The scorching daytime heat and the cold nights of the desert around the Al Numaniyah district in Iraq were all but sparse memories for Filipino American Marine Sgt. Mark Villamac Ho, better known here in Los Angeles as “Bagyo” – the hip-hop artist.
The invasion of Iraq resulted in deaths of more than 4,000 American soldiers who participated on two large-scale military operations codenamed “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and “Operation New Dawn” from 2003 to 2011. More than half a million Iraqi people perished, including civilians and fighters.
Bagyo, then with the MWSS-271 Crash Fire Rescue of the United States Marine Corps (USMC), drove a Humvee or whatever military vehicle available to him throughout these episodes of blood and gore — pulling out comrades, civilians and even enemies from wrecks and fires.
Today, the pacified Al-Numinayah district is home to an airbase of the re-established Iraqi armed forces. It is also where US coalition forces operate.
“It was an honor to have served in a time when my country called upon me,” Bagyo recalled.
“I was nothing and it was a chance to become something bigger than I was. Not only for myself, but for my country, my family and my friends.”
Bagyo survived the war, albeit unscathed. He was diagnosed with mild symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Luckily, Bagyo has his family, his friends, his hip-hop music and the Filipino American community on which to distract the anxieties from those nightmares entangled in his mind.
Bagyo has been a regular figure in the Fil-Am community scenes – if not by himself, he performs with his brother Luwee, who is also a hip-hop artist. Or, if Bagyo were not performing, he would be an escort for someone or a marshall for a parade or event – donning the US Marine Cadet Uniform.
As an outreach personnel of the Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA), Bagyo thought he was done fighting. But as it turned out, he doesn’t always have a choice on what war to fight on.
While preparing for a gig with the Miss Philippines-USA pageant, Bagyo accidentally stepped on a syringe while dressing in a gym.
“It was blessing in disguise,” Bagyo said, recalling the piercing pain on his foot. He immediately went to the hospital for blood testing as a precautionary measure.
“It was unusual for the VA to call at night,” Bagyo recalled. “They told me to come immediately to the hospital.”
To cut the story short, doctors found out that Bagyo has multiple myeloma and, later on, nasopharyngeal cancer.
Doctors have recommended chemotherapy for one disease and radiation for one disease. One disease would require a surgery and another disease would require a process to “destroy and rebuild” Bagyo’s stem cells. (I didn’t care to remember which treatment is for which disease. I didn’t want the details retained in my imagination).
Bagyo said he is set up for a two-month treatment in a VA facility in Seattle, Washington in November. And added that he was thankful for the VA for “doing a good job of assisting him.”
And Bagyo still packs the powerful winds of positivity – just like what most of his songs supply to his audience. In a mail he sent, Bagyo told me: Well, don’t get too caught up in the stages (cancer) as they aren’t too much indicator of my health. It’s more of the damage my body has acquired. So don’t be alarmed.”
“According to my oncologist, I am stage 3 concerning multiple myeloma. But as I have stated, I am extremely strong and able to work, function and exercise. I am a rare case indeed as it is estimated that only 1% get it (multiple myeloma) around my age.”
“The 2nd cancer is also stage 3. But there are 4 stages.”
Prior to Bagyo’s interview, Weekend Balita/US Asian Post also talked to his mother “Tita Ludi” Gilkinson, who is also active in the Fil-Am community scenes.
“I am a mother and I am trying to cope with all these pain and anxieties. But I believe in the power of prayers. And I do hope that you will join us in our prayers,” beseeched Tita Ludi.