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LIFE MATTERS: Special Action Force

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Okada Manila
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By Col. Dencio Acop (Ret), PhD

The Special Action Force was the elite unit of the Philippine Constabulary when the latter was still part of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It continues to be the elite force of today’s Philippine National Police. But the unit’s police existence is beyond the scope of this article, which merely narrates how the original unit came to be, what it was meant to be, and what actually became of it. Following my graduation from the United States Military Academy at West Point in May 1983, I found myself assigned by no less than the PC Chief, Lieutenant General Fidel V Ramos, to the PC SAF. Incidentally, Ramos was also a 1950 West Point alumnus. It had been my sheer luck that Ramos wanted all brand-new PC lieutenants to be ranger-trained before they were to lead territorial units in the counterinsurgency campaign against communist rebels. I was a few days late reporting to my new unit after arriving from the US and already found myself undergoing the obstacle course pushed to my limits until I vomited. The PC SAF was organized by Ramos’ Operations Chief, Colonel Renato S de Villa, through Ramos’ former aide-de-camp Major Avelino I Razon Jr., both graduates of the Philippine Military Academy and the PC Chief’s most trusted men. Both wasted no time in recruiting the best combat officers in the service branch who could qualify to be elite company-grade leaders at the battalion level. Officers who trained in the US, UK, and other advanced schools were deliberately recruited. These officers then likewise recruited combat soldiers who passed the unit’s rigid qualifying tests. The men came from the PC battalions and army special units who volunteered. But subsequent members were freshly recruited. Everyone had to undergo the basic ranger course, followed by specialization training. Select members of thirty men were hand-picked to form the anti-terrorist unit and undergo additional training. I led that unit’s assault team. Having gotten my wings at Benning in 1982 as a cadet, I was a member of the airborne training committee in 1984.

The battalion deployed surgical teams in NPA-infested areas from 1983 until the Philippine Constabulary got dissolved as a military branch of service. The PC SAF was created to be an effective fighting force in the counterinsurgency campaigns launched by the Philippine government especially against the communist New People’s Army. The communist insurgency was at its peak in the 1980s. And while the government’s left-hand approach had its public programs and projects, the right-hand effort sorely needed a boost. It was at this point that Ramos, a former commanding officer of the Army Special Forces, thought it a good idea to add a national maneuver unit to the constabulary units which were all territorial. Such a mobile unit, operating unconventionally, was a rational counter-strategy to the NPA’s tactic of using territorial boundaries and jurisdictions to escape and evade government troops. NPA guerrilla units liked to operate near provincial tri-boundaries for this reason. The visible provincial commands operating conventionally were regularly ambushed by invisible insurgents fighting unconventionally. The PC SAF was regularly sent to insurgent hotspots where the local commands were failing. Having learned their strategy and tactics, the PC SAF engaged the enemy and beat them at their own game. The surgical teams operated in darkness and were invisible during the day, as the enemy likewise did. SAF did the dirty work but let others take the credit so as not to blow its anonymity which impacted its effectiveness.

All that changed with the EDSA revolution in February 1986. The PC SAF got exposed to the public due to its participation in the four-day revolt. The truth of the matter was that the unit’s leaders always did their best to not expose the unit to the public eye no matter what. While Ramos had the SAF companies sent to remote, far-flung areas to fight the insurgency war, SAF leaders silently had elements of the unit stay close to Manila to guard Ramos (without his knowledge) and to be near the center of power in case of a coup. By now it is common knowledge that many officers and men back then were silent members of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM). These were officers and men who were against the corruption and unprofessionalization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines during the time of President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. SAF leaders were members too and had the constant feeling that something radical was in the offing. A ‘research’ group and protective detail was the stay-behind force of PC SAF right inside Camp Crame. A group of roughly ten SAF officers and 56 men initially protected Ramos and the four gates of Camp Crame when the EDSA revolution erupted on the 22nd of February. I recall leading the team that guarded Crame’s Santolan gate (2) and thinking that I’d never see my wife and daughter again. Those nights were spent peering through the Santolan wall at marines lined up across on the other side ready to attack. As reinforcements arrived, including SAF companies recalled back from the field, our small force moved inwards to do a last stand inside the PC headquarters building. We were among the best trained in the armed forces at the time and had battles been actually fought, we certainly would have taken down many brothers with us right inside Camp Crame. It would have been a great honor to die side by side with General Ramos I thought. Soon air power also came to our side. Seeing it from the PC headquarters roof-deck, I knew the end of the regime was just around the corner. And with people power all around, regime change was certainly effected with little bloodshed as could be avoided. Many now argue that the lack of bloodshed may have been the key to the elusive genuine development we still seek. But profound change had indeed come. Including the PC SAF which had been transformed from being a fighter of communist rebels to a fighter of military rebels, a permanent role it would play in the incoming administration following the one that was just ousted.

The Cory Aquino administration that followed was the resurrection of democratic governance in the Philippines. It was supposed to dismantle the dysfunctions that made a mockery of the once democratic life enjoyed by Filipinos following their independence. It did not mean a resurrection of the old oligarchy either to replace the dismantled new oligarchy. It was the fledgling democracy of the loved widow and neophyte politician that the PC SAF defended from power-grabbers coup after coup after coup. There was a total of seven coup attempts during the first Aquino administration and Ramos and the PC SAF had a lot to do with defeating each one. The most vicious were the August 1987 and December 1989 coup attempts. The 4th Special Action Company of PC SAF was training the Region 3 Special Action Force in August 1987. I commanded that unit and when the coup erupted, I was monitoring the RSAF 3 ranger test mission in Zambales along with a team of my men. Ordered to reinforce the national capital, I hurried back to Camp Olivas in Pampanga to lead my company back. The Region 3 commander was taken hostage right in his office inside the camp by the very unit my unit was training. My command had to extricate the camp without having to fight our trainees in order to support the main effort in the capital. The Pampanga commander wanted us to remain and support his partly disloyal command. We almost had a misencounter with the Special Reaction Unit of the Presidential Security Group upon reaching Balintawak. They thought we were rebels attacking Metro Manila. Ordered to support the siege of rebels holed inside Camelot Hotel in Quezon City, we did until the rebels from central Luzon surrendered.

During the December 1989 coup, it was the PC SAF and the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division that significantly turned back military rebels who attacked the DND-AFP Battle Staff in Camp Aguinaldo. The rebels turned their guns on Ramos and de Villa after realizing they were the center of gravity in Cory Aquino’s counter-attack to survive the coup. Earlier, Ramos and Cory sought and got the support of the US Air Force at Clark to deny air superiority to the military rebels. That made the ongoing battle a ground war — something the contending forces could manage between themselves in the maneuvering of cunning and wits. While rebel tanks forced their way into the camp’s main gate, a column of rebel marines infiltrated silently on foot under cover of darkness. The 2nd Infantry dealt with the tanks while we engaged and turned back the rebel infantry column. Early warning revealed the column in which we engaged with all the firepower we had. Without PC SAF reinforcements the night before, we could not have turned back the assault towards the ISAFP compound where the defense and armed forces leadership was. Some ISAFP and camp elements turned traitors and were nowhere to be found during the attacks. The President awarded me the Distinguished Conduct Star on AFP Day for leading the defense of the battle staff. PC SAF commanders and officers who engaged military rebels in Makati and elsewhere were likewise awarded. Being recognized for courage and honorable service to God and country is a soldier’s crowning glory. Something the PC SAF has plenty of, though mostly unsung.

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