MARAWI CITY, Philippines – His promise was clear: not a single man under his watch would die in battle.
Over 3 months in, Captain Rommel Sandoval’s promise was very much intact. The 11th Scout Ranger Company, of which he was commander, was the only company that had not lost a soldier in the Marawi siege.
On Sunday, September 10, Day 111 of the war, Sandoval’s men were asked to go on a precarious mission to retake one of the few remaining strongholds of the enemy. (READ: Terror in Mindanao: The Mautes of Marawi)
As the military closed in on the terrorists and continued to push them back towards Lanao Lake, the 5-story Landbank building was crucial for the military to take over. The army had tried to retake it previously, but it was deadly dangerous. On that day however, Sandoval’s men were ready and determined.
Slowly but deliberately, under Sandoval’s watch, they cleared the 5th floor, the 4th, the 3rd, and then the second. The first floor was more difficult. After dropping grenades to scare off any remaining terrorists hiding below, 3 rangers descended to the first floor before realizing it was still too risky.
The enemy spotted the 3 rangers as they backed up to return to the second floor. There was an exchange of volume fire. In the gunfire, one of the men, Corporal Jayson Mante, was hit on his hand.
As the other two managed to make it back to the second floor, Mante chose instead to drop to his stomach. He knew his injury would slow him down and that he would expose himself longer if he tried to come back up too.
A concerned Sandoval sent 4 troops to try and recover Mante. At this point, Mante had several other injuries after the enemy continued shooting at the wounded ranger. He lay still on the first floor, waiting for death.
Knowing the military would not leave Mante behind, the enemies watched closely, aiming at any soldier who tried to come down from the second floor to save him. (READ: Troops penetrate Maute defensive position in Marawi)
2nd Lieutenant Arvie Ventura, the platoon leader who had been constantly radioing in updates to Sandoval from the second floor, recalled that Sandoval came down to where he was to assess the situation himself after several failed attempts.
“Suddenly, he disappeared. I didn’t notice he was gone,” Ventura said.
Sandoval had found a hole created by the enemy that led him to another building, another route to save Mante. When he saw that Mante was no longer moving, Sandoval made a decision. He instructed his men to give him cover fire, and ran towards Mante.
“He didn’t hesitate,” Ventura recalled. “When he got there, he checked Corporal Mante’s pulse, and as he tried to pull him to safety, the enemy spotted him. His first hit was on his side.”
Sandoval let out a scream. But it wasn’t a scream of pain or agony, said Ventura, it was an angry scream, a frustrated scream. “He was so angry, I could see it in his face.”
Even after he was hit, Sandoval turned towards the enemy, cocked his gun, aimed, and started firing back. The enemy hit him on his neck, then his cheek.
The hit on his cheek was fatal.
Ventura said Sandoval managed to radio in his final words: “I got hit.”
As the bullets came flying in, Sandoval, in his last moments, was still thinking of his men. He crawled on top of Mante to shield him from getting hit further. When they recovered Sandoval’s body, bullets were lodged on his chest. His body had blocked bullets from going through and hitting Mante.
“He chose to take all the bullets for his troops.”
Sandoval is the highest-ranking Scout Ranger who died in the ongoing war in Marawi between government troops and IS-linked terrorists. Mante survived. (READ: Admit ISIS presence in Philippines, analyst says)
The war marked its 4th month on Saturday, September 23. At least 887 have died including 151 soldiers, 689 enemies, and 47 civilians.
At Sandoval’s necrological service on Friday, September 15, at the Libingan ng mga Bayani or The Heroes’ Cemetery, the mood was heavy and somber.
A Philippine flag draped his white and gold coffin, flanked by white flowers from President Rodrigo Duterte on one side, and Vice President Leni Robredo on the other. Sandoval wore his crisp Captain uniform, looking every bit a hero.
A slideshow of Sandoval’s photos flashed across the television screen one by one. Sandoval with family and friends eating out. Sandoval playing with his young niece in a pool. Sandoval smiling ear to ear, holding his wife Ani.
Sandoval, 38, and a member of the Philippine Military Academy class of 2005, had a lot ahead of him. He was soon to be promoted Major after years of excellent service. The war was coming to an end. He was so close to coming home.
The stories and the memories of Sandoval from friends, family and comrades, were stirringly consistent.
He was brave – almost “too brave” said some. His code sign, fittingly, was “Daredevil.” He was quiet, a man of action rather than words. He loved his country and his men deeply. Even at a young age, he defended the weak, standing up to bullies at school, and later, as a soldier, was fiercely loyal to his troops.
“This was not the first time he risked his life for us,” Ventura said.
During their downtime, Ventura said Sandoval – who was a talented artist – chose to do artwork, rather than drink. This was the culture he instilled in his company.
“He cooked for us, and made sure we ate together. That was the way we bonded as a company. He always wanted to see our troops together, as a whole. He didn’t want us to be individualistic,” Ventura said. “He inspired all of us with his actions.”
His superiors too flew back from Marawi to pay their final respects.
Brigadier General Rene Glen Paje, the Commander of the First Scout Ranger Regiment, said Sandoval's name stood out among the Captains, because of the stories and the achievements of his company.
“His great courage went above and beyond the call of duty. He was a leader so devoted to his work. He never gave orders from the rear. He always prioritized the welfare of his men,” Paje said.
“He viewed each of his men as fathers, brothers, sons. He loved and treasured them all like family.”
Lieutenant Colonel Jose Jesus Luntok, Sandoval's immediate superior, and the commander of the 4th Scout Ranger Batallion, was frank: Sandoval was one of his best men.
“I had 6 companies under me. He was the ace of the battalion. All hard objectives, I gave to him. He planned, he led. He was the most dependable, the voice of reason. He had the ability to think through difficult situations,” Luntok said.
But Luntok said what stood out the most for him was the manner in which Sandoval died.
“As a Company Commander, he has so many people to order to rescue Corporal Mante. I believe he did what he did to save all his troops. If he forced them to go down, more would die,” he said. “So he decided to save Mante.”
Luntok paused. “I’ve seen and heard heroic deeds in my years. Many had no choice but to fight because they were cornered. Rommel had a choice.”
The love of his life
That choice he made that day, constantly chipped at the mind of Sandoval’s wife, Ani.
"Did he not think of me when he made that choice? Why did this happen? Dalawa na lang nga kami eh (It's just the two of us.) Why him? He was such a good person."
Those who knew Sandoval said Ani was the love of his life. He said it as much in a love letter, displayed at the wake: "I love you so much. I hope I say it often enough," it read. "You are my everything."
They were together for 14 years, 7 of those married. In her eulogy, Ani described her decade and a half with him as “the best years of my life.”
On the morning he died, Ani said she received a text at 6:47 am. “Good morning B. Trabaho muna (Off to work). We will get the Landbank today.”
And that was it, that was all.
“You wouldn’t be 1% worried if you received that text,” Ani said. She said she had not a single premonition of her husband’s fate. Those were Sandoval’s last words to his wife.
Ani said throughout their relationship, she was spared details by her husband. The text that morning, had been the most detailed he ever got in telling her of a mission. “He never let me worry that he was in danger,” she said.
But when she received the call, she said she knew.
“When Lieutenant Colonel Luntok called and he introduced himself as Rommel’s Battalion Commander, I already knew.”
Ani said she prayed and banked on the 1% chance that her husband was anything but dead. “Lord, kahit putulin mo na lahat, buhayin mo lang siya (Lord, take all his limbs. Just please keep him alive),” she said.
Ani described her husband as extraordinarily giving and generous. He was a loving, faithful husband. He found joy in the simplest of things. “He simplified my life.”
“As a son, as a brother, he was really selfless. Especially to me,” she said. “I have nothing negative to say about him.”
They had made many plans. He was coming home in October, she said, for their first trip abroad together. They had been looking forward to it for months. She had downloaded all his favorite television series, and waited to watch the latest season of Game of Thrones with him, because she wanted all her firsts to be with him. She was counting the days until he would finally be back.
But it just wasn’t meant to be.
“I reminded myself he was never mine to begin with. He reminded me it was always God, country, and the rest follows,” Ani said.
“I’m giving him back to the Lord. I thank the Lord He gave me a very good man.”
Before Luntok delivered his eulogy, he looked towards Ani, and Sandoval’s sister, Joyce.
“Ani and Joyce, I am sorry. I am sorry I couldn’t bring him back alive.”
The pain in his voice was tangible and raw, like everyone’s who spoke of their time with Sandoval.
“When we lost Rommel, I felt I lost a limb. The night before he died, I looked at him on a sofa, talking to Ani on the phone. I thought then, ‘What would happen to us if we lost Rommel?’ Maybe I had a premonition that night. I just ignored it,” he said.
“I failed to bring home Rommel. He made sure his men could make it home alive. Nothing beats that as a Company Commander.”
Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez III, Sandoval’s mentor at the PMA and the Commander of the Western Mindanao Command, said Rommel “could’ve been one of the best leaders of his time.”
Galvez said the night before the mission to take over Landbank, he couldn’t sleep. “There were more than 26 terrorists. 3-7 was hard enough.”
The next day, he was overwhelmed by grief with the news of his former student’s death. “I make a report every night for President Duterte. That night, when I had to report Sandoval’s death, I couldn’t control my tears.”
He said that whenever he saw Sandoval on the battlefield, Sandoval would give him a salute. He said his order for his former students was to stay alive.
“Sir, your order to stay alive is complied with, sir.” Sandoval told Galvez when he last saw him.
As if relieving him of his order, Galvez bid farewell: “Goodbye Rommel, you may rest in peace.”
Ventura also bid goodbye to their leader in behalf of the rest of his troops. He said he felt lucky to have had worked under Sandoval, and that his concern for his men is what he would remember the most about his Company Commander.
“He never wanted any of us injured. That’s what he always emphasized. I idolized him,” he said. “'Walang iwanan (no leaving anyone behind),' he always said that. We were confident to jump off because we knew he was there.”
Turning toward Sandoval's coffin, Ventura said, “Your troops are so proud of you. Even when you didn’t say it, we knew how much you cared for us.”
Ventura said Sandoval’s dream was for the war to end with none of his troops dead. “We will ensure your dream comes true.”
Aside from Sandoval, the 11th Scout Ranger Company remains to be the only company that has not lost a single soldier to this day, just as he promised. – Rappler.com