THE commemoration of National Heroes Day is to be held every last Sunday of August of each year by virtue of Republic Act (RA) 3827 passed by the Philippine Legislature in 1931. Since then, the day of remembrance honoring the acts of valor, patriotism and selflessness of offering one's life as a supreme sacrifice in the quest for freedom and independence by the heroes of the Philippine Revolution has been held every November 30. The day coincides with the birth of Gat Andres Bonifacio — Father of the Katipunan. The practice of commemorating the occasion was disrupted by the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in 1942.

In March 1942, then-President Jose P. Laurel declared November 30 as National Heroes Day under Executive Order 20. As a sign of protest, according to the Philippine Gazette, President Manuel L. Quezon (yes, the country had "two presidents" at the time) led a ceremony at Mount Samat in Bataan on Nov. 30, 1943. Then in 1952, then-President Elpidio Quirino, through Administrative Order 190, reverted the commemoration of the event to the last Sunday of August. Finally, in July 2007, National Heroes Day was moved to every last Monday of August by then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo when she signed RA 9492.

Soldiers’ graves at the Libingan ng mga Bayani
Soldiers’ graves at the Libingan ng mga Bayani

Despite the many changes on the dates set to honor our heroes, Quezon's words marking the day in 1943 gave more meaning to the acts rather than the commemoration dates. He paid tribute to "those who knew how to sacrifice the interests of self and the rich pleasures of living for the sake of the dignity and welfare of the greatest number," thus the Filipino nation must set as a "national custom" a day consecrated for them in memoriam. And the holding of the celebration at the Dambana ng Kagitingan, the pantheon of heroes, is as fitting a venue as it is a gesture to honor the Filipino and American soldiers who together fought in World War 2.

War heroes, then and now, are defined by those who lived (and some who have died) true to their solemn oath to protect and defend the people at all cost. They are those who, by choice, left their families behind to help others tend and build their own. They are those who put aside their own safety, freedom of choice, convenience — and life if necessary — just so their countrymen can breathe the air of freedom and enjoy the gifts of civil liberty.

Arroyo, in declaring every last Monday of August each year as National Heroes Day, intended to pursue her so-called holiday economics. This means moving to either Friday or Monday, a holiday that falls on a weekday so it can be lumped into a "long weekend" to avoid mid-week work disruptions. But I see this as more sublime and significant in contemporary times, as it is in terms of economics. Declaring every last Monday of August a holiday does not only afford us a long weekend, it also gives the country's modern-day heroes a day of respite in their honor.

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Not all heroes wear soldiers' battle uniform, airmen's flight suit, police uniform, or sailors' and Coast Guards' dungaree. There are those who don no medals on their proud chests but sustain battle wounds and scars as they grapple with life's daily grind. The modern-day heroes are those who leave their parents and children behind to provide care and comfort to their families and make the households tidy and orderly. Heroes are those who spend long days, endure the longings of home, or brave the perils of the seven seas for economic reasons and career opportunities that the Philippines cannot provide.

Modern-day heroes are the military, police and non-uniformed medical frontliners. They are those who, especially during the dark and uncertain days of Covid-19 pandemic, risked their lives and suffered prolonged isolation from their families' otherwise rejuvenating embrace just to save lives. They are health workers who, while compassionately endeavoring to save a soul and perishing in the process, were wheeled at the dead of night to some crematorium. They are the nameless and faceless individuals who unselfishly shared with fellow Filipinos what food, medicine or supplies they had during lockdowns. Business firms that gave away billions of pesos in food, health care supplies and isolation facilities, they are heroes, too.

Heroes are those who walk kilometers barefooted, crossing rivers and hiking mountains to teach their students. They make learning conducive no matter how dilapidated or makeshift the classrooms are. Farmers, fisherfolk and backyard growers with little or no government support, who strive to raise crops from borrowed capital despite pests, disasters and calamities, are heroes, too. And so are the all-weather delivery riders, the lowly tricycle drivers, the humble street sweepers, the tireless garbage collectors — they try to make both ends meet no matter the meager salary, harsh working conditions and inhumane treatment they suffer. They all are our unsung heroes.

While heroes are known for withstanding difficulties and going the extra mile to accomplish noble deeds and meaningful pursuits to benefit others, they need not suffer and endure hardships all their lives. While they draw satisfaction and sense of purpose from the good they bring to others, our modern-day heroes undoubtedly need help. Medical frontliners need better health benefits so they are able to serve more and perform better. Our overseas Filipino workers deserve competitive employment opportunities so they can come home and contribute their expertise and skills to our own nation-building. The teachers deserve an increase in their salary so they can provide themselves with what they need to educate future generations of professionals. The self-employed and the minimum wage earners are entitled to bigger incomes and better working environments so they can support their families better.

More than honoring our heroes with a non-working holiday, the Philippine government, nongovernment organizations, private companies, and even private citizens acting individually or in groups can do their share to bring honor and dignity to save our modern-day heroes, who need not die before they become heroes. A living hero is better than a dead one set on a pedestal, or a name etched on a marble stone or face cast in a bronze statue.

Now is the time to care for our heroes, more than mere lip service through accolades, titles and a holiday.