When I wrote about the Committee’s recommendations to Strengthen National Service (NS), to have better engagement and to focus on unit-level concerns, it dawned on me that nearly two-and-a-half-years on I have never thought about my NS experience in its entirety.
I got lucky – I think. Saying no to command school two years of service was supposed to have miserable consequences, as it was for some of my friends. There were few complaints on the training grounds, and it was in the units where the “this-is-for-your-own-good” and “I-am-your-superior” and “if-you-do-not-do-this-I-will…” justified inefficiencies, and sometimes befuddling idiocies (or egos, perhaps). At the base of the hierarchy discipline and regimentation can be very unforgiving, and – unlike trainees who will eventually assume leadership positions – men learn to deal with the condescension hurled at them.
Bureaucratic organisations function like this, some argue. Except resignation (literally) and escalation (hail the almighty chain of command) are unfortunately not options.
Good commanders are hard to come by, and as luck would have it most of my direct specialists and officers were great people. Maybe it was the nature of our operations and the small-sized reconnaissance teams, because my batch of eight – the troopers, as we were called – was treated respectfully. Sometimes even as equals. Incredible in retrospect, with these opinionated and sarcastic troopers always asking “why”. More incredible with our perpetual scepticism, me getting into trouble, and me writing like a twat here.
These interactions often slip my mind. Instead I remember the battalion personalities who had little regard for their full-time national servicemen (NSFs). Hurling abuse and barking orders, getting the NSFs to run silly errands or do administrative chores “just to fill time”. Seems insignificant and laughable now. Yet in a routine-driven environment where the end is months away, and over which you have no control, negative events are very much amplified.
For a long time I was frustrated. Tired. Insecure. I was immature, and treated some of my peers poorly. I became small-minded, and fretted over every injustice. I did things I should not have done, said stuff I should not have said, but somehow became a better person.
Physically… That I was the only one in my junior college class to go through the Physical Training Phase (if you did badly for the final fitness tests) means I was behind the curve from the get-go. Basic Military Training was memorable with the bunkmates, and manageable with the progressive training. Everyone had a good laugh when the officer announced “only one Apache recruit for the recce selection interview: 2202”. I was a bag of nerves.
Training to be a reconnaissance trooper was just painful. Even more agonising in my physical condition. For half a year we had the field camps, the fast and route marches, the navigation exercises and the long-walks… Too much la. My first four-kilometre full-load fast march was a nightmare. Had to drag my sorry self and the 30-kilogram ALICE pack back to battalion line. Damn paiseh. When we finally donned the jungle hat in Taiwan it was probably more relief than a sense of satisfaction, that training intensity was going to drop.
A couple of months later I dislocated my shoulder. Funny how these things turn out eh.
There is some truth to this greener-pastures perspective – anecdotally, at least. While I am not clamouring to enlist again I do miss the pockets of time (especially as we counted down to our Operationally-Ready Date) we had to read and write. To play Patapon on the PSP. To watch Korean videos. To decide what to order – or get someone to dapao – for (lunch, dinner) supper. In fact heading outfield, away from the regimentation in the unit, was enjoyable too.
After the company barbeque on Monday I was finally struck with a wave of emotions, nearly two-and-a-half-years later (my last weeks were spent planning for the inaugural preparatory conference). Everyone was on a different life trajectory, yet the small conversations on bunk and army life struck the same chord. Even when we the eight troopers gather once in a while we reminiscence about getting hor-lan, about the aforementioned douchebags, and the late night-early morning chats in bunk.
I really got lucky.