MARAWI, Philippines: Staring down death every single day; that has been the duty of the soldiers tasked with saving a city under siege.
For many of them, Marawi might prove their sternest test yet.
This war has become one of attrition. For four weeks now both sides – the military and Islamic State-inspired fighters – have faced off across residential streets, exchanging countless bullets and spilling blood.
The battlefield is as treacherous as they come – modern urban warfare where every building, school or mosque is a hiding spot or attack launch point for the enemy.
The soldiers have come close enough to see into the eyes of their militant foes: metres from their weapons and a moment from peril.
Still, they fight on.
“I lost three of my good friends,” says Private First Class Mark Erwin Rule, a fresh-faced 24-year-old who was ambushed with his comrades on his first day of battle.
While surrounded by black-clad men he said, he was shot in the arm and vest and after continuing to hold ground for three days was eventually withdrawn and hospitalised for nearly a week.
He spoke of the feral anger meeting him in his comrades in the conflict.
“The enemy is aggressive. They will not back down if one of them has been injured,” he said. “Here we cannot see where the enemy is, unlike in the jungle. Here you cannot identify where they are positioned. It’s the worst.”
The young soldier is recovering from his injury but expects to be deployed again soon. “It’s for my country.”
Like Rule, Sgt Erlito Pacaña has taken a bullet for his country and community. The Mindanao native bravely entered into a curtain of heavy gunfire and was hit almost immediately in the shoulder.
Adrenaline is the battery of many of these men and the 29-year-old, decade-long veteran of the forces, persisted for two more days before a helicopter could extract him for treatment in nearby Iligan City.
“The enemy, there were lots of them. They were in the houses,” he recalls. “There were some who were young and some who were old.”
“The only thing I was thinking of during the time was my safety and the safety of my comrades.
“Of course I was nervous, that’s expected. It’s a feeling that will never go away but because I was with the other soldiers, that feeling or sense of anxiety disappears.”
Beyond the physical toll, there is an emotional drain and sorrow that can weigh down even the most stoic soldier.
This fight is largely Filipino versus Filipino, one fighting under the Pambansang Watawat, the national royal blue and scarlet: the other waving the black of Islamic State.
That reality is heart breaking for Sgt Ronnie Halasan, a driver for a combat service support unit.
“I feel sad. I see Filipinos die,” he said with composed emotion. “I feel sad because I also have relatives suffering.
“I cannot express myself, because ... why is it happening to the Philippines like this instead of us uniting as Filipinos, loving each other as Filipinos?”
Fifty-nine of his military brothers have lost their lives over the past month. Hundreds of others too, armed gunmen and innocent civilians, have drawn their final breaths in Marawi.
No truce appears likely as a respite any time soon. And so the troops return and return to face danger, for the sake of a cause bigger than each of them.