Retired General Ramon Mateo Dizon laughs often as he reflects on the serpentine path his military career took. After graduating from the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) in 1983, he was first assigned to the police constabulary. Interestingly, the constabulary was part of the Philippine Armed Forces up until the 1990s. In addition to fielding heavy weaponry, the constabulary also went after criminals and made arrests.

“There was a power struggle between General Ramos and General Ver,” Dizon described. “At the time they were abolishing the constabulary battalions and General Ramos decided that, instead of several battalions—he had 10—he was able to come up with one battalion, a special ops battalion. This was in early ’83.” General Ramos was the chief of staff and also the chief of the constabulary, which centralized a lot of power under his leadership. Meanwhile, General Vell was the chief of staff Ramos served under, and all of this took place against the background of the Marcos presidency.

This battalion would become known as the Special Action Force (SAF), a unique police unit charged with many missions, including unconventional warfare. General Ramos began selecting graduates of PMA class of 1979 to begin staffing the SAF. Back in those days, the police constabulary had armored vehicles and artillery, but now these were to be distributed to local military units. “The trade-off was that he was able to keep a special ops battalion,” Dizon said.

Right after graduating from PMA, Dizon was ordered to attend Ranger School, as was his entire graduating class. “I happened to be in constabulary headquarters scrounging for gasoline,” Dizon says with a chuckle. “In the hallway I met a bunch of senior officers, lieutenant colonels, majors, and captains, so all of my upperclassmen. You don’t usually see second lieutenants up at headquarters, so they are all wondering why is this second lieutenant here?

“So they stopped me in the hallway and you know how upperclassmen are. I’m standing there like a plebe. They are like, ‘What the hell are you doing in the hallway?’ ‘Why do you want to join SAF?’ And I’m like, ‘What?’” Dizon had no idea what they were talking about but figured he would simply say a bunch of yes sirs until his upperclassmen left him alone. That was how his name ended up on the roster for the Special Action Force.

Dizon was assigned to begin training the first generation of SAF companies. In those early days, they had two line companies and a counterterrorist company, as well as a light armored company and a headquarters. Dizon enjoyed his first exposure to special operations because he realized that, in a small unit, you can focus on teaching individual soldiers.

Over a coffee at a Starbucks in Manila, I asked Dizon what the SAF’s mission was at that time.

“We used to kid around that it was everything and anything. We were used in CT operations. We were sent to anywhere they thought there was a high threat. Eventually we realized that all of this is basically training. The real goal was to be able to support the constabulary in case…it ended up being in 1986…we were the power base of General Ramos.”