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Common virtue

As the nation heaps praise and admiration upon former government auditor turned whistle-blower Heidi Mendoza, I am reminded of two words: “common virtue.” This was the title of the last chapter of John Bradley Jr.’s 2000 bestseller, “Flags of Our Fathers.” The book is Bradley’s account of the lives of the six American soldiers who raised the flag atop Mt. Suribachi on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima, site of one of the most horrendous battles of World War II. The photo of the flag-raising soon became one of the iconic images of the war. The three flag-raisers who survived the battle (one of whom was Bradley’s father, John Sr.) were brought home and hailed as heroes, a role they reluctantly took on to help sell bonds to fund the war effort.

Bradley’s final description of the six men could very well apply to Heidi Mendoza, former AFP budget officer George Rabusa, and other men and women who have risked their personal well-being in pursuit of the truth. Here I paraphrase Bradley’s words freely: “They are people of common virtue. Called to duty. Sisters and brothers. Sons and daughters. Mothers and fathers. It’s as simple as that.”

I have known Heidi Mendoza for many years through her husband Dr. Roy Mendoza, a good friend and former colleague at the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues (JJCICSI). When I texted Roy to congratulate him for Heidi’s highly acclaimed testimony detailing evidence in the Garcia plunder case, I received this short but meaningful reply: “Everything we are now, we owe to our faith.”

The statement, I feel, reflects all that is good and right not just in the singular act or courage that Heidi displayed with her testimony, but in the total commitment Heidi and Roy have displayed all through their lives. Theirs is a “faith response” in the truest sense, quiet lives of service nurtured by faith and lived far from the limelight, until now.

At the onset, Heidi and Roy seemed like an unlikely pair. Heidi followed a fairly unremarkable path, working at the Commission on Audit soon after graduating from college, the start of more than 20 years of service in government. Roy on the other hand took a more roundabout route, going full-time into student activism before resuming his education. He married Heidi just as he began a career in community organizing and research for a series of Jesuit institutions: the Center for Community Services, the La Ignaciana Apostolic Center and JJCICSI.

When Roy decided to settle down to teach history at the Ateneo de Manila University (eventually obtaining a PhD in history from the University of the Philippines), it was Heidi’s turn to enter into direct involvement in justice concerns. Because of her long years of experience in the COA, she became affiliated with the “Ehem!” anti-corruption initiative of the Philippine Jesuits, working closely with Fr. Albert Alejo, SJ, on various anti-corruption and education campaigns. It was through her involvement in “Ehem!” that she mustered the resolve to reveal the anomalies in the COA investigation of the Garcia case.

In a recent meeting with Heidi and Roy, they shared with me their reflections on the twists and turns that their lives have taken. Roy lightheartedly recounted: “When we were deciding whether Heidi would come out in the open with her knowledge of the Garcia case, she reminded me that when I was younger she tolerated my work in political activism. She told me that it is her turn now to be the political activist. I had to remind her, in turn, that when we were younger we did not yet have any children.”

Indeed, thoughts of her three children have not been far from Heidi’s mind in the midst of the political maelstrom she has entered. During a strategizing session at the Ateneo School of Government several weeks before her testimony in Congress, Heidi explained her anguished decision to go public in these words: “I am not doing this for myself, to seek publicity. No mother in her right mind will endanger her children just to get publicity. I am doing this to prove to people that not everyone in government is corrupt, that there are good people in government.”

Her disavowal of personal fame and her abiding concern for family and country have become a constant refrain in Heidi’s public appearances. And with each retelling, I become more convinced that she would rather cast herself as an ordinary person doing the right thing. Hers was a decision emanating from a conflicted conscience seeking peace, no matter what the cost. Just like Bradley’s flag-raisers, Heidi is a reluctant hero. “A person of common virtue . . . it’s as simple as that.”

In their show of support for Heidi, the Philippine Catholic bishops quoted from their own pastoral letter two years ago encouraging lay participation in social change: “We challenge our Catholic laity, in particular, to take the lead in the task of moral renewal towards a deeper and more lasting change in the Philippine society. We challenge all lay people involved in politics to renounce corruption and bond together in the task of evangelizing politics for effective governance and the pursuit of the common good.” Perhaps the bishops realized that there are enough good people out there who simply need to be encouraged, people of “common virtue” who can truly make a difference.

But as Heidi Mendoza has shown us, perhaps common virtue is not so common.

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