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elmer gozun cato
elmer g cato IT WAS not my plan to go to Washington D.C. for my second overseas posting in 2012. It was Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario's. I was waiting to join Ambassador Cher Aldo in Jakarta when Ambassador Millie Sta Maria Thomeczek, then the Assistant Secretary for Personnel, told me I would have to take a detour. "You will no longer be going to Jakarta," she told me. "The Secretary wants you in Washington."

The Secretary was pleased with the outcome of the Public-Private Partnership project that our team at the Office of the Undersecretary for Administration led by Undersecretary Rafael E. Seguis and Ambassador Maria Rowena M Sanchez, then the Senior Special Assistant, successfully implemented. Because of the out of the box and doing more with less approach that the Secretary encouraged all of us at the Department to do, we were able to transfer our passport offices to shopping malls nationwide and thus bring government closer to the people.

That's the story of how I ended up in D.C. But between Washington and going with the Secretary on his numerous missions to bring our people out of harm's way, I would gladly defer my foreign assignment and choose the latter. The journalist that I was, I always wanted to cover his adventures and write about how the oldest and wealthiest member of President Benigno Aquino's Cabinet would risk his own life and do what others would not even think of doing.

He was in Libya within 36 hours of his appointment as Secretary of Foreign Affairs to lead the extraction of Filipinos from a country that was fast spiraling out of control. He would again be Moses in the years that followed, leading our people home from one hotspot to another. He would subsequently find himself in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia and Yemen to oversee our repatriation efforts or look into the condition of our overseas Filipino workers.

The Secretary knew he would be placing himself in the line of fire whenever he headed out for a rescue mission abroad. But there was never any hesitation on his part. No one could stop him, not even the President, from doing what he thought would be best for our people. He needed to be there in the frontlines to assure our kababayans and their families back home that the Department could be counted upon to bring them out of the danger zone.

It was these acts of courage that moved a number of us in the career foreign service corps to volunteer to serve in hardship posts in the Middle East and Africa. We asked ourselves: If no less than the Secretary would risk his own life to serve our people, what should prevent us from doing the same?

Inspired by the Secretary's example, I volunteered to go to Iraq in December 2014 to head our small mission here. This was a few months after the Islamic State went on a rampage and threatened to overrun Baghdad. A few weeks later, I received the assignment order signed by the Secretary for me to go and assume as head of Baghdad PE--one of three foreign service posts that have been placed under Alert Level IV, the two others being Tripoli PE and Damascus PE.

Before leaving for my new assignment, I went to see the Secretary in Manila. He thanked me for taking on what he said was going to be a very challenging assignment. He had been to Baghdad and knew how volatile the security climate there was. "Look after our people and make sure everyone is accounted for," he instructed me. "And please take care and be safe always."

Chief Coordinator Tess Dizon de Vega has made us aware of the Secretary's concern for our team here at Baghdad PE. He was abroad when news of the suicide car bombing of the hotel I was staying in reached him but he immediately gave instructions for the Home Office to extend all the support we needed. She said the Secretary is aware of what was going on in Iraq because he makes it a point to read the dispatches that we regularly send to Manila.

When I visited him during my first home leave in October, he asked me to brief him about the proposal of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to open up the fortified Green Zone to the public. He was holding the report that I sent a few days earlier. When he asked how we were doing, I said we all have gotten use to the average of four IED detonations that rock Baghdad everyday. He later invited me to join him for lunch. When it was time for me to go, he said: "Be safe over there."

In December, the heads of posts from the Middle East and Africa paid a courtesy call on him following their Regional Consultative Meeting. The Secretary went to us one by one and shook our hands. He smiled when he saw me and said: "I have not forgotten Baghdad PE's request. I keep following up that armored vehicle of yours with Butch Abad."

In the interaction that followed, the Secretary asked each one of us to tell him what difference we have made since we assumed as heads of our respective posts. When my turn came, I told him that per his instructions the Embassy has been trying to make its presence felt by reaching out to our kababayans in Iraq and assure them that we are there for them. He smiled and nodded. That was the last time I saw the Secretary.

A few weeks later, the news came that he was leaving us. I wanted to fly to Manila to personally say goodbye and thank him before he steps down as the country's top diplomat. Unfortunately, I was not able to. But if I did, I would ask him to ask me again what difference the Embassy has been making in the lives of our kababayans here in Iraq.

If he asked, I would tell him the story of how a few days after we repatriated the remains of the 13 overseas workers who died in the fire at the Capitol Hotel in Erbil, three Filipinas came running after us. They introduced themselves as teachers and said they just wanted to shake our hands and thank us for reuniting the victims, who they did not even know, with their families back in the Philippines: "It usually takes weeks but the Embassy was able to send them home in just seven days," they told us. "That really means a lot to their loved ones."

I would also tell him the story of how the Filipino crew of a Kentucky Fried Chicken store at the Family Mall in Erbil gave us chocolate cakes when we showed up there for dinner after repatriating the victims. We insisted on paying but they said it was on the house. They told us it was their way of thanking us: "That is nothing compared to what the Embassy has been doing for us here, for constantly watching over us."

I would also tell him the story of how our kababayans have overcome their fears and are now seeking the Embassy's assistance after we joined hands with local authorities and the International Organization for Migration in going after illegal recruiters and human trafficking syndicates that have victimized so many of them. Two are in jail now because of this. Several more will follow.

The more than 2,000 Filipinos working in Baghdad, Basra, Kurdistan and other parts of Iraq may not be aware of it, but the primary reason the Philippine Embassy remains open is because of the Secretary and his firm commitment to serve our people. It was he who declared that no matter how dangerous the situation in Baghdad may be, the Embassy shall remain open as long as there are Filipinos here. Our kababayans in Iraq should not be thanking us. They should be thanking Albert Del Rosario.

Maraming salamat po, Mr. Secretary!

[About the author. Elmer Gozun Cato is a Kapampangan journalist turned diplomat known for his advocacy of responsible and responsive journalism in a media career that spans more than 15 years. He first made a name for himself in 1983 when as a 16-year old college freshman became a cub reporter for the crusading newspaper Ang Pahayagang Malaya during the martial law regime of former President Ferdinand Marcos. At 21, he became one of the youngest newspaper publishers in the Philippines when he founded the Angeles Sun in 1988. His journalist experience included stints as correspondent and desk editor in various local, national, regional, and international news organizations, including the Manila Chronicle, the Philippine Daily Globe, Reuters, and GMA News. In 1991, he became one of the first Kapampangan journalists to go overseas when he became a reporter for the Saudi Gazette in Jeddah. In 1997, he became Executive Editor of the Indonesian Observer in Jakarta. He later published K, the Kapampangan Magazine. In 1998, he joined the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) after placing eighth in the Foreign Service Officers Examination. He served in various capacities most prominent of which were as special assistant to two former Secretaries of Foreign Affairs—Domingo L. Siazon Jr. and Vice President Teofisto T. Guingona Jr.; as spokesman and later officer in charge of the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement; and later as head of the Regional Consular Office of the DFA in Clark Field. He has been based in New York since 2003 where he serves as Second Secretary with the Philippine Mission to the United Nations.]

-Posted: 9:00 AM 3/10/16 | More of this author on eK!