Ex-SAF commando on mission to help the homeless

Mr Julian Tan surrounded by a scene of devastation in Guiuan. His Singapore-Philippine team managed to deliver all their relief supplies to Ormoc city, Tacloban city and Guiuan in just four days, while others encountered obstacles. -- ST PHOTO: JOYCE
Mr Julian Tan surrounded by a scene of devastation in Guiuan. His Singapore-Philippine team managed to deliver all their relief supplies to Ormoc city, Tacloban city and Guiuan in just four days, while others encountered obstacles. -- ST PHOTO: JOYCE LIM

Veteran of many relief operations uses his experience to lend a hand in disaster zones

Former army commando Julian Tan is no stranger to places like Tacloban city, where homes were wiped out and thousands of people displaced overnight, becoming refugees in their own country.

As a member of the Special Operations Force (SOF) - an ultra-secret unit within the Singapore Armed Forces - he was sent to many disaster and conflict zones around the world.

But nothing quite prepared him for what he saw in Leyte province, the first in the Philippines to be hit by Typhoon Haiyan on Nov 8.

"I feel pain seeing the people suffering," said the 40-year-old. "When you walk the ground, you will see how the innocent suddenly have no homes."

Now a private paramilitary and security contractor, he was frustrated to see how relief goods were not reaching victims for days after the disaster.

He went on to raise $105,000 and headed there on Nov 20, leading a six-man team comprising three Singaporeans and three Filipinos on a mission to deliver relief supplies directly to the survivors.

Dubbed the strongest typhoon ever to hit the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan wiped out almost entire communities in Tacloban city, Leyte province and Guiuan in Eastern Samar province.

People were left hungry for days and many slept in the open, as relief supplies were stuck at distribution centres in Manila.

Mr Tan, who was in Tacloban City last week, told The Sunday Times that many were sceptical about his relief mission.

"I often get people asking me what I stand to gain from this. I told them, 'Nothing'. And they still asked 'Then why do it?' - God knows! I have no idea. I am just doing it because I want to do it. I don't like to see people suffer so much," he said.

"Coming from the military and having worked privately in the security sector, I have had the chance to see a lot of suffering.

"Those who are fairly well-off always have the opportunity to leave the country whenever they want. But in Tacloban city, these people have no money, they can't run away."

Mr Tan, who is single, enlisted in 1992 and made it through selection to join the SOF two years later, where he performed mainly counter-terrorism operations.

He declined to reveal details of his work with the SOF, whose missions are mostly classified top secret. But he did reveal that he was sent to the United States in 1998, where he completed a six-month US Navy Seal training programme in San Diego, California, under extremely demanding mental and physical conditions.

He left the SAF in 2009 and later set up his own security business, specialising in maritime security, medical and security evacuation, close personnel protection and other niche areas of security.

That same year, he went on his first civilian relief mission, flying into Manila to help with evacuation after the capital was hit by Typhoon Ketsana.

He was also in Japan in 2011 to help with aircraft logistics, evacuation and relocation of people after the Fukushima earthquake.

Mr Tan was back in the Philippines again last December after Typhoon Bopha hit the south of the Philippines, killing more than 1,000 people. He was there to deliver aid to the survivors in Davao.

With his network of contacts, he believes that he can cut the red tape and reach out to more victims much faster.

Last month, he tied up with the Philippine Military Class of 1999 on a relief mission to deliver supplies to areas that were still not getting enough aid.

Through one of his business associates in that group, he managed to get the help of the Philippine Navy, Air Force and Army, to coordinate the logistics of the mission.

His Singapore-Philippine team managed to deliver all their relief supplies to Ormoc city, Tacloban city and Guiuan in just four days, while others faced bottlenecks in their distribution.

Mr Tan, however, is not done with helping the typhoon victims.

"What's important now is to provide housing for the people and these homes have to be typhoon and quake-proof," he said.

Calling his next mission "Homes for Hope", he hopes to raise enough money to build permanent homes for about 100 families by the end of the year.

He has adopted a village of 100 families in the town of Albuera. This after he met its mayor during his latest mission. "The mayor is keen to make changes and is open to new ideas," he said.

But first, he intends returning there to bring some Christmas cheer to the villagers.

joycel@sph.com.sg