Michael Peter Rabang, love, faith,commitment, and service…with a smile to remember, dies at 51.
By Steve Spencer
If you knew Peter Rabang and someone asked you to state one thing about him, just one thing that was more striking than anything else about him, without a doubt you would say it was his smile. That smile instantly put people at ease. If he wasn’t in the room when you arrived, but you knew he was coming, you’d look forward to it. It was an outward reflection not merely of an agreeable individual, but an attitude about life, the joys of family, friends, fellowship, duty, and service.
Michael Peter Rabang died in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday, March 10, 2010 of a sudden, massive heart attack.
The son of immigrants to the United States, Peter was born on November 26, 1958 and raised in Norfolk, Virginia, the first of two children born to Melquiadez Rapanan Rabang and Julia Mateo Rabang. The city is home to Naval Station Norfolk, one of the U.S. Navy’s largest bases, which provides support for its Fleet Forces Command that operate in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea.
Perhaps because the Navy was a constant presence in his youth – including the fact that his father was a World War II Naval enlistee who had risen to the rank of Chief Master Steward – Peter had never considered entering the service. However, after securing a Navy ROTC scholarship to study at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, he nonetheless found himself embarking on a naval career.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1981, later attending the Navy’s Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where he was awarded a master’s degree in Weapons Systems/Aerospace Engineering in 1988.
In June 1983, he was posted to the USS Conolly (DD-979), which embarked on a mission for UNITAS, the annual exercise in which the U.S. Navy works collaboratively with partner navies in Central and South America. It was on this voyage, in October 1983, that Peter’s ship paid a visit to Rio de Janeiro, which was where he and Helena Rosa Campos, herself a Brazilian Naval officer, first met at a UNITAS reception held at the late Clube in Urca.
With his famous smile, Peter captured the interest of Ensign Campos, a dentist who specializes in teaching endodontics. When she asked the young officer about his family background, he encapsulated his loyalties and deep affections by describing himself as “totally American, 100 percent Filipino blood”.
Following that encounter, Peter got his first tour of Rio, and he and Helena agreed to meet again, shortly thereafter, when the Conolly made its next port of call in Salvador, Bahia. It was there that their romance blossomed and they embarked on a relationship that weathered many months and years of prolonged separations.
In that pre-internet era, the couple maintained contact through endless letter writing and countless phone calls, arranging to meet whenever and wherever possible. Although Helena was skeptical that they could ever, ultimately, find a way to be together permanently, she said that Peter was always certain that things would work out. This represents still more of the character traits that so many people speak of when they talk about Peter Rabang – dedicated, loyal, and directed with a perpetually positive outlook on life.
Two years to the day after their first meeting, Peter and Helena became engaged; finally marrying on September 26, 1987. The couple spent the next five years as much apart as they had been during their courtship. Their daughter, Stephanie, was born in November 1991, also while he was still at sea.
During his several tours, Peter also served, from 1984-86, on the USS Barney (DDG-6); from 1989-90, on the USS Harold E. Holt (FF-1074); and from 1990-92, on the USS Concord (AFS-5). His good friend, fellow U.S. veteran and Rio resident, Ward Ryan, said that Peter was an executive officer, “the go-to guy you went to instead of the captain. If you wanted something done, he’d know how to do it and could see it through.” Ryan said this methodical observer evidenced these same qualities in civilian life. “Peter knew as many places to go in Rio to get things fixed or problems solved as anyone I’ve ever met in this city.”
Throughout his time on the high seas, Peter kept pursuing options that might see him stationed in Brazil and closer to his family. Finally, in 1992, he was informed that he would be granted the opportunity to attend Brazil’s Navy War College in Rio, as part of the U.S.-Brazil Personnel Exchange Position (PEP) program. Before doing so, he returned to Monterey, CA, this time to the Defense Language Institute, to study Portuguese, which was his first, full-immersion into the language of his adopted country.
After completing the course, he served for two years, from 1994-96, as an instructor/advisor at the Brazilian fleet training facility, the Centro de Adestramento Almirante Marques de Leão (CAAML), also in Rio. Following this, Peter served in the Military Liaison Office of the U.S. Embassy in Brasília as the Director of Navy-Marine Programs (traveling home to Rio every weekend by bus) until his retirement from the armed forces in 2001, at the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
Since this time, Peter and Helena bought a home in Copacabana and focused on a life no longer interrupted by extended periods apart. He became very active in the local community. As a father, he regularly attended Parent-Teacher Association meetings at the British School; as a former uniformed officer, he participated in numerous veterans’ events; and as a U.S. citizen, he joined the Board of Governors of the American Society of Rio de Janeiro, serving as its president from 2005-2006.
In his post-military career, Peter was Regional Manager for Wealth Management and Financial Planning with Phoenix Investment Consulting and a consultant on International Business Development for Defense & Space projects with David Rogus and Associates. He also served as a project consultant for MicroSystems Integration of Stonington, Connecticut and Burdeshaw and Associates of Bethesda, Maryland.
A devout Roman Catholic, Peter was a member in regular attendance at the Igreja Nossa Senhora da Paz in Ipanema.
His death came as a shock to his friends and family as he appeared to be in excellent health, an individual who ate properly, had no indulgences, and was known to run almost every morning on the beach.
He was laid to rest on Sunday, March 14, at Cemitério São João Batista in Botafogo. He is survived by his widow, Commander Helena Rosa Campos Rabang, and daughter, Stephanie Marie Campos Rabang; as well as his sister, Cary Rabang Estrada, and first cousin, Lorraine Farre, both of Norfolk, VA.
For as many people who he came to know and who knew him, it could be said that Peter Rabang was actually a very private person, who did not spend a lot of time socializing outside of those events that obligated him (or what his sense of duty obliged him to) attend. He was devoted to his family, friends, community, church, and country. When he made a commitment, he gave every ounce of that devotion to fulfilling promises and meeting expectations.
It is Peter Rabang’s legacy that quiet, persistent competence is its own demonstration of honor and love, that it will, in the end, produce its own bounty of rewards, and that it is always, always most enduring when delivered with a smile.