The wake of First Lieutenant John Frederick “Jeff” Sagmit Savellano of the Philippine Navy-Marines could be best described as uncharacteristically festive – people have been coming in groups, whether familiar to the family or simply sympathizers who want to pay respects. The viewing chapel of the Santa Rita de Cascia Parish Church (and previously, Acero Hall of the Philippine Marines Headquarters) has had a celebratory atmosphere despite the intoxicating smell of crowns of flowers in queue leading to the door and the corner where his remains lay in state, alternately attended by two vigil guards.
Make no mistake of saying your condolences to any members of the Savellano family. They know you mean well and sincerely, but they would have none of it.
“Instead, we gently remind them to say ‘congratulations,’” started Frederico “Freddy” Savellano, Jeff’s father. “It’s our way of celebrating his life, his achievements and his bravery. We are one family that loves fun. He would have wanted it this way.”
The Boy Who Would Be Soldier
Freddy, a CPA by profession, already had an inkling that his son would want to become a soldier someday. “Even when he was a young boy, he liked to play with toy soldiers and guns,” he said. One proof would be a childhood photo of him holding a toy gun. “We would also often wrestle as a form of bonding. Little did we know that he would later on pursue the military vocation in life.”
Mercy, Freddy’s wife and Jeff’s mom, also said that his son was very nationalistic as a child. Although born to a middle-class family, Jeff (or Borgy, as his mom would lovingly refer to him) would answer in Filipino even if they talked to him in English.
“Hindi talaga siya sasagot sa Ingles kahit kausapin mo sa Ingles. Sabi niya, ‘Mama, Pilipino tayo’ (He would never answer in English even if you converse with him in English. He’d tell me, ‘Mama, we’re Filipino’).”
He is a big fan of Jose Rizal that he even portrayed him in a school play.
“He pasted a paper moustache above his lips and even parted his hair sideways, pretending to write the Noli Me Tangere in one scene,” she recalled.
Jeff would take up nursing in college at Far Eastern University, eventually passing the licensure exams. There was a time though that he hinted the idea of quitting nursing to enter the military. “We advised him to think carefully before making that decision,” Freddy said. However, Jeff promised them that he would finish what he started.
“My son was very disciplined. He kept his promise that he would finish college first. Once he wanted something, he would make sure to finish what he began,” Mercy explained.
They only found out about his growing interest in joining the armed forces when his friends revealed to them his ‘secrets.’
“His classmates and friends at Youth For Christ told us that Jeff would already do research about some of the finer military schools in the US,” Freddy shared.
Immediately after graduation, Jeff entered the Naval Officers Candidate Course (NOCC) of the Philippine Navy. “Of the 80 who took the exam, only two passed it,” Freddy revealed. “But it was only Jeff who continued.”
When he finished the course (which also meant that he was officially entered into the Philippine Marines), he took further courses at the Marine Corps Base Quantico in the United States, considered the training ground of the US Marines.
Freddy and Mercy admit though that they thought Jeff would never last the course. “Kasi mataba siya noong bata (because he was fat as a child),”’ Mercy recalled. Kristina, Jeff’s sister revealed that his kuya had asthma and probably the steroids from the medicines he took contributed to it.
“Thinking that it was only a phase in his young life, we did not discourage him. We did not expect him to fully commit to this, though,” Mercy said. “But when he officially entered military service, there was never a day that I did not pray for his safety. We would always ask the Lord to protect him.”
The Man Who Would Be Hero
In the seven years of Jeff’s military life, Freddy and Mercy revealed that the most painful part to deal with was seeing Jeff after he finished his military training.
“He used to be a chubby kid all the way to high school. When I saw him after the training, his face was so small that it could fit my entire hand. Ganito kalaki (This big),” she described as she opened her palm and fingers.
Jeff would jokingly complain to her why she allowed him to be ‘big’ as a kid. “Ang sabi ng Panginoon, gawin mo akong malusog, hindi mataba (The Lord said, make me healthy, not fat),” she remembered him saying in jest.
Freddy also revealed that while his son had experienced combat in Sultan Kudarat, Jeff very much looked forward to going to Marawi.
“He was very passionate to fight for the country,” he said. “We’d exchange pictures on Messenger. He would send selfies of him inside the C-130 plane.”
Jeff was so close to his parents that he would update them on what was going on, including that life-changing event of their troops finding the P79-million worth of paper bills and cheques.
“As commanding officer, he led the raid on the outpost, killing the sniper and several Maute soldiers. He shared to me, ‘Ma, bakit sila balik nang balik para paputukan kami? Tapos nahanap namin iyong kaha de yero (why would they [Maute armed men] keep on returning to shoot us? Then, we found the money vault),” she narrated, which they then broke using an ax.
Mercy said it would have been tempting to snatch a few bundles of the bills, but Jeff told her that they immediately surrendered it to his battalion and touched not a single bundle.
“That was for me, a proud moment about my son,” Freddy said, for as a kid, he and Mercy would remind him never to take what did not belong to them.
Not preoccupied with the thought of their feat, Jeff and his soldiers continued to ‘clean’ the area for two more days. “Nagbahay-bahay sila hanggang marating nila iyong isang bahay na pinagkutaan ng mga Maute. Wala na palang tao roon. Nataniman na ng bomba (They went from one house to another till they reached one house used by the Maute as hideout. There were no longer people inside; it was booby-trapped with explosives),” Freddy recounted when the Marines started calling him one week ago.
Freddy was in denial for quite a while after hearing the report. “After 36 hours, I finally accepted that he was gone at the young age of 29. I did not cry tears, but I was hurting inside”
The Father Who Would Be Proud
When they went to Villamor Air Base to fetch the coffin containing his remains, Freddy and Mercy admitted that it broke their heart to open it to see his face.
The story of Jeff’s heroism was so heartfelt that the outpouring of sympathy and support helped them gain strength. Mercy recalled one moment when a visitor not familiar to them brought along her child to view his remains.
“The visitor said that she wanted her child to see what a hero looks like,” she recalled, the tears she held for quite a while flowed on her cheeks.
In the narratives of soldiers who lose their lives in battle, one may expect grief and loss to permeate the atmosphere of the wake, but such was the composure and comfort in the faces of Jeff’s loved ones.
“We had given him up to God the moment he made that decision to join the Marines,” Freddy said. “As parents, my wife and I can only support our children in what they want to do in life. We may have lost our son to war, but in our family, we gained a brave hero.”