No fear: The SAF commando way of life
Dulce Sanchez (The Philippine Star) - February 4, 2015 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - For those who decide to join the elite police Special Action Force (SAF), the sacrifices start with basic training and do not stop until they are killed or transferred to another unit.

“Ricky” spent 10 years with the SAF and is now assigned to a precinct where the most action he gets is driving a patrol car around and manning a checkpoint.

Upon hearing of the deaths of the SAF troopers he worked with, he lit candles for the seven members of his old team and for the 37 he never had the honor to work with.

“If the target was indeed neutralized, the sacrifice was worth it,” he said, referring to Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan.

He described the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)’s leaders as “cunning” and definitely “not to be trusted.”


Training for torture

SAF commandos undergo physical and psychological hardship as they train like Marines or Scout Rangers on top of learning laws and police operational procedures.

“The formula is this: Special Forces plus Scout Rangers plus Force Recon equals a SAF commando,” Ricky said. The SAF’s idea of introducing a trooper taking a Waterborne course is having the police officer swim one mile into the sea, first in swimming trunks, then in their training uniform with combat shoes. The third part of the course involves a police officer swimming wearing the uniform and carrying a backpack containing 30 kilos of gear and a rifle, all wrapped in waterproof plastic.

An Air-to-Ground Operation Seminar has a SAF police officer jumping from a helicopter about 10 feet off the ground, carrying a 30-kilo backpack and a rifle, then running to engage the enemy as soon as they hit the ground.

Those learning close-quarters battle techniques are grouped into eight-man teams as they go from room to room.

What is not included in the official training courses are tactics to render them inured to torture: making police officers squat and eat meals in a bathroom overflowing with feces; hanging on to a tree branch, enduring being bitten by red ants while clad only in their underwear; being grabbed at night, hogtied and dropped into the sea; and spending the night outdoors, sitting in a drum of water.

Even while drinking, the SAF train their members to remain in control. Someone who becomes “ma-uy,” a quarrelsome, noisy drunk, gets punished, Ricky said.

Among the more common forms of punishment are the “tusok-ulo,” which has a SAF member assume a pose similar to yoga’s downward dog, except that the head, not the hands touch the floor; and the “kaldag,” a quick, hard jab to the solar plexus.


Going for a ‘walk’

Ricky said SAF police officers receive their mission orders through verbal commands or through text messages, with code words used. These code words are unique to each team or battalion.

Directions on paper leave these orders vulnerable to being intercepted by criminals or terrorists, he said.

Once they receive their mission orders, each police officer usually calls or sends text messages to their loved ones, saying “May lakad kami (We are going for a walk).” According to Ricky, SAF members simply tell their loved ones they will contact them when they get back. No goodbyes, lest they be permanent, he said. Missions can sometimes last as long as three weeks, with no contact between SAF members and their families, he said. SAF members who are about to get or just got married or celebrate their birthday are excluded from missions, Ricky said, based on a superstition that they are more likely to get killed.


Makeup, panty liners

Real men, according to him, wear makeup and panty liners – just not where people expect. Part of their preparation is wearing shoe polish for night missions so the enemy will not see their faces.

They put panty liners on the soles of their feet, before putting on socks and combat boots, to absorb moisture and prevent fungal infection. Some cases are so bad that there are weeping sores between the toes and toenails fall off, he said.

Panty liners and individually wrapped sanitary napkins are also good for absorbing blood and protecting wounds, Ricky added. Bright and shiny items, like a rifle barrel and jewelry, can get you killed when they reflect sunlight, he said. SAF troopers take pains to dull the shine of metal weapons and avoid wearing even wedding rings during missions. Ricky also said that smoking can kill a SAF trooper – the scent of cigarette smoke alerts those in the area to your presence and the light at the tip of a cigarette means there is a fool at the other end.

“A lit cigarette gives the enemy enough light and makes you a target,” he said.

Those who go on a mission bring enough food, rations and pots and pans to last the duration of the mission. SAF troopers do not accept food or drink from residents of an area when they are on a mission and do not pick fruit or leaves in order to leave less of a path for enemies to follow, according to Ricky. Once a SAF trooper goes on a mission, they cannot use bath and laundry soaps. “Soap bubbles or scent travel through water and may give away your location,” he said, adding that it also means they can’t enjoy a normal bath until a mission is over.

While the public has expressed horror that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters stripped the slain SAF members of their uniform and gear, Ricky said he has seen this many times, and he and their colleagues often try to salvage mobile phones and mementos they keep.


Coming back

Back at police camps, Ricky recalls playing “endless” games of chess, jogging to keep fit, doing target practice and sparring to spend the days between missions. While serving at a camp in Abra de Ilog town in Occidental Mindoro, he witnessed one SAF member run amok, threatening their commander with a grenade, after the official refused to allow him to visit his family.

The same official was reportedly co-opted by a local politician to compel his men to serve as a private army.

Ricky said the long periods of separation take a toll on marriages: one SAF member’s wife had a nervous breakdown and remains unable to function, while others have had wives call or send them messages to tell them they found another man.

Others come back from visits home only to tell that they have been cuckolded, that other men have taken their place, even as they continued to send money home, he added.

SAF members treasure laptop computers and “time-share” them with colleagues so they can view photos of loved ones on social media websites, according to Ricky.


Food, glorious food

Ricky said while he understands that each police camp has been allotted funds to buy food for its personnel, he and other police officers assigned in provincial camps have had to contribute P500 each payday just to get barely enough food to eat.

In Jolo and Tawi-Tawi, he said that for their contribution, they get a cup of rice and two pieces of sardines, a matchbox-sized piece of chicken or a cup of vegetable stew at each meal. “Eggs, pork and beef are dreams best left to those assigned to police camps in urban areas,” Ricky joked.

Sometimes, for variety, they buy tuna from the local wet markets using their own money, he said.

For the simple chore of buying food, toiletries and other supplies outside the police camp, SAF police officers go in teams and are armed, alert for ambushes, according to Ricky.

On visits home from his assignments in Mindanao, Ricky said he gorges on pork adobo, beef nilaga, freshwater fish such as tilapia and bangus, and as much fried chicken as he can eat.


One of the dead

Before he was transferred four years ago, he had been angling to be assigned to the police camp in Maguindanao. “The conditions there are better than in Jolo and Tawi-Tawi,” Ricky said. “If I had not been transferred, I could have been one of the dead.”

He shakes his head as he remembers why he had asked for a transfer: his daughter was growing up and he wanted to get to know her in person, rather than as a voice on his mobile phone.

Ricky said he started working toward a transfer after two of his “brothers” were killed protecting a politician in Sulu. “I saw rifle bullets rip their bodies apart,” he said, adding that one colleague, who was 27 years old, was about to go home and see his newborn baby after that mission.


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