Not quite a decade ago, I met a nurse named Shirley Mangompia, a woman who was both dispensing assistance and in need of it. She was standing amid a group of tired adults and ragged children on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, in a town called Munai, which was not her home. Although she seemed determined to keep a smile on her face, there was no hiding the misery around her. Like as many as 400,000 people from the surrounding area, she had fled her home when fighting flared anew between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist rebel movement that had been battling for an independent homeland on Mindanao for years. Like the sick children she was tending to, Mangompia was a resident of a sprawling, squalid displacement camp -- and not for the first time.
Munai was cradled by green hills through which dirt paths ran to the various barangays, or small communities. Traffic was flowing only one way on these paths, though, away from the latest round of conflict. And amid the cramped conditions, under the flimsy tents and tarps where people were living, children struggled with lingering coughs, runny noses, skin and stomach problems, and worse.
Most of their parents had been in exactly the same situation when they themselves were children. People "get used to it," Mangompia said, describing relocating as if it were something of a rite of passage. Mangompia herself had been 8 years old the first time she'd been displaced by fighting, and she'd been displaced again a few years before I met her (when she was, I'd guess, around 30). The drawn-out, dirty war in Mindanao had killed more than 100,000 people and had crippled efforts to develop the most impoverished part of the Philippines. It had also created a huge movable bloc of people who were forced repeatedly to pick up and move, calibrating on each occasion how much time they had to gather what they could carry against how much time they needed to outrun the guns and bombs.
With the benefit (or perhaps the burden) of experience, Mangompia now had a much better understanding of what was at stake, what could be lost. As her own parents had worried mightily for her safety when she was young, she said, she now feared for her own children, in addition to the other children who were all around her, the ones she was determined to assist in the best way she knew how.
I thought about both Mindanao and Shirley Mangompia again recently after I read that the Philippine government and the rebels had signed a peace accord that could, possibly, bring some resolution to this deadly and prolonged standoff.
In the United States, the word "veterans" generally brings to mind men and women (though mostly men) who were deployed in combat to Iraq and Afghanistan, or, further back, to Vietnam, Korea, and World War II. But restricting the word to people who fought -- who picked up a gun, donned a uniform, and willingly put themselves in harm's way in the name of one campaign or another -- ignores an enormous, and enormously important, population of veterans of another kind. These are people like Shirley Mangompia and hundreds of thousands of others in Mindanao, who know as much as, if not more, about war as many soldiers who've taken part in combat.