Military history is
Also concerned with
Men’s minds and
The smell of death,
And what songs
The soldiers sang.
- José Garcia Villa, Military History, (1956)
I last saw Fredie Solar 15 years ago.
Many of the people who have entered my life were soldiers. There was tonight’s Uber driver, who served in Sulu at the turn of the millennium. A couple of my college classmates entered the Philippine Air Force. Some of my father’s friends are ranked officials in the military. There were those who fought different wars altogether; but in the language of war, they were soldiers. Yet few of them could ever be called “heroes:” at least not yet, when the chances to be one are few and far between.
On May 23, 2017, Police Senior Inspector Fredie Manuel Solar was murdered by members of the Maute Group. He was the first casualty of the Marawi Siege to have come from the Philippine National Police. He left behind his wife Manilyn, and their two children, Jadie and Cassandra. He was a police officer, an aspiring lawyer, a hero, a classmate, and a friend.
Many of us who knew him got wind of the news the same way a lot of people do: through Facebook. It was tucked in between the selfies and foodie shots and inspirational quotes that all of us have grown so used to seeing. There was Fredie, proudly wearing his cadet uniform and wielding his graduation saber, looking at the camera with determination. But behind that “tiger look” was a story that marked those of us who grew up with him. Vignettes of Fredie’s life that remind us of the unlikely circumstances that create heroes.
He stood out: not because he was exceptional, or even a little bit weird. He stood out because most of the time, he was alone.
The quadrangle of the Baguio City National High School was more of a muddy lake than a school playground. Rainy September mornings drenched the compact clay, and the steps of 10,000 or so students almost literally plowed the ground. At recess time, few kids dared to venture out to the quadrangle for fear of ruining their regulation leather shoes. Especially when you’re part of the Special Science sections—the best and the brightest of the Baguio public school system. And then there was Fredie, who walked around the sod every day, come recess and lunch breaks. Wandering, meandering, looking lost and lonely in an assembly area that couldn’t fit a basketball court.
Fredie didn’t join much in the groups that defined high school life. He wasn’t part of the boys who took out guitars during breaks, practicing Eraserheads anthems through the peculiar notes of cheap songhits. He wasn’t part of that gang who played with Magic: The Gathering cards in the afternoon, and trooped to the computer shops for CounterStrike come dismissal time. And he wasn’t the part of that competitive clique of honor students who turned Biology and Trigonometry assignments into a competition. Rather, he was just there: just another name on the list of the best and brightest. Just another student in homerooms named after flowers and trees and chemical elements and precious gemstones.
The Special Science curriculum was meant to prop up the Philippine public school system as a center of academic excellence. In theory, academically excellent elementary school graduates who cannot afford the tuition at exclusive high schools would find their places in the competitive realm of science-based education. However, it didn’t work out that way: entrance examinations to Special Science heavily favored private schools and special schools, which had the advantage of smaller classes and more stringent instruction. Many of those who entered the better-appointed schoolrooms and used the high-end laboratory equipment came from families of means.
Fredie, however, didn’t come from that part of Baguio society. He was the son of a police officer, the second-eldest in a brood of six. Honest police officers don’t earn much: they usually just have enough to get by through the day, and pray for a miracle the next. Yet the poverty of his circumstances never showed outwardly in Fredie. His shirts were always clean, and you had to look real close to see the yellowing and frayed collars to know that he’d worn it a few days ago. His pants were always a bit muddied at the hems, but you had to have superhuman vision to know that they were old and loose. And no one would take a second look at your shoes if you’ve been walking along the muddy quadrangle for the better part of half an hour.
When you’re in high school, you won’t bother giving a second look to the loners in the first place. Unless of course, they’re gone for an entire week.
It was Friday, and our teachers seemed to be a little flustered. Some classes had to be moved to the laboratories, as flash floods seeped into the sinking foundations of some shoddy buildings. Somehow, it wasn’t the floods or the threat of broken test tubes that made them a little jumpy that day. One of them even excused herself from the room, and came back with ruined eye makeup. It was a weird day, but it wasn’t until the English teacher, Mrs. Bacugan, entered the room and asked us for our full attention.
“We need to talk about Fredie,” she began, and told us what happened the night before.
It’s been a week since Fredie’s parents have gone to the province in the hopes of borrowing money from relatives. They were due back a few days ago, but were still too broke to pay for the bus fare. There was literally nothing to eat at Fredie’s home: the sayote trellises were stripped bare, and the elder Solar siblings were left to knock on the doors of equally poor neighbors to ask for a little something for them to get by until their parents return. Mrs. Bacugan and the homeroom PTA president found them huddled in the house: exhausted, despairing, and hungry.
At that moment, everything came together for us: Fredie wasn’t at school not because he didn’t want to, but simply because he couldn’t. He walked around the quadrangle not because he was a loner, but because the walks distracted him from the empty and sour feeling in the pit of his stomach. He didn’t join in on the cliques and gangs and in-groups of high school: not because he was disinterested, but because he was anxious of what his peers may think of his shabby appearance. Fredie was a loner because of that insecurity that came with his poverty.
Almost every Filipino who spent some time in a public school would know that there will be more than a few stories of extreme poverty on campus. Often, they become fodder for Values Education classes, becoming relevant and timely topics for the value of hard work and perseverance. Every now and then, there’s space in the school paper for stories of bright but hard-up kids, selling snacks and school supplies for their daily allowance. Fredie didn’t make it to this section of the paper because he simply didn’t have the resources to do so. He had his family to look out for, in the most literal sense of the word.
Mrs. Bacugan paused: the full minute of silence hung heavier than the rains that battered the classroom windows. There was no dry eye among the girls that afternoon, and the boys just looked down at the floor without saying a word. In that moment, the batch loner took his place at the center of our little worlds for once.
On that day, everyone came together for Fredie. A small fund was set up by the class treasurers on all four Special Science classes: for the next few weeks, a few pesos came out from our allowances and into the fund. Until Fredie and his family can get back on their feet, this was going to be allowance. We weren’t to speak of it, but we were to bring Fredie slowly into our circles. A classmate was so moved by the story that her family’s grocery store gave the family some supplies to tide them over. Fredie came home that day toting bags of groceries for his excited siblings, who had a decent meal for the first time in days.
Slowly but surely, Fredie’s family started to recover from that dark episode. Bit by bit, Fredie started making friends, and started becoming more open to many of us. He was no longer walking about the quadrangle; mostly because the classes were moved to the Main building, but also because he no longer had a reason to. Fredie started to reveal a more boisterous side to himself, cracking jokes and laughing. His grades were improving, and his circle of friends was widening. By the time he stepped onto the stage to receive his high school diploma, the fundraisers and guilty feelings around Fredie were buried in the past. For some of us, as he took his final bow, that was the last time we’d ever see him.
Fredie entered the Philippine National Police Academy to fulfill a lifelong promise to his father. There, his star shone brightly: He became part of an elite group of police cadets known for their physical prowess, mental acuity, and unflagging stamina.
Yet one more personal hurdle stood in Fredie’s way: before he graduated, his father was killed in a drug arrest gone wrong. His corpse was found strewn in an empty lot days after he was murdered, never to see his son become a full-fledged member of the police corps.
People with weaker wills would have given up at that point, but not Fredie. He was part of the PNPA Sansinirangan class of 2007, and was promptly assigned to Mindanao right after graduation. He met his wife and started his family in Mindanao, and had plans of being a police lawyer. He enrolled in the Notre Dame University College of Law in Cotabato City. He promised his family he would be back sometime in 2019, that he would ensure that the rest of his siblings finish their education, and that they will finally have a better life ahead.
He promised his family he would be back sometime in 2019, that he would ensure that the rest of his siblings finish their education, and that they will finally have a better life ahead.
The multicabs and motorbikes that often ply the roads are the same things you would see in any other province of the Philippines. Most nights are peaceful and calm, with the chirping of crickets and the singing of night birds piercing the air. Until those rare and dreaded moments happen: when the pitch-black sky glows with tracer fire, or the tranquil night is disturbed by the rattling of rifles and the firing of mortar shells.
The Maute Group started out as small-time thugs engaged in racketeering, until they allied themselves with Islamist extremists in the Lanao area. Over the years, Mindanao was besieged by terror attacks by extremist factions and terror groups. Constant military presence, through the police and some military detachments, keep the peace in Mindanao. The area is so heavily militarized that President Duterte’s imposition of Martial Law in Mindanao—at the height of the Marawi Siege—were seen by some as merely a formality to the already tenuous situation.
They call it an “incident” in other parts of the Philippines, but it is war in Marawi. The news shows homes shelled by mortar fire, buildings burning from the crossfire. The people of Marawi evacuate their homes, and move to shelters where food and water and other basic needs are scarce. Children see war—many of them for the first time—and the initial shellshock brings back a state of normalcy you can only find in a Philippine disaster area. The city may be in ruins, but with the aid of relief workers and the open hearts of donors, life goes on in the camps. For others, though, there is a different story to tell.
As they were leaving the hospital, a group of Maute soldiers surrounded his vehicle. Seeing the police markings and Solar’s shirt, the rebels immediately drew their weapons.
In the afternoon of May 23, Police Senior Inspector Fredie Solar was taking his wife to the Amai Pakpak Medical Center after a fit of allergies. He was in plainclothes, save for the PNP shirt he was wearing, and his sidearm.
As they were leaving the hospital, a group of Maute soldiers surrounded his vehicle. Seeing the police markings and Solar’s shirt, the rebels immediately drew their weapons. The occupants were made to step down from the vehicle and disarmed, with high-caliber automatic rifles pointed to them every step of the way. Solar may have been part of an elite cadre in the PNPA, but he was no action star and he certainly was no fool: one wrong move, and the driveway of the hospital would have turned into a literal bloodbath.
Solar was made to hold his hands behind his head, while his companion was kicked to the curb and made to kneel. Extremist ideology would have it that, under duress and the threat of your life, you would be let go if you converted to Islam. Solar’s companion began to acquiesce, with rifles looming over him ready to fire at any second if he did not comply. Solar, however, had other things on his mind.
With his back turned to the hospital, he gave subtle signals to some guards locked inside to do heaven-knows-what. Maybe he wanted them to chain and barricade the doors of the hospital, just so that the soldiers cannot raid the facility. Maybe he wanted the guards to do something heroic, and free the patients by any means necessary. Whatever he wanted them to do, though, was in vain.
One of the enemy soldiers caught Solar gesturing, and trained his rifle on him. Before his wife, fearful onlookers, and some elements of the Maute Group, Solar was shot a handful of times.
Fredie Manuel Solar was 32.
It took a while before his sister Susan talked to me over Facebook Messenger, way past the 40-day mark of Fredie’s passing. They say he was given a posthumous award, and was buried in the white military duck formal that soldiers are laid to rest in. In his house, and in some places in Baguio, tarpaulin was printed to commemorate the fallen soldier: the first military casualty in the war at Marawi, the man whose faith never wavered, the father who promised to come back home.
I imagined Susan remembering her brother, sharing her recollections to a stranger who was miles away. How Fredie fetched water from the well every afternoon, because their home didn’t have running water. Or how much of his homework was done by candlelight. Or the many things we were privy to, because we all knew part of Fredie to be the loner who brought us all together in his time of need. It was in those vignettes, usually shared to visitors who would lend a listening ear at funerals, that I gained a better appreciation of Fredie as a hero: a soldier, a father, a friend.
In the back of my head, I imagined parting words to be somewhat hackneyed life lessons that we’re all familiar with. Perhaps that old phrase from schooldays past: “Poverty is never an obstacle to success.” But Susan’s parting words took me aback for the frankness and honesty in it:
“Never underestimate anybody. That somebody may become great someday, greater than we have ever imagined.”
“Never underestimate anybody. That somebody may become great someday, greater than we have ever imagined.”
Today, soldiers continue to fight at Marawi. The worst of the shelling and arson may be over, but Martial Law still looms over the area. The crossfire goes on, creating heroes and villains and martyrs and victims for every bullet spent. Journalists, historians, and war correspondents are best left with the task of making sense of the violence. They are best equipped to talk about troop movements, wartime intelligence, and the body count. Yet the songs that soldiers sing, as Villa put it, are as much a part of the military history as strategies and tactics. Especially when those soldiers’ voices are no longer there to lend texture to a story of war, often told through the numbers of the dead and the fleeing.
I remember a brief tribute that a schoolmate wrote on Fredie’s passing: “He was Fredie Solar, and he was the best of us.” And I guess for the past 15 years, he always has been.
Photos courtesy of the Solar family. Many thanks to Susan Solar-Urbano for sharing her stories.