Pedro Oblea, Jr:
When He is Not Bigger Than Life

By Divina Telan Robillard
Strip him of his chestful of medals, and he’s only a man. Take off his cape, and he’s a mere mortal. He has known poverty, struggle, and failure. But he has also borne all of them with patience, equanimity, and self-assurance. He crawled, stood, and then, walked tall. We know the man walking tall the best. It is the most documented of his personhood – the nurse scientist who distinguished himself as a staff nurse in pediatrics, the student who claimed academic laurels and titles one after the other, the military hero who served with distinction.
I have always thought there was something intriguing about the man we know as Lieutenant Colonel Pedro Oblea, Jr. beyond the easy smile, the confident talk. In the short span of time, I have known of his existence, his image or his name has already appeared several times: first, in my laptop screen, then in Inside PNAA pictures, and finally on Zoom as he presented on his research findings on LGBTQ in the military. When inside PNAA Editor-in-chief, Bob Gahol, asked me to write about Pedro, I emailed him questions of basic demographic info. His answers came, plus links to 4+ articles about him. The articles all painted a picture of a man with solid academic and professional credentials. Impressive? Jaw-gapingly yes. But they were also boring.
Because there must be more to the man than the uniform he smartly carries, I asked to learn more, this time, just about the dude in running shorts. I wanted breaking news, to which he said he was game.

Tell me about your beginnings. When did your drive to succeed seep in? What formed that drive- was it your position in the family? Parent exhortations (read: brainwashing)? Your neighborhood?
I am the fifth child and only son of a family with six kids. My family was very poor when I was growing up. My father farmed a small coconut patch and a few squares of rice fields. My mother worked at the “koprahan,” – where copra is produced – her job was to separate the shell from the coconut meat. At harvest time, I would help my parents bring in the rice, a job which would leave large blisters the size of quarters all over my hands until they bled. My parents would always say I was not meant to be a farmer and that my hands were meant to hold a pen or a stethoscope.

My five sisters did not to go to college, as my culture does not recognize the importance of women earning college degrees. Instead, they got married and raised families. Knowing that I would be the only child in my family to apply to college, I promised my parents to do well in school so I could qualify for scholarship.
I walked to and from school every day, about a kilometer away. I wore flip-flops and carried a native handbag made of pandan because my parents couldn’t afford to buy shoes or a backpack. I graduated salutatorian of my elementary school and subsequently enrolled in the newly opened high school science program at a local college, Southern Luzon Polytechnic College (SLPC), now known as Southern Luzon State University (SLSU), in Lucban, Quezon, Philippines. My classmates in this program were sons and daughters of teachers, doctors, and politicians which made participation very intimidating to a poor boy like myself.
Despite the challenges, I graduated 28 out of 31 students in my section. I had hoped to attend the University of the Philippines, but the high school principal allowed only the top 10 graduates to take the University of the Philippines College Admission Test (UPCAT).
My drive to succeed stemmed from my life of poverty. I was so poor I had to borrow combat shoes to attend the high school ROTC program. I could not afford even a bicycle to ride to school. Thus, the decision to go to college was difficult for me and my family. My father was hesitant to send me to college because we simply didn’t have the money. My mother convinced my father to sell our only source of income—the rice fields and small coconut plantation—to pay for my college education. Meanwhile, they worked as laborers to pay for their daily living expenses.

When I graduated with a degree in nursing and passed the nursing licensure exams, I was incredibly grateful, especially when I found a good entry-level position at Philippine General Hospital (PGH). That led me to believe initially that I could finally support my parents! Unfortunately, the reality was my salary barely covered the cost of living in Manila.

After completing my four-year obligation at PGH, I decided to work in Saudi Arabia, which would enable me to send a small sum back to my parents to help them. Although I discovered that Saudi Arabia is not really the place for me, I met my wife there and together, we had a son. Eventually I decided to move to the United States, where I passed the NCLEX and found work as a nurse.
High school age: what music did you dance to? Did you have a secret passion for a girl? A sport?
Attending a demanding high school program meant I did not have much time for anything but study. I did not have a favorite music genre and instead, listened to whatever music was popular except rap because I couldn’t understand the lyrics. When I did have free time, I would play soccer. I didn’t have any money to date, so I never even thought about a girlfriend in high school or college. I met my first girlfriend while working at PGH, and my second girlfriend was my ex-wife.

College: What were your sleepless nights about? Did you have a course you had trouble with? Did you join a fraternity?
My sleepless nights in college were always about school—namely, the fear that I would not finish my program and would disappoint my parents. I sometimes struggled with mathematics in high school, but I never gave up and ultimately passed all my mathematics classes. As an introvert, I decided not to engage in any frat activities.
Romance: were you consciously looking to settle when you did? Were there family/career clashes? What is your view of married life as opposed to being single now?
I was not really looking to get married when I decided to work in Saudi Arabia, but sometimes Cupid has other ideas. I have had no regrets about marrying my now ex-wife. She’s a wonderful woman, the daughter of a well-known, wealthy family in their province, who is both caring and beautiful. Marriage was a good learning experience but having not succeeded at it, I am now extra careful. Before I remarry, I’d put a premium on commitment, passion, and intimacy. Currently, I enjoy being single because of the freedom that goes with it.

Being a father: what role did you like most in relation to your son?
My wife and I got divorced when our son was six years old, so I worry that I am not really that of a big influence on him. His stepdad has become his day-to-day role model. I am what they call a “part-time father,” seeing my son once a year during school break or when he is very sick. When my son is with me, I want everything to be perfect. I want him to enjoy every moment: no arguments or disagreements. Because of this, I have yet to experience an argument with him. My son is now 23 years old and about to go into a Master’s program after receiving a degree in Anthropology at UCLA.
Career: why nursing, a female dominated profession.
I wanted to work in medicine or a related field. I initially wanted to become a doctor of medicine, but I realized that I could become a nurse more quickly. Because nursing is the most common profession in the Philippines, I knew that I could help lift my family out of poverty, especially if I took advantage of opportunities to work abroad.

What went through your mind when you were shot?
I don’t remember much about what went through my mind when I was shot; I passed out after a few seconds because of the excruciating pain. When I woke up, it was in an intensive care unit at a military hospital in Iraq. When Brigadier General Elder Granger was giving me the Purple Heart at my bedside, I realized that I could have died, which would have ended my time on Earth. My story would have simply been “a Pinoy nurse died in combat.” Fortunately, God had a different plan for me, for which I am incredibly grateful. Now my story is that I was given a second chance.
Final thoughts
Definitely not all there is to know about this still-young man whose charmed professional life assures more plaudits are coming. But sometime after the obligatory 20 in 2023, he plans to travel in an RV around the country to enjoy its incredible beauty. His mom, Isabel, now 86, still lives in the Philippines. A teaching stint as a visiting professor in the motherland is also somewhere in the far horizon. In the meantime, there is space on his chest for more medals to earn, more tread in his Nikes to run marathons in, more rungs in the career ladder to climb, and more happy memories to make playing dad.