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LIFE MATTERS: Q&A with the Asian-Pacific American Club, United States Military Academy, West Point on May 11, 2023

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By Dr. Dencio Acop (Ret. Col.)

How did your experience at West Point shape your perspective on leadership, and what are some of the key leadership principles you learned during your time there?

FROM BUGLE NOTES

  1. Know yourself and seek self-improvement
  2. Be technically and tactically proficient
  3. Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions
  4. Make sound and timely decision
  5. Set the examples
  6. Know your soldiers and look out for their well-being
  7. Keep your soldiers informed
  8. Develop a sense of responsibility in your subordinates
  9. Ensure the task is understood, supervised and accomplished
  10. Train your soldiers as a team
  11. Employ your unit in accordance with its capabilities

My West Point experience certainly shaped my perspective on leadership. All 11 leadership principles apply and they certainly did in my almost 30 years of commissioned military service in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. I came out of West Point in May 1983 imbued with the leadership of character principles intensively drilled into me during my four years at the academy. I optionally retired from military service in 2006 to work in corporate security.

Looking back now, I’d say all those 11 principles worked well for me throughout my service to my country and even beyond.

How have you worked to develop your own leadership skills and approach over the course of your military career?

They say that we are born into this world more perfect than when it is time to leave it. That is how I would put developing my own leadership skills and approach over the course of my military career would be like. What I mean by this is that my world at the academy was ideal. As is yours now. But my journey since that time up until I left military service was certainly not. In fact, the experience was farthest from ideal. Thus, an idealist would have to circumnavigate through the imperfections of the operating environment hopefully to accomplish the mission and still live within his core values. Oftentimes, a leader of integrity and character can find himself become the threat, instead of the real enemy, when his operating environment is far from ideal. In short, a leader is forced to operate in the gray. A leader in the part of the world I executed missions in quickly learned this. I did. My leadership skills and approach became what got the job done and still allowed me to live with my conscience.

What advice would you give to cadets looking to develop their leadership skills and advance their careers?

My advice is to first look at the big picture. What is it that you want out of life? Because before you know it, and not long after you leave the portals of the academy, you will be faced with the realities of family and public service. Either way, you will apply the character leadership traits you will have learned. My advice is not far from my own experience: To get the job done but not lose your soul. Apply the 11 leadership principles in your careers despite an imperfect operating environment. It is certainly challenging and difficult. But it can be done. It has been done. Serve with honor and integrity. Always.

Can you share a particularly successful project or mission you led, and what factors you believe contributed to its success?

In December 1989, military rebels staged a coup in the Philippines. The coup nearly toppled the administration of President Corazon Aquino. I was then serving as the deputy chief of security for Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos, incidentally a 1950 West Point graduate himself. Because of the rebel attacks, the defense and military leadership inside Camp Aguinaldo (the general headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines) was forced to move into the headquarters of the Intelligence Service also inside camp for better protection and access to intelligence. In the early dawn of December 1, fully-coordinated simultaneous assaults were launched by the rebels against Malacanang (where the President was) and Camp Aguinaldo (where the Command Center was). Rebel marine armor and combined rebel infantry attacked the camp. Early warning allowed the perimeter defense around the intelligence service compound to successfully repel attacking rebel army and marine infantry from overcoming the Battle Staff inside. After a fierce firefight, the rebels suffered many casualties and were forced to withdraw. Escaping outside the camp by the light of dawn, changing into civies, and leaving behind their weapons. The rest were either captured or surrendered.

Before the battle, I had set-up our own perimeter defense around the command center and sought reinforcements with heavy weapons from the Special Action Force, my old unit whom I trusted. More than the other soldiers from the intelligence unit defending the compound. Those soldiers abandoned their posts and were nowhere to be seen right before and through the firefight. I knew my soldiers and that they could be relied upon in battle. The Special Action Force was the elite ranger battalion of the now dissolved Philippine Constabulary. I knew my men from the many ranger operations we did together against the Communist New People’s Army in the country-sides. I trusted them. And they trusted me. We also acted in a timely manner.
For successfully leading the defense of the Battle Staff, President Aquino in 1990 awarded me the Distinguished Conduct Star, the Philippine military’s second highest award and the equivalent of your Distinguished Service Cross.
How have you seen the role and expectations of military leaders evolve during your time in service, and how have you adapted to these changes?
During my time in service, I saw the role and expectations of military leaders evolve from leading small tactical units in a counterinsurgency war against Communist insurgents and Muslim separatists, to modernizing the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Today, the Communist insurgency still persists. There has been the danger of the politicization of the armed forces. It continues to this day. It goes against the values of honor, meritocracy, unity, solidarity, and teamwork (the very core values of the profession of arms) and that is why it is bad. For any armed forces.


What were some of the most challenging aspects of attending West Point as an international Filipino cadet, and how did you overcome them?

Everything! The language barrier, initially. People were not used to my accent even if I could speak fluent English. I was calling minutes during Beast Barracks and I noticed heads popping out from rooms probably to make sure they would not be late for formation! I ate using my spoon and fork and my squad leader gave me that evil look! We ate like that back home. Then there was homesickness! I was homesick all plebe year! And wrote letters frequently. I only got home once through all four years. That was Christmas break in 1980. After that, we allied cadets could no longer travel in time through Mac Flights as our military IDs got downgraded from green to brown.
How did I overcome? I didn’t feel I had any strategy back then. I just lived one day at a time. I prayed. I have always been a prayerful person. It always gave me optimism. Hope. But I was determined. Quitting or failing was never in my vocabulary no matter what. I was willing to do whatever it took to succeed.

How did West Point prepare you for the challenges of military service, and what skills or experiences from your time there have been most valuable to you?

Most everything West Point taught has been valuable to me in later life, in and out of service. All three domains of learning did me good. The academics, military leadership skills and sports development, and most especially the values of character and honor. Living life guided by these values have influenced the way I have lived all these years. And I have no regrets whatsoever. West Point has given me all that. And I am truly grateful. I am reminded of that final scene from the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ where Ryan, now an old man, calls his wife and begs her to say: ‘Tell me I am a good man’. The journey has been good. Much of it because of the West Point standards we members of the Long Gray Line adhere to. Despite the adversity.

How have you stayed connected to the West Point community since graduating, and what role has it played in your career and personal life?

West Point opened me up to the world. Before that, I was just a bumbling 17-year-old country bumpkin from a place unknown to the world. Well, I had already gone through Beast Barracks at the Philippine Military Academy by the time they said I got selected for West Point. Only to land another Beast Barracks on the other side of the globe. How lucky can you get?!

I developed many friendships at West Point. I have stayed in touch with my class / the Association of Graduates through the years. Some classmates are face book friends. I have been attending all class reunions at the academy since our 25th. I would meet up with some classmates who visit the Philippines. Being a grad, I was once assigned to escort a group of visiting cadets with their accompanying officers who toured with the AFP in Manila in 1999. I worked with a few fellow West Pointers when I did RP-US ‘Balikatan’ exercises in 1984 and 2000. My West Point roommate and fellow allied cadet is the current CEO of one of my three children. I met my late wife at West Point in 1981. She passed on in 2018. And I am just newly remarried. I look forward to our 40th class reunion in October.

Studying in a foreign land for four years also brought out my love of travel. Since West Point, I could no longer stay in just one place. I enjoy travelling and have travelled to many countries thanks to my work. I enjoyed being one of four foreign language exchange cadets to Portugal and then CTLT in Germany in 1981.

Can you share a particularly memorable experience or mission from your time at West Point, and what made it so significant?

While at West Point, I never lost sight of the fact that I was my country’s representative. Failure was never an option. I, therefore, studied the best way I could to make it through the four years. And then go back to serve my country. Military service always had an impact upon me as a young boy. Whenever I saw old veterans with their military caps and service medals during independence day, I felt their pride serving their country and wanted to be counted among them someday. It will always be an honor to have gone to West Point. And serve my country with honor.

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