They called him colonel, rebel, revolutionary, reformist, coup plotter, power grabber, but the one name that stuck with him all his life was GRINGO.
GREGORIO BALLESTEROS HONASAN II was born on March 14, 1948 in Baguio City to Colonel Romeo Honasan and Alice Ballesteros, a teacher from Sorsogon.
The young Greg had a fairly ordinary childhood. His father, a well-respected military man, provided him with a role model while his mother Alice, being the instructor, taught him good manners and was more of the disciplinarian.
“They say sons are better versions of their fathers, but in my case, I’m not ashamed to admit that my father was better than me. “He served two presidents and was responsible for creating what would become the Presidential Security Group. He was incorruptible soldier who taught us to live within our means, in fact he was only able to complete payment for the mortgage of our house a month before he died,” Sen. Honasan told this blog in an exclusive interview.
That house in Marikina is where his family lives up to now.
“We delighted in the simple pleasures, and like all kids, birthdays and Christmas were our favorite days because they were extra special,” he recalled.
FATHER GREG or Dr. Honasan
As a kid Greg said he initially wanted to become a priest, saying he had always admired their devotion to the Lord and their unreserved service for other people.
“When I was a young kid, I initially thought of becoming a priest because I felt it was the ultimate vocation to live your life serving other people. But as I grew older, I also thought about taking up medicine and being a doctor.”
His elementary years were spent at San Beda College in Manila where, as a consistent honor student and accelerated from grade 4 to grade 6. Because his father became military attaché, he spent some more years at the Dominican School in Taipei , Taiwan . He graduated with honors at Don Bosco High School in Mandaluyong and took up Economics at the University of the Philippines.
But fate had other plans. Instead of saving souls or healing the diseased and wounded, Greg found himself in a more action-oriented kind of service.
“There were five of us studying and I was the eldest. Had I taken up medicine, one of my brothers or sister would have to give up schooling and I would never allow that. It was more of a case of economics, my grandfather was a fisherman and my father was a soldier so at that time we simply couldn’t afford sending someone to med school.”
“Sabi sa akin ng tatay ko,”What’s wrong with having a four-year scholarship and having a 30-year steady job– assuming you will not do anything spectacularly bad?”
“I was curious sabi ko ‘saan naman yun,’ and he took me to the Philippine Military Academy.”
He topped the Philippine Military Academy entrance exam, and would eventually graduate as “Class Baron,” the institution’s highest leadership award. But in between those four years, Greg was subjected to physical and mental challenges that would test his fortitude that would prove crucial to the next phase of his life—and earn the name that would stick with him throughout his entire life
WHEN GREG BECAME GRINGO
“I was a freshman cadet, and at that time “Spaghetti Westerns” featuring Clint Eastwood and Franco Nero were big at the movies, so during my initiations, my seniors said “GREG” was a bit too soft and unglamorous—so they came up with “GRINGO” to make me seem tougher. “Tapos, they would then instruct me to draw imaginary pistols and point it to other upperclassmen which often infuriated them leading to more punishment.”
The name eventually stuck and the name Gringo would eventually define Honasan’s tough no nonsense demeanor both in the battlefield and in real life.
Cadet Gringo admits he almost gave up during his first year, because it really pushed his physical limits. “We would only be able to sleep two hours every night, tapos puro marching practice, and physical drills and on top of that you have to study pa for your lessons, mahirap talaga.”
“I remember writing to my father asking him if it was okay if I decided to drop out and quit. He told me to just finish my first year before making my decision.”
But by the end of his freshman year, everything had changed. He was on the top of his class in academics and all the physical training simply became a routine for him. Gringo had already fallen in love with everything about the academy.
“After my first year, I realized all the punishment and physicality were just artificial pressure meant to mold us into tough soldiers, kase if mahina ka hindi ka tatagal sa battlefield, baka kapag nahuli ka ng kalaban sumuko ka agad.”
“Yun ang naging turning point. The pain before the glory. No guts, no glory. Diba, mamartilyuhin ka para pag hinubog ka na, ah pwede ka nang sandata. Ang nakataya kasi dito sa pagsusundalo, hindi lang buhay mo. Pag opisyal ka, buhay ng mga tao mo. Pag medyo nagkamali ka ng diskarte, aba’y patay yung buong unit mo. So dalawa yan, accomplishment of the mission, welfare of the men. Neither of which can go without the other. So pag, puro ka mission, pupush yung unit mo. Kung puro ka naman welfare of the men, hindi mo ma-accomplish ang misyon ninyo.”
THE GOOD SOLDIER
From being an aspiring soldier of Christ, Gringo traded the white clerical vestments for army fatigues, and became a soldier in the truest sense of the word. Instead of preaching the word his mission was to champion democracy, fighting with insurgents and chasing rebels in far flung mountains all over the country.
As a solider, he saw action in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao and earned a number of medals, awards, decorations and commendations for gallantry in action including three Distinguished Conduct Stars, Gold Cross medals and Wounded Personnel Medals sustained in combat. In 1985, he was recognized as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men given by the Philippine Jaycees. In 1986, he was a principal player of the EDSA revolution as one of the leaders of the RAM (Reform the Armed Forces Movement) that broke away from the martial law government.
His missions, however, also opened the eyes of the once idealistic soldier to bigger problems besides insurgencies. “Ang mangyayari, itataboy namin yng mga kalaban sa isang barangay, then papangakuan namin yung mga residente na…. Mayor/ Kapitan, aalis na kami pero wag ka mag-alala in a few weeks time darating na yung gagawa ng kalsada niyo, yung water system, yung barangay health center no? Aba’y pababalikin ulit kami after a few months, hindi nag-deliver yung, yung gobyerno. ‘di sinungaling kami. Ang problema pala hindi lang dun, kundi sa itaas.”
“Sabi namin, ano ba ang alam natin? Hindi tayo abogado, hindi tayo negosyante, lusubin natin yung Malacanang! Pero hindi para saktan yung mga nandoon kundi iprisenta sa tao para magkaisa na. Na magkaroon ng unification council.”
At that time, Honasan said they did not expect their little protest would eventually lead to the EDSA PEOPLE POWER REVOLUTION of 1986.
The military discontent, the death of Ninoy Aquino and the failure of the snap election to provide an acceptable result had a snowball effect forcing people out of their homes and into the streets in protest.
“In some ways, EDSA was even more frightening than the battlefield. When I was marching with then General Fidel Ramos and Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile toward the millions of people who have gathered in EDSA, I didn’t know how they would react to seeing us. Were these people Marcos loyalists who are angry at us for fighting the dictatorship? And the idea of having to fight with these people to protect ourselves was frightening for me.”
For better or for worse the EDSA Revolution did bring about change, it was also the time Gringo lost his anonymity. He became one of the most recognizable personalities of the revolution with his suave moustache and decked in complete battle gear, Gringo Honasan became a household name and an overnight celebrity.
“Umakyat sa bubong ng Ford Fiera si Enrile at si Ramos, so hawak-hawak ko yung dalawa sa sinturera, andun pa ata si Butch Aquino. Biglang sinabi ni Enrile, hinawakan ako sa kwelyo, ang nagpasimula nitong pagkalas ng militar ay itong mga batang opisyal. Hinarap ako, isang libong flash bulb ang nag-pop.”
Honasan and his fellow young officers did not ask for anything for helping out in the EDSA Revolution and went back to their assignments as soon as the new government was in place. “We didn’t ask for anything, kase we did not want people to think that we did it so we could be promoted or have positions in government, or may personal kaming intentions—which is, looking back, I think was a mistake—dapat tumulong kami dun sa bagong government.”
While there was a new government in place, there was little change in the military system Honasan and the other young officers fought for. And soon enough, Gringo found himself on the opposite side of the government once again.
“History is written by the victors and as Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?” …So we became the enemy instead.”
Honasan found himself fighting for and sometimes with the government several more times, but throughout his reformist years, one thing never changed—his loyalty to the people he swore to protect.
“One thing that cannot be taken from me and from the group I represent is the consistency of our struggle. In 1986, we did not break away from the mainstream military against President Marcos, we broke away as a reform movement for good government. In other words, ang pinupuntirya namin noon was systemic changes, not changes in personality.”
FROM THE OUTHOUSE TO THE UPPER HOUSE
In 1995, Honasan ended his 17 years as a soldier to run for the Senate and became the first truly independent candidate in Philippine political history to win in national election. He was re-elected in 2001, 2007 and recently in 2013.
He is principal author and co-author of, among others, the Clean Air Act of 1999, Clean Water Act, the National Security Policy, Disaster Risk Reduction Management Act of 2009, the Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 and the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms Law (CARPER). He is shepherding the Freedom of Information Act which he now refers to as the POGI Bill – People’s Ownership of Government Information Act, the National Mapping and Resource Authority Law and the Land Use Act. Senator Honasan has also proposed a Mini-Marshall Plan for Mindanao to help jumpstart economic development, peace and order, and political unity. The proposal will also help end centuries of armed conflict and terrorism.
Senator Honasan is currently the Chairperson of the Senate Committees on Agrarian Reform, Public Order and Dangerous Drugs, and Public Information and Mass Media. He likewise chairs three oversight committees, specifically the Congressional Oversight Committees on Agrarian Reform and Dangerous Drugs, as well as the Joint Oversight Committee on the Human Security Act. He is Vice-Chairperson of the Senate Committees on Local Government, Civil Service and Government Reorganization, Health and Demography, National Defense and Security, Public Works, Rules, and Amateur Sports Competitiveness and a member of 19 major permanent committees and ten oversight committees.
Honasan is a staunch advocate of the environment, social reforms, national security, good governance, education and public health, youth and sports development recognizing that as a proud sovereign nation our most strategic and precious resource are our children.
“They say the youth are our future, but that is wrong, the Youth are THEIR OWN FUTURE, and it is our duty to entrust them with a better future.”
“My life is defined by God, country, and family. Without sounding like Heneral Antonio Luna, whenever I was at crossroads and was made to choose between my country and myself, to a fault I would always choose my country, sometimes even at the expense of my family, my career, and even my life.
Honasan is married to Jane Umali of Pagsanjan, Laguna, a medical technologist by vocation and an interior designer by training. They have five children and five grandchildren.
“I may not have spent as much time with my children as much as I would have wanted to, but they know that everything I have done is all for them–for them to have better lives and live in a much better country. They have grown up to be good people despite my absence, and that is enough to make me very proud.”
ONE LAST FIGHT
17 years as a soldier, 7 years as a Rebel, and 18 years as a Senator— career accomplishments remarkable even for several lifetimes, but Gringo’s battles is far from over.
He is running for the second highest position in the May elections, and although he admits his initial reluctance, the good soldier in him would not just leave Vice President Binay, his party’s standard bearer, alone in his fight.
“This is not about me. This is about you and your future and the future of the country. I will admit to you that I was a very reluctant candidate. And after all, from what little you know about me. I’ve been a soldier for 17 years with the… the scars in my body, my mind and in my heart to show for it. And then, I think you know that I have been a military rebel also. Responsible for, depending on what information you got, I can account for 1986.”
“This may be the last time I will stand on a national platform to speak to the Filipino people. And my message to those who were born during that time and those who were not yet born, siguro pinanganak na kayo nun, ’86? Is when the Filipino people get together with their soldiers under moral leadership, change is possible, that the systemic changes and the re-engineering of our society and our government that is required for real reforms can actually happen. I just need to take advantage of the opportunity to remind our people of how change takes place.”
His decision, however, did not go well with this family. My youngest daughter told me “Papa, nung pinanganak ako, wala ka. Nung bininyagan ako, wala ka. Nung nag-graduate ako sa high school, wala ka rin. Tapos nung nag-18 years old ako wala ka. So, andami mong atraso sa akin. Ngayon na malapit na kitang maging friend’ eto, tatakbo ka na naman–we don’t agree with your decision but we will try to understand.”
Gringo said it doesn’t matter whether he was the first or last choice. “I have no ego to contend with. We cannot afford to have an ego our leaders. But my condition was huwag ninyo lang akong bigyan ng pakiramdam na parang palamuti lang ako. Parang props. Give me the moral support, the prayers, and maybe the logistical support that will allow me to wage a national campaign for the Vice Presidency. And I guarantee you, you put anybody in front me me, I can defeat them.”
Honasan said he does not want to leave VP Binay alone because knows that feeling all too well.
“I’m the original foundling. Ako yung laging inaampon, ako yung laging iniiwan dahil independent nga. Wala akong partido. Nung 1995, nung una akong tumakbo as an independent after coming out of the underground, muntik pa akong ideklarang nuisance candidate. Sabi sakin, pano ka tatakbo eh negative ang impression sayo ng tao? Ikaw yung nanggulo, you participated in several uprisings, at ngayon tatakbo ka. Wala kang partido, wala kang pera. So what I did was, , I developed an army of 900,000 young volunteers. And I landed number 9. Yun nga, the first independent,’no? Then I did again in 2001. But I earned 3 years dahil I filled up the gap, the unserved term of former Senate President Fernan. And then may short break ako and then 2007 takbo ulit ako. I was given five weeks to campaign dahil ikinulong ako nung administrasyon for being, accused of being part of Oakwood uprising naman. Sabi niya eh sinusulsulan ko raw itong mga… itong grupo nila Sen. Trillanes. Of course, I was released on bail and given about five weeks to campaign. Nanalo na naman ako nun, number 10 lang nga. Never ako naglaland sa top. At the last elections 2013, I landed number 12. So mapansin ninyo laging pabitin bitin pero wala namang senator number 1, senator number 12. I always manage to slip through with a convincing margin naman doon sa susunod sakin.”
“This is such a beautiful country that any thinking sector I have talked to have been telling me, you know Senator how lucky our country is? All we have to do is wake up every morning and continue breathing. Our economy is growing from 6 to 8 percent. Can you imagine what will happen if we can get our act together?”
“So, I’m not just asking for your help not for my candidacy or the candidacy of the Vice President, but for the country, for your future. To reach out to the Filipino people so that they will make rational, intelligent, informed decisions based on facts ha, not on perception.”
“I have stood in the grounds of Malacanang Palace three times in my life in full combat gear without an invitation except the invitation from my conscience so I have gone against at least 3 presidents. Yun lang nung panahon na yun, sundalo lang ako, I didn’t know what to do. But after 42 years now I know exactly what to do.”
As a soldier Gringo has been shot numerous times in the battlefield, in his rebel days he lost one of his fingers while trying to evade his captors, and in the senate he has been criticized and called balimbing for some of his decisions, but no one could accuse this man of losing sight of what he has been fighting for. What has motivated him through all this?
“It all comes back to my love for God, country, and family. the fact that i am still alive, and I thank God that I’m alive after all i have been through, It means that I still have things to do. I have stared death in the face numerous times, pero ang mas kinatatakutan ko is if I let God or my country or my family down. Takot ako na I’ll let people down. So pag… If I let people down kasi then things happen, people suffer – my family, the country, our people lalo na at public official ako. So pag kailangan lumaban at kahit na takot ako, lalaban ako. Ganun naman ang pagsusundalo. Takot ka pero by muscle memory, diba, alam mo na ang kailangan gawin. Kung kailangan mamatay ka o kailangang gawin mo yung nararapat. Kaya kahit alam ko na mahirap ang magiging laban ko sa eleksyong ito, Gagawin ko ang lahat, di lang para manalo kundi kahit sa huling pagkakataon, magawa ko ang narararapat para tuluyang magkaroon ng pagbabago—na maging Patas ang Laban para sa bawat Pilipino.”