Although Rafael Zagala was born at Fort San Pedro in Iloilo City, he is a full blooded Taaleño, with both of his parents being from Taal. Rafael followed his father’s footsteps and became a military man after finishing his Bachelor of Arts degree from Ateneo. In 1942, he was among the thousands of soldiers in the brutal Death March to Tarlac. Upon his release, he joined the resistance movement which gained momentum during Japanese occupation.
He became Battalion Commander of the Hunter R.O.T.C. Guerilla during the liberation period. From 1966 to 1968, he was commanding officer of the Security Battalion, Philcag in Vietnam. When he returned in 1968, he became Deputy Commander of the Military Area. In 1969, he became Area Commander of IMA and was later elevated to Brigadier General.
He was Commander of the 1st Infantry Division in 1970 and later designated Deputy Commander of the Philippine Army. In 1972, he became Chief of the Philippine Army. In 1974, General Zagala received the prestigious Cavalier Award from the Philippine Military Academy Alumni Association. In 1973, was elevated to the rank of Major General followed by an award of the Philippine Legion of Honor, Degree of Commander, awarded to him by the President of the Philippines.