CADET Lieutenant Jesson Peñaflor graduated from the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point on Saturday, June 13 with a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering.

The new West Point graduate will go back to the Philippine Military Academy for a six-month stint before joining the Special Rangers or the CBRN unit of the Philippine Army. | Photo courtesy of Jesson Peñaflor

Peñaflor, who comes from the town of Kalilangan, Bukidnon spent a year at the Philippine Military Academy in 2015 before being accepted to West Point the following year, becoming the lone Filipino member of the batch.

An original member of the PMA Mabalasik Class of 2019, Peñaflor said he was looking forward to his homecoming to the Philippines.

“We Filipinos are globally competitive. We’ve been sending Filipino cadets to the West Point since 1913,” he told the Asian Journal when asked about what getting in and graduating from the top military academy in the United States meant for him.

U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the 1,107 Class of 2020 graduates, including Peñaflor, who gathered for the military academy’s annual commencement exercises.

The graduation ceremony was a little bit surreal for him since there were no personal guests and the cadets were seated about a meter apart at the Plain Parade Field. They were also not allowed to bring cellphones and smartwatches for security reasons. Family and friends were not allowed to attend the event, which was broadcast online and monitored closely by his family in Bukidnon.

When it was over and done with, it dawned on him how quickly it happened.

“Yun na pala yun, parang rehearsal lang (That was already it, it felt like a rehearsal),” he said laughing.

He expressed a tinge of sadness since he had always thought of bringing his parents in for his graduation so they could see the fruit of his hard work and sacrifices.

Peñaflor with some of his fellow cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. | Photo courtesy of Jesson Peñaflor

The opportunity to study at West Point came through the Foreign Service Academy program between the PMA and USMA, which counts among its alumni two presidents of the United States, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower; NASA astronauts; and a number of Fortune 500 CEOs. Peñaflor is grateful for the chance.

“I did this for my family,” the eldest of three children said, adding that his father Jose Peñaflor was an enlisted Army sergeant in the Philippines. “Honor and glory. I want to really help my family, and for the Filipino people, especially the service members and uniformed personnel, our frontliners right now.”

His first assignment upon his return to the homeland will be a six-month stint at PMA. After that, he is unsure about the path he has to take yet and is planning to join either the First Scout Rangers Regiment or the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) unit of the Philippine Army.

He also corrected the misconception among friends and family when they learn that he studied nuclear engineering, explaining to them that he did not study nuclear weapons or how to make bombs.

“Pinag-aralan namin mostly is about the use of nuclear energy, sa mga power plants, how to shield from nuclear radiations. We talked about weapons, but not as in-depth as power usage and energy consumption,” he revealed.

The 24-year-old graduate studied mechanical engineering at Mindanao State University for three years prior to his PMA stint. At West Point, he was influenced by an upper-class student about nuclear engineering because it might have a possible future in the Philippines.

Asked what the biggest lesson learned from this experience, he replied, “The biggest obstacle here is yourself. Once you overcome yourself, not even the devil can stop you. Just push yourself hard. You can use your motivation, ako nga ang sinasabi ko sa sarili ko, nakakahiyang umuwi kung hindi ko matapos ito (I tell myself it’s going to be shameful if I don’t finish).”

West Point journey
Peñaflor was 20-years-old when he started as a plebe at West Point and he had to go through major adjustments and changes, from food to climate to his study environment.

While he was already a stickler to punctuality, he still had to adjust.

“Iba ang punctuality ng U.S. Army, lalo nasanay ako sa Filipino time,” he told the Asian Journal, laughing. “Dito, pag sinabi nilang alas singko may formation, dapat five minutes before nandun ka na. If you are on time, you are late,” he shared. (U.S. Army punctuality is different, specially since I was accustomed to Filipino time. Here, if they say there is a formation at 5:00, you should be there five minutes before 5:00.)”

“I was one of the first plebes in my class na nag-walk ng punishing hours, kasi na late ako ng 30 seconds,” he revealed.

Punishment tours, or “hours” as the cadets call them, are punishments given to cadets where they walk a specified number of hours as a penalty for their infractions, from being late to class or having a dirty room.

Peñaflor at the West Point dining hall. The 24-year-old is thankful to the Fil-Am families and organizations in the tri-state for helping him survive his four years at the academy. | Photo courtesy of Jesson Peñaflor

There was also a dearth of Filipino food in the area, which is why he is thankful to the “foster families” that brought them food. It was one of the first major adjustments he made.

“Pagkain, walang kanin, walang Filipino food. Malaking adjustment yun (Food, no rice, no Filipino food. That was a big adjustment),” he admitted.

He expressed gratitude for the foster families from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that helped them, along with Fil-Am organizations, such as FALCONN and PMA Alumni Association Northeast Group. The families would also bring him to gatherings, including picnics and gala events.

“They were my home away from home. Wala kaming pamilya dito kaya sila yung naging family namin dito for four years (We had no family here so they became my family for four years),” he said. “Sila yung source ng Filipino food namin, malaki yung role nila that’s why I survived West Point (They became our source of Filipino food, they played a big role that’s why I survived West Point).”

Long-term plans

Studying at West Point gave Peñaflor a different perspective and he hopes to be able to use that in the future. He has set lofty goals for himself.

“I want to have a star, I want to reach General position if possible. But if I can be president [some day], why not, di ba? It’s not out of the table. Pero as of now, gusto ko lang mag-serve,” he said, mentioning the name of former President Fidel V. Ramos, one of the most famous West Point graduates from the Philippines.

Peñaflor in his military uniform. | Photo courtesy of Jesson Peñaflor

Peñaflor now joins the ranks of West Point alumni from the Philippines, including Vicente Podico Lim, the first Filipino graduate of West Point, Brigadier General Danilo Lim, and former Defense Secretary Gen. Rafael Ileto.

He said he observed many things that if applied to the Philippine setting, the system in the Armed Forces would improve.

Among those he cited is the empowerment of enlisted personnel.

“Here, they are the backbone of the U.S. Army. Maybe giving more influence and responsibilities to non-commissioned officers (NCOs) would strengthen the military. And if they want to study, they can enlist. Para ma-attract yung mga youth natin na hindi makapagaral (So they can attract the youth who can’t afford to go to school),” Peñaflor shared.

The new graduate has promised himself to work hard and make his way up if he wants to implement these changes.

For now, it’s one step at a time as he looks forward to his homecoming.

“Hopefully, I can also be an inspiration to the youth, lalo na yung mga nag-a-aspire to serve the country through the military (Hopefully, I can also be an inspiration to the youth, especially those who are aspiring to serve the country through the military),” he quipped.

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