Hers was not a case of reinvention for reinvention’s sake.
It was in 2019 when the story of a bright-eyed, sweet-faced girl from Danao City, Cebu made headlines. At that time, Cherry Mae Toledo, a service crew at McDonald’s, just earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology degree as a magna cum laude at the University of San Jose Recoletos in Cebu City.
Cherry—who introduced herself in a Facebook post as an “estudyante sa umaga, intern sa hapon, service crew sa gabi”—earned the admiration of netizens for her hard work and perseverance to finish her college education despite personal and financial challenges.
With her parents separated, and her father doing time in jail, Cherry and her younger brother were left under the care of their paternal grandmother. Her aunt supported her education from high school up to second year college, but on her third year, the Cebuana already had to fend for herself.
Through a scholarship and taking on jobs, Cherry finished her degree, and did so with flying colors. She even served in the student council, was a lawn tennis champion, and an ROTC S7 Signal Communications Officer. She had stints in a few beauty pageants, including Miss Danao 2019. Upon graduation, Cherry was promoted to branch manager at McDonald’s.
A different Cherry
Recently, however, many were surprised to see Cherry in another graduation photo. This time around, she is sporting a serious expression, very short hair, and a Philippine Army uniform. It turns out she just finished her one-year training at the Philippine Army Officer Candidate School (PAOCS) in Tarlac and is now a 2nd lieutenant.
“After three months [of serving as a McDo branch manager], I felt like something was lacking,” she tells ANCX when asked why she decided to pursue training as an army officer. “When I joined the pageants, I realized that I want a deeper sense of purpose.” PAOCS is a school for those who had earned a college degree and wanted to pursue a career in the military.
She thought of PA as the place where she could find the challenges she was looking for. The petite Cherry—she stands 5’4”—doesn’t subscribe to an easy-going life. “Gusto ko yung masasabi ko sa sarili ko na napagdaanan ko ito. Kinaya ko lahat. Hindi yung pa-cute-cute lang.”
Cherry took her oath at the PA in January 30, 2020 and graduated right before Christmas. She was with her classmates at the beach when she took our call. They will reunite with their families in time for the New Year. After a one-month break, they will undergo a 45-day Scout Ranger orientation course. Then, they will be assigned to the different units of the PA.
The BS Psychology grad says she has plans to be part of the PA’s recruitment branch, “with high hopes of hiring soldiers for the organization.”
The 22-year-old says she was really looking for training that will develop her holistically. At the PA, the first challenge was chopping off her hair. “I was scared at first, pero naging happy na rin kasi same naman kami ng haircut lahat. Pero nung nasa camp na kami, kinalbo kami,” she recalls laughing.
Training was no different from the training at the Philippine Military Academy, says Cherry. They follow a rigid schedule and only do things based on orders. Typically, they would wake up at 3:50 AM in time for the 4AM exercise. After that, they clean the areas assigned to them, they shower, and prepare for breakfast. By 7am, they’re already preparing for their 8AM class.
“These are military subjects such as map reading, land navigation, principles of offense, principles of defense, etc.,” she says. By 4PM, they have their round of athletic activity again. By 6PM, it’s dinner followed by studies up to 8:30PM. By 9, they do a forced hydration (consume a liter of water). “By 10pm, kung hindi mamalasin na magkaroon ng mase-mase (mass punishment), tulog na kami niyan.”
What won’t kill you
The physical challenges are a given, she says. “Kapag pinapahirapan ang lalaki, pinapahirapan din ang babae. Tusok ulo sa floor (headstand) for how many minutes. I’ve experienced that several times. Minsan nasusugatan na ang ulo namin. Tapos lulublob kami sa mabahong tubig,” she says, recalling her experiences.
One of the most challenging parts was having to do the physical and mental challenges with little to no sleep. “Kahit na magna cum laude ka pa, may pagkakataon talagang bumabagsak ka sa exams, kasi may times na di ka maka-study dahil madaming ginagawa,” says Cherry, who’s also her battalion’s S1 (personnel officer) and class secretary.
The first month was the toughest, says Cherry, because their bodies were still adjusting to the rigors of the training. “Sa simula, yung lack of sleep at grabeng sakit ng katawan, parang di ko kakayanin,” she recalls. “Grabe din ang gutom. Binibilangan ka habang kumakain ka, sinisigawan ka pa. Pinapainom ka ng maraming tubig. Sinusuka mo na din ang kinakain mo kasi sobrang daming tubig na pinapainom. Sobrang pagod tapos wala kang tulog.”
Was there a point when she wanted to give up? She says having that thought was quite normal, especially during the first month. “Na-war shock talaga kami, maraming gustong mag-quit. Kapag nasa training ka na, madami kang sigaw na matatanggap, mga mura, kahit ginagawa mo ang best mo. Yes ka lang ng yes. You just follow orders,” she says.
Loneliness is one of the biggest enemies, she discovered. The pandemic had them worrying about family, having no communication with the outside world. “Na-shock kami na grabe na pala ang nangayayari sa labas. Hindi namin sila makumusta kasi we are not allowed to have a cell phone,” she says.
“There were times na umiiyak kami sa bed namin when we go to sleep. So what we do is we support and motivate each other. We remind each other, ‘Kaya natin ito. Take one day at a time.’ We remind each other why we’re there—to keep our eyes on the goal.”
During the course of their training, ten male applicants decided to quit. Cherry was happy to note that all 37 female applicants stayed on till the end. “They never thought that the future leader of the Philippine Army shall emerge from a small lady like me,” she wrote recently on a Facebook post.
Now that’s a third act worth waiting for.