Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Me and My...National Service Part 1

I deliberated over this post for the longest time. It certainly wasn't easy to devise the words. But my intention for this blog was always to record the fragments of my life. Time respects neither our joys nor our sorrows; but I think I need to be conscientious with the truth if this blog is to remain my authentic voice.

So, this post will be long and it will be rather serious. It will also detail a rather gruesome death. Consider this a disclaimer.

The tail end of 1993 saw me entering National Service (NS). It is compulsory for all male citizens and in my time, the service period was 2 years and 6 months, with a 2 month "discount" if you passed a fitness test. I remember obtaining that discount by squeezing out that *one* minimum pull up. Never has so much effort gone into so small a physical act.

I had just returned to my country after spending 2 years in Canada and 4 in the UK. My ambivalence towards NS was only matched by my anger at the compulsory nature of it. It was with a melancholic heart that I had my head shaved and entered into...

BMT (Basic Military Training)

This is the 3 month period that all recruits undergo to learn the basics before being deployed into specialist vocations. The basics included rifle training, physical fitness, military training, patriotism (it's a little pointless to learn the skills but not be prepared to die for your country!) etc.

I was posted to Section 1 of Platoon 17 in Echo Company. It was a hoot. We were a disparate bunch; from graduates to boys who never had more than 5 years' formal education; from wannabe sophisticates to boys whose NS stint was the first time they were spending more than a night away from home; from boys who grew up in a world of Charlie's Angels, Remington Steele, Dynasty and Moonlighting (ahem) to boys who could barely string together an English sentence.

The design was clear; put together a group of people with different ethnic, socio-economic and educational backgrounds. By sharing common experiences, they will derive much from the differences as they learn from each other's strengths. And we did. I remember the guy in the next bunk teaching me the best way to shine my boots. I introduced him to the first novel he had ever finished reading (John Grisham's The Firm).

Platoon 17 was a disgrace; the sloppiest, most lackadaisical platoon in the company. We couldn't march in time, our time-keeping was consistent only in its unremitting lateness and we just couldn't seem to take it all very seriously. It was hilarious. One fire drill saw us running around like head-free poultry and squawking like fish wives. We were last to assemble at the meeting point, of course - with one of us even managing to make an appearance in a towel.

Physical training sessions were particularly inane with the instructors' in-your-face macho posturing, like an intensified Debbie Allen in Fame. Just without the scary stick. At times it was like Private Benjamin and I often wondered how we would ever defend our country with hapless recruits like us. Render our enemies helpless with laughter I reckoned.

My second most memorable experience in BMT was our field camp, a 3 day exercise that would propel us to our physical limits and reveal the secrets of jungle survival. Of course it turned out to be neither. We arrived at a large field (there is no wilderness in my country of birth, let alone a jungle) that was overgrown with lalang (a long bladed grass that causes severe itchiness) and which seemed to be a convention centre for mosquitoes. In the sweltering humidity, these woeful recruits certainly weren't relishing the experience.

The toilet was literally several holes dug into the ground which flooded on the first day. The thought of doing the Big Lebowski with its potential attendant splashback was simply unbearable. Funny how the body reacts to such horrors. Mine simply refused to "go" for three days (too much information...?)!

But oh, the unbridled joy when the heavens did its own Number One and heaved its contents in the afternoon! Everyone thought our field camp would be cancelled. *Hours* later, as a small flood overwhelmed the pathetic drainage system around our tents, instructions were issued for us to come out of our soaked tents and reinforce the drainage. Clearly, this was to be Field Camp Experience - The Extreme Edition.

I cannot really recall what I learnt from the three days. I think there was a how-to-kill-a-chicken lesson but I don't remember a chicken being present. There was one exercise where we had to "tactically move" undetected across a 20 metre stretch of vegetation. My buddy (in NS you are paired off with a Buddy for the duration of the training) and I did a leopard crawl across that damned lalang, got lost, and emerged at the feet of our Sergeant-Major ("What are you doing?" he bellowed). The other recruits managed to find a concrete storm drain and run across that.

There were no showers of course. My single greatest accomplishment during this camp was to smuggle in some wet wipes (there was an inspection before we arrived to ensure we only brought standard issue items). Others returned from camp with hideous displays of rashes and 3 day old camouflage face paint. Buddy and I returned with squeaky clean faces and no spots, much to everyone's amazement.

At the end of Week 5, we had to complete a peer appraisal form and rank everyone in our platoon. Categories included Leadership Quality, Stress Tolerance and Best Preferred Friend. I'm not making this up. Apparently I came in the top ten for Leadership but truth to tell, I think that was because I studied overseas and not because anyone knew me in depth. As someone said to me, "Overseas student, what! It's not as if we like you or anything." Charming!

Week 6 of BMT was our rifle range trial test. This would be the day that would alter the course of my life. The day started with Platoon 19 (another platoon in the same company) being late to assemble for the march to the rifle range. Recruit K from Platoon 19 was yelled at by Platoon Commander W for being particularly slow.

I didn't know K very well. However at every rifle practise session, the routine was always the same. K would assist the person before him who would be in a foxhole; arranging sandbags, picking up the spent cartridges etc. I would assist K when he was in the foxhole and the person behind me would assist me etc. At the shooting chamber that morning, whilst waiting for our turn, I noticed K in front of me had put 3 rounds in his rifle magazine, instead of the requisite 1.

I prodded him but he totally ignored me. I asked him to clarify the process with W but he totally ignored me. I concluded that he was trying to cheat on the test by cutting down his reloading time.

When it was K's turn to assist the person in front, he was extremely distracted throughout; failing to observe procedures that had been drilled into us for the last 6 weeks. W even punished him with push ups; exchanging a what-is-this-boy-doing look with me.

K's turn to fire. The distant target popped up and in the periphery of my vision, I glimpsed a rifle being flipped over. K had turned the rifle towards himself and all I could see was the butt of the rifle sticking out of the foxhole. The supervising officer literally flew, screaming, towards the foxhole. A screech of "What are you doing?!", a brief struggle during which K disappeared from view and all I could see was the officer gripping the rifle butt and trying with all his might to wrench the weapon free. There were shots(2?) and awfully, horribly, dismally, I saw K's hand disappear into the dugout.

I was ushered out of the chamber amid pandemonium. Screams of "Medic", who turned up after what seemed like a very long interval. I witnessed the ghastly sight of K being carried out of the foxhole. He had a large hole in his abdomen and his intestines rested in a mound on his body. Red and white. W had to carry his intestines while another officer carried K into a vehicle. As W later said, "I didn't know whether to carry them, push them in, or bandage them."

K was rushed to the medical centre where a chopper was waiting to transfer him to a hospital. Apparently at the medical centre, they made incisions in K's thighs to extract veins for a heart bypass. He passed away an hour later.

Back at the shooting chamber, there were people. Lots and lots of people. People taking photos, asking me where I stood, knelt, what I said, saw. I finally looked into foxhole K had been in. Thick blood, at least an inch thick, on the ground and streaks on the walls.

I was sequestered from the rest of the company for awhile and then had to (unwillingly) join them for lunch. All the witnesses were then driven back to camp where we were interviewed by CID. Later we were questioned by a Board of Inquiry which had been convened. This lasted the entire day. That night, a guard was posted outside my bunk. Not sure if they thought I was going to jump out a window or sleepwalk.

The next day I was instructed to see the medic who dismisssed me with a you'll-overcome-it speech. I had a conversation with W who was in really bad shape. He blamed himself for shouting at K that morning and then for not noticing that something was amiss at the chamber.

That night I was summoned out of bed at 2330 to read through and sign the witness statements.

Day 2 after the incident and I was instructed to see the Orientation Officer, whose responsibility is to ensure the welfare of recruits and to offer counselling. His counsel to me: "Not your fault. Bye bye."

It was an arduous afternoon. The interview with Internal Security (I think) lasted 2 hours and then back to the Board of Inquiry for another session. I returned zombie-like to take my grenade launcher test.

Days later, I found out K had written his suicide note on the palm of his hand on the morning of the rifle test. It was something to the effect of: "Please release my 3 birds. I am brave and strong but stupid to die. Bye bye my friends." The poignancy is devastatingly hearbreaking. Even more so, were his personal circumstances which came to light. His life at home was a tragic tale of abuse and he had lost his mother just before entering national service. Most of us can comprehend the moronic shouting and ordering about as part of the military experience. However he seemingly couldn't and took it all personally. These factors strived to produce a soul that felt lost, lonely and that death was the only option to obtain some measure of peace.

It certainly jarred me into soberly evaluating my priorities. The hackneyed expression that "life is not a dress rehearsal" is certainly truer than most people think. Maybe that's why I can be such a headstrong person at times. There are times you go with the flow. The other times, you have to go for the jugular to realise your endeavours.

Wow, this post took me 3 days and it was an exhausting exercise. I had planned to write just one post on my Army days (daze) but have now split it into 2 parts. If you had perservered and read it through, thank you dear reader. I hope it wasn't too depressing or horrific.

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