This appears in the Monday, January 11, 2016 edition of the Business Mirror.
Time, life, death & sports
by rick olivares
When older people run, or play badminton or football, it’s to keep an active and healthy lifestyle or even to bond.
It’s like that for Stephen and Ella Cabanlet… except it means so much more because time between the two of them is fleeting.
You see, Stephen is a Lieutenant with the Philippine Marines assigned in Mindanao. Ella is a psychiatrist at the Naval Hospital in Manila where she attends to wounded soldiers and those who are afflicted with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder syndrome.
Both fight battles in different frontlines and have survived some harrowing battles — Stephen against insurgents and Ella against leukemia.
They are confronted with death almost on a daily basis.
And because of that, they choose to celebrate life.
It’s a little funny because both were neighbours and went to the Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan for high school but never knew each other. They ran in the same circles yet never met.
When they finally did meet years later, after a three-month whirlwind courtship, they got married. “It would be nice to say that we are childhood sweethearts but that’s not exactly true. You could say that we were a product of a text relationship. That’s how we first communicated,” deapanned Ella.
However, two days after they got hitched, Stephen was off to war (during the assault of Camp Abubakar among many other operations) leaving the bride of two days wondering what she got herself into.
“The problem is not knowing if he is all right,” admitted Ella. “I fret, I worry. I don’t want to watch the news or even read the paper. It never gets easy."
At one point, she doubted if the marriage could work. “I didn’t sign up for this — spending months apart aside from the constant worrying.”
Fortunately, the Lt. Colonel was eventually assigned to more peaceful area. Except that she now had to deal with his PTSD. “You have to talk about it,” she pleaded to her husband. “What you cannot talk about with others — deep things that disturb you — you have to tell me.”
The shell wasn’t easy to crack but crack it did. Listening, understanding,loving, and giving space when needed has healed the wounds that cannot be viewed by the naked eye. Eventually, the couple finally got to be a real family (they had a child with two more others joining them over the next few years).
Sadly, the tranquility didn’t last. Ella was diagnosed with leukemia and to treat it, she needed a bone marrow transplant that would cost them PhP 4million.
“Even if I finish my career with the military and get all my benefits, I doubt if I could even raise that amount,” shared the soldier who admitted to being bewildered by the situation. “When you are confronted with war and death almost on a daily basis, you want to celebrate life more.”
Once more the couple was separated. She is a hospital; quarantined lest she got an infection. While he was left to figure out how to pay for all the medical costs.
Eventually, through help from various sources — many anonymous while others refused to be acknowledged — they finally afforded to pay for the operation. “When you tabulate the entire cost of the hospitalization, we racked up a bill of close to PhP 12 million! How that was paid for we will never know,” marvelled Ella. “It’s a miracle!"
Both nearly had their lives taken away and now, together, they choose to celebrate their life and to give back.
Cabanlet and his troops have been at the forefront for peace with the "Football for Peace Program" that not only introduces the game to children living in hotbeds of insurgency but also gives them a chance to get an education. “It wasn’t a fool-proof program at first. It was a learning process for us. But now, i think the protocols in place are better,” underscored the soldier. “After their first candidate who went to school in UST, they have since identified five others worthy of athletic scholarships in top schools."
The program has since been adopted by other branches of the Philippine military in their efforts to pacify conflict areas.
“I have learned to love the game,” added Ella who not only wholeheartedly supports the program but plays it as well. She also continues with her work at the Naval Hospital helping soldiers cope. “Some times, a listening ear is all they need. Sometimes."
“I run at least five kilometers a day,” she said. “We run a lot. Not competitively. We don’t join those races or fun runs. It’s to deal with the stress but also to be with each other."
“We also play a lot of badminton and football," chimed in the soldier. “We love sports."
Summed up Ella, "We do it for ourselves; to bond and to be together because eventually, I know in another year, he will be deployed to another (possibly conflict) area.”
Does she worry about the time they will be away from each other with him back to the front?
“I’ll think about it when the time comes. We’re stronger now,” she admitted. “Right now, we just want to celebrate every minute we’re together."
I first met Lt. Col. Stephen Cabanlet around March of 2015. I wrote this story: This Marine's weapon is a football.