By Djiego Cura-Igama
Philippine special forces units have always been an elusive yet popular discussion point that captivates military analysts and enthusiasts both in the Philippines and abroad. Whether the units in question are the Philippine Navy’s NAVSOG operators, considered the Philippine’s equivalent of US Navy SEALs, the jungle warfare specialist Scout Rangers, airborne qualified Special Forces Regiment operators, or the Marine’s MARSOG unit, each and every AFP SOCOM unit is one that intrigues many, yet shrouds their exploits in secrecy.
One special operations unit distinguishes itself in particular, yet maintains an especially thick, covert veil over its activities. This unit is the Army’s Light Reaction Regiment (LRR). The LRR attained unprecedented publicity fairly recently through videos of the Battle of Marawi, however, such glimpses into the LRR are still quite rare. This fairly new yet premier special operations unit was formalized in 2000, and participates in various operations across the Philippines, having plaid a pivotal role in the Zamboanga City siege of 2013, and operating as the tip of the spear during the 2017 Battle of Marawi. Because of LRR’s unmatched effectiveness on the battlefield, and classified nature of their missions, they have earned the nickname of the Philippine’s CAG (AKA Delta Force/1-SFOD-D, the US Army’s premier special missions unit).
We have the privilege of obtaining an interview with Francis Villanueva, attorney of 19 years, former bass guitarist with Francis Magalona’s (a famous Filipino musician) band, recreational shooter, and author of Tiradores: The Missions and Men of the Philippine’s Light Reaction Regiment. His book is the most comprehensive collection of the LRR’s once classified missions and the many adventurous tales of the men within the Light Reaction Regiment. He shares with us his years long journey in the creation of Tiradores.
Mr. Villanueva, it’s a pleasure having you for this interview. To start, could you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a lawyer by profession for 19 years already. In my younger days, I was a professional musician. I was the bass player in the band of a Pinoy music icon, the late Francis Magalona. I was with him from 1993 until his death in 2009. I used to be an avid practical shooter, but the book kept me preoccupied, plus shooting costs in the Philippines are really prohibitive.
You’re the author of Tiradores: The Missions and Men of the Philippines’ Light Reaction Regiment, which so far is the only comprehensive and detailed book that focuses on the LRR as its subject. What inspired you to take on such a massive undertaking?
Back in 2014, I had a group made up of military simulation enthusiasts. Somehow, LRR leadership, at that time, took interest in us and we became the designated “bad guys” during training exercises of LRR’s counter terrorist classes and sustainment training of their companies until 2016. For an enthusiast like me, it was heaven sent. I saw them in action, close to real-world scenarios, but in training conditions. And I think we made their training more realistic and gave them a different feel. We “deployed” multiple times with them and in the course of these training deployments, I became close to the unit, heard their stories, and became close with some of its members. This was the start of that desire in me to document their history.
How long was the process from finally starting to work on the book and completion?
It was more or less 4 years. I came up with the concept sometime in November 2015 and by December 23rd of 2015 I was having lunch with Lieutenant General Danilo Pamonag (Ret.), LRR’s regiment commander at that time, and Major Al Victor Burkley, then commandant of LRR’s school. Sir Dan gave me his blessing to write their stories on that day. I was supposed to finish writing by 2017, but the Marawi crisis came up and I had to wait. I finished the basic manuscript by 2018 and it went through editing and several revisions for about a year. It was ready by September 2019, but I had to delay its release due to some printing and publishing concerns with Amazon. I finally published it on March 26, 2020.
To follow up to the last question, what were the biggest hurdles to come across?
I think my biggest hurdle was the enormity of the subject matter. It was 20 years worth of its history. I had to narrow down the scope. It looked very daunting initially but with the help of LRR, I was able to limit the contents. It was impossible to document all their missions in 1 book, so we decided to select only the significant ones that highlighted the entire scope of their capabilities. There was also the hurdle of Marawi. I thought I was done when I finished the Zamboanga siege chapters but when the Marawi crisis broke out, I knew I needed to wait for its outcome to include that. And when the crisis ended, I thought I could work on it right away. I was wrong. Marawi had so many skirmishes involving different participants with varying interpretations of what transpired. I knew where to start and where to end because LRR started and finished it. What to write in between became a considerable obstacle. I had to filter a lot of things and focus only on LRR’s participation and major contributions.
Major Teodoro Llamas, who led and served in the LRR, is cited as being a major figure in the course of shaping the Tiradores book. In what way did he help assist in the development of the book?
Major Llamas was my mentor/consultant. I consulted him and listened to his views on stories/issues in the book that I felt might be controversial. I relied heavily on his stories and insights pertaining to LRR’s creation and early years. And I sought his final opinion/comment on the final manuscript.
Did you know Colonel Llamas prior to the making the book; or were you two friends for some time?
No. I only met him when I was already writing the 1st chapter. He was JSOG commander during that time.
What were his initial thoughts about this project you two were undertaking?
He was glad that somebody decided to write something about LRR. I remember him telling me to write the book with integrity and not sugar coat stories.
Of all the Philippine special operations units, each with their own colorful, unique histories and legendary exploits, what magnetized you to tell the stories about the Light Reaction Regiment?
I think it was the secrecy and obscurity surrounding the Unit that drew me to it. I can also include my closeness with the Unit. I’ve had prior interactions also with other Philippine SOF units and they’re good. But LRR operators are on another level. They’re the real deal. I vividly remember being on the receiving end of a rolling assault conducted by LRR assaulters during one of our training deployments with them. I was “dead” even before I could even fire my “gun”. It was impressive and scary at the same time. And that was 4 years ago. LRR operators are far better “animals” now.
The Light Reaction Regiment was a known but obscure special operations unit whose missions have only been recently publicized. When did you first have knowledge of LRR, and did you hear from a military friend or through happenstance?
Just like the rest of you guys, my initial knowledge of the Unit came from what was available in the media and second-hand stories. During my airsoft days back in 2008, I used to hear about LRB (Light Reaction Battalion) as the Philippine’s version of CAG and the most well-equipped unit in the AFP.
A lot of enigmatic and interesting characters like Shadow, whose religious talisman seems to have given him supernatural protection numerous times from gunfire and shrapnel, or Golf-Three, who led STG sniper teams using innovative tactics and equipment, have their stories told through Tiradores. Which particular operator’s story stood out to you personally?
That’s a difficult choice. In terms of personal journey and close encounters, Shadow’s story stands out. He is a legend within a unit filled with legends in their own rights. In terms of innovation and contributions to the improvement of the Unit, Golf-Three is without peer. No one comes close to what he did and what he’s still doing for the Unit. Up to now, he’s still developing means to improve their lethality. Another operator’s story who I feel stands out is the story of Wild Orchids. I only included one of his stories due to the limited space but he has a lot.
Being a bit broader with this inquiry, which section of your writing would be your most favorite?
Definitely the Marawi chapters. I think the interviews I conducted for Marawi played a big role. Stories were still fresh in the minds of the interviewees and they laid down everything on the table. I was able to create a logical outline and a smoother flowing story. In the Zamboanga chapters, I relied mostly on After Battle Reports with some interviews that were not very detailed.
The book is picking up a lot of traction as of late. How do you feel about the surge in interest?
It’s flattering but I’m hoping to generate more interest specially among the Filipino communities abroad. So far, I haven’t done any marketing except in Facebook. I hope that this interview will help generate more interest in the book.
You recently sent a signed and personalized copy of Tiradores to President Duterte. What did this experience mean to you?
It’s really special. Seeing it in the hands of the Commander-in-Chief is something I never dreamed of back when I just was starting Chapter 1. I remember telling Golf-Three in 2019 that I wanted to give the President a copy. Seeing it in his hand 1 year after is a surreal experience. I still can’t believe it. Knowing how busy he is, I hope he finishes it.
And finally, do you have any closing remarks for the readers?
Filipinos are a proud race. One source of that great Pinoy pride is the subject matter of my book, that highly secretive military unit that saved Central Mindanao 3 years ago from becoming an IS Caliphate. The title of my book is “Tiradores: Missions And The Men Of The Philippines’ Light Reaction Regiment”. This is the only one of its kind by a Filipino author. And I’m hoping Filipino communities abroad will take notice. This book will provide readers access to behind-the-scene stories and will take them through a journey dating back from the unit’s inception in 2000 up to its present incarnation, with a glimpse of some of its unheralded accomplishments that remained behind the shadows until now. It will be a roller coaster ride that will take readers across the mountains, jungles and urban centers of Mindanao and discover along the way unpublished personal accounts of the Philippine’s most elite CT operators as they hunted the most notorious and dangerous high-value targets included in the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists across the Philippines. If you’re fond of true-to-life stories of heroism and sacrifice, this book is for you. If you’re a Filipino patriot, this book is definitely worthy of your collection. This book is available on Amazon, in both paperback and Kindle format.