All rise for the Sergeant-at-Arms

by Ira Pedrasa,

Posted at Jun 04 2012 04:32 PM | Updated as of Jun 06 2012 03:53 AM

MANILA, Philippines - He almost said “java rice” instead of "please all rise" during one of the hearings in former Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment trial, but he still managed to pull off a poker face.

Many now know who Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Jose V. Balajadia is after seeing and listening to his one-liner signaling the start of the Corona impeachment trial, with the warning to be quiet or risk penalty “under the pain of contempt.”

His serious demeanor and presence below Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s podium betrays his true character.

In an interview with [email protected] on Monday, Balajadia said, “deep inside, I’m really not that [serious].” He said he just needed to do his job, keep a neutral stance and prevent any untoward incident.

“I kept myself out. I wanted to remain as neutral as possible. Because sometimes, the way you think can be expressed in the way you move,” he said.

Corona walkout, standoff

Even the so-called walkout of Corona and the “standoff” between the Senate guards and the former chief magistrate’s security was kept relatively peaceful, thanks to Balajadia’s no-nonsense attitude.

Remembering that fateful day when Corona suddenly left the witness stand unexcused, Balajadia said he already sensed something was wrong when “a surprised” lead defense counsel Serafin Cuevas pointed his fingers at Corona, who was already then moving out of the session hall.

He said he immediately stood up and went near the exit area, where he saw four of his men stand their ground against Corona’s party. 

“My only focus then was to avert a situation from happening,” he said. He added there was already some pushing and shoving between the men at that time.

“I was almost kissing the security [of Corona] because that area was really very narrow,” he said.

Balajadia then told Corona's security detail, “please,” and he was then allowed to go near Corona.

“I told the former chief justice, ‘Sir, I’m sorry,' and Corona said: ‘Are you arresting me?”

At that point, Balajadia said he did not feel anything about the answer. But when Cristina Corona, the wife of the former magistrate, asked him, “Is this Martial Law?” Balajadia said he was taken aback “because I hated martial law.”

Being a former soldier in the Philippine Air Force, Balajadia said “he focused on the situation, to stop the ongoing havoc. If there would be a situation there, Corona would have been the collateral damage.”

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Jose V. Balajadia. File Photo

Flying the F5

Balajadia said he learned so many things from the 5-month trial, and added that he won't exchange the experience for anything else.

“I don’t feel like a star, I just did my job,” he said, when asked about his constant exposure on television.

The former Philippine Air Force official said there is “no comparison” between his life in the armed forces and his experiences as Senate sergeant-at-arms beginning 2002.

But not everyone knows that Balajadia’s self-control and presence of mind were used several times when he was still in the military.

He was one of the lucky ones to have flown an F5 fighter plane, which was the most reliable and sophisticated jet plane back in the 1960s. He said he also led the Blue Diamonds back in 1978, the Philippines’ aerobatic team version of the Thunderbirds.

He recalled a near-death experience flying the F5, when he was commanded during training to intercept an enemy plane nearing the Air Force’s territory.

“We stay on the ground, but we should be able to take off in five minutes. We were connected to the radar sites. If an unidentified plane enters our territory, they ring a bell and if we get an alert shock, we take off,” he said.

It was one of those fateful days when the radar system went off. He said an enemy plane was 60,000 feet off the ground.

“I was at 58,000 feet when one of the engines just planed out,” he said, which forced him to return to base. On his way down, however, another engine conked out.

He said the pressure on his body was too high, and his nerves were nearing a breakdown. “You can imagine, [I prayed too much].”

Fortunately, the engines started again when the plane neared 30,000 feet. “I proved then that the F5 was really reliable.”

Lessons from Air Force and Senate

Asked if he would still fly another military plane, he said, “you cannot forget: the moment you train, you never forget flying.”

Balajadia retired from the service in 1999. He said he only spent around five years with his wife within his total 38 years in military service.

Asked to compare his experience in the armed forces with his work in the Senate, he said: “It's no comparison. When I got to the Senate, I learned more…Anything that’s happening there is interesting. Learning never stops.”

This is precisely why he's still in his post even at the age of 68 or 3 years past the retirement age, and the senators have come to like him.

“For as long as you’re selected by senators…no matter how old you are [you will remain as sergeant-at-arms],” he said.

He begged off from answering who is his favorite senator. “They’re all my bosses.”

However, he easily named Senator Lito Lapid as the friendliest.

“[After the Corona walkout], he came to me and said: ‘Tutulungan sana kita. Dala ko na ang kabayo ko, kaya lang pinasara mo ang gate,” Balajadia recalled his conversation with the actor known for his role as the horse-riding hero Leon Guerrero.

Lapid also once told him, “Puro ka [all] rice. Bigyan kita ng ulam, tilapia.”

He said it was the constant prodding from his men that he also needed java rice that he almost blurted out “Java Rice!” in his opening spiel. He said Enrile would have had his head then had he made such a misfire.