stressed. “Engaging in psywar (psychological warfare) or propaganda to win the hearts of people is counterproductive.”