Army Stories to Stave Off Dementia
Because I don't wanna miss a thing
God damn that was a long break. This draft has been sitting on my laptop for a solid two months, but here it is at last.
Here is a letter to myself, at an undisclosed time in the future, to remind myself that I was a soldier once, and young. We got up to some crazy shit. As I compile this list, it occurs to me how many of them have featured in my writing in one stylised form or another. This is not my first attempt at chronicling the things that happened, the sights I saw, the people I served with. I’m not certain there will ever be a day where I say ‘this is my last attempt’. But if I’m ever going to get there, here’s as good a place to start as any.
Yeah I guess you can come along too.
The Gang Learns to Shower with a Hose
When I was 12 and in a Catholic boys’ school for the first time, we had an orientation camp at the start of the year where we ‘showered’ by standing under a balcony in a big, semi-naked group, while some of the older students who were camp councillors sprayed us down with a firehose from the second floor.
Fast forward several years and I’m in Army basic training, which can be summed up as a series of hurried experiences. You’re constantly hounded to move faster or die.
So there I am, crammed into a small bathroom with 60 other guys. There’s only about 4 shower stalls and we have 3 minutes to shower, change, get in our bunks, and be asleep. The sergeants are counting down constantly, screaming up from the ground floor (we’re 5 storeys up), and we are each painfully aware of the seconds ticking past.
But we’re packed nuts to butts in here. We’re already cramming in as many guys per shower stall as possible but there’s only so much space. Some guys have already decided to forgo hygiene altogether and climb into their bunks covered in dirt. Now I will do many things, but I will not put up with sleeping dirty if I can help it (incidentally at plenty of other points in basic training I did have to sleep dirty because I could not, in fact, help it - suffice to say a lot of physical punishment was involved).
So I grab the hose that was usually used to clean the toilets, turn on the tap, and start spraying my platoonmates, foam party style. Within 90 seconds I’ve managed to clear half the crowd so I turn the hose on myself. If you’ve never had the experience of showering yourself down with a toilet hose in a cramped room of sweaty dudes while angry men are barking up at you from several floors below about how they’re this close to fucking your shit up, I highly recommend it.
It’s a very formative experience.
The Gang Smuggles in an Air-Conditioning Unit
Then I went to officer cadet school. The way our military works, everybody goes through basic training together, and then based on your performance you get selected for officer training. There’s no getting a commission purely by virtue of a college degree here.
I was placed in a new bunk with 3 other cadets, a luxurious upgrade from basic training wherein we crammed in 16 to a room. The room we were assigned to was on the outermost section of our building, and the wall behind our beds faced the afternoon sun, which made our room hotter than hell since it was the height of summer. Not that that means much because it is perpetually above 31°C in Singapore all year around, but in summer it reaches highs of 36°C with humidity at 100%.
So we did what any enterprising and rebellious group of senior cadets would think of and wish they could pull off - we got a portable air-conditioner and smuggled it onto the base.
Now as cadets, we had a lot to lose - if you got expelled from training, that’s a bad mark on your service record, not to mention a lot of wasted time, pain, and effort. So before we did all this, obviously we asked our sergeant major first. He thought it was hilarious. Bearing in mind this is officer cadet school, you’d think that we’d ask the higher-ranking officers, but trust us, we knew what we were doing.
So we grabbed the rolls of plastic talc that we used in map planning and table-top military exercises, for the purposes of drawing of arrows and other impressive symbols, and we sealed the windows. Then we wheeled the air-conditioner the entire 1km walk in (it looked like R2-D2 really), and we began enjoying our little slice of civilised life in that little concrete box that we called home away from home. Obviously we told the entire platoon and obviously everyone showed up to marvel at our shining, daring monument to malicious compliance.
And the best part? We still passed bunk inspection, and we always had the best room in the entire unit.
The Gang Watches 50 Shades of Grey at 0400hrs while Eating Instant Noodles
Once upon a time, we had to clear a 24km route march as a buildup to our infantry skills test so we could be awarded the Combat Skills Badge (more on this later). We were slated to ship out to [redacted] in a couple of weeks, and our instructors had drawn up plans for us to just do the route march overseas.
Why? Because the air was on fire outside at the time, that’s why.
Every year, Indonesian farmers in Kalimantan set their rainforest on fire to clear land for farming activities. This, understandably, generates an enormous cloud of hazy smoke that persists for weeks and drifts westward to suffocate the entirety of Singapore. If you remember the California wildfires and how everything was smokey and shit, that’s basically what we have to deal with every year.
So back to the Army. It just so happens that ‘Indonesian Fire Festival’ is on, and the air outside is too polluted for us to do any physical activity. Pretty normal stuff. Our route march for Thursday night / Friday morning is cancelled (because we can only march at night - otherwise, too many people would collapse from heat injury). We should probably just go home for the weekend and do the march in [redacted] right?
Wrong. Some colonel has decided he finally wants to get the Combat Skills Badge too, and he’s not going overseas with us, and yet Army safety protocols dictate that he MUST clear this 24km march or he’s not allowed to take the test. So he insists on keeping us around in the vain hope that the smoke magically clears and we can all go for a really long walk.
So commencing that Friday evening at 1800hrs, we are on a constant 2-hour standby cycle just waiting for the smoke to clear. We’d fall in, chug a half litre of water, be told that the smoke hasn’t cleared (because obviously we lack functioning eyeballs and can’t see that for ourselves), and then go back up to bunk to wait another 2 hours. We did that at 2000hrs, 2200hrs, 0000hrs, 0200hrs, 0400hrs, and 0600hrs.
By the way, yes this was when we had our air-conditioner around. And yes, it was great not having to sleep in smoke.
So we’d go down, drink water, be told obvious facts about the weather, and go back up to sleep for 90 minutes before coming back down to repeat the cycle again. Finally, at 0400hrs, my room gets fed up and we decide we’re going to do something different.
Now some of you may recall a few years ago when Samsung released a phone with a built-in projector. Well, one of my bunkmates had that phone. He also had 50 Shades of Grey on it. You know what’s coming next.
We cleared a space on the wall, all piled in together, projected said movie onto said wall, made some cup noodles, and watched a fucking terrible movie to make a set of terrible conditions slightly less terrible. We had laughs at the movie’s expense, and ours, but every now and then I’d look outside and feel a little bit better that I wasn’t stuck outside in that unending cloud of ashy cotton smoke. Instead I was inside, with my brothers, tucked away in our little pocket of temperature-controlled darkness, well-fed and content with nothing to waste but time.
It’s still one of my fondest memories from the service.
The Gang Crosses a Shit-Filled Swamp
Okay last story. Remember that Combat Skills Badge test I mentioned? In a nutshell, it’s a test of infantry skills that I’m pretty sure is based off the US Army’s Expert Infantryman Badge, because it’s basically the same thing.
Basically, we march 32km (20 miles) while humping 30+ kilos (70+lbs) of combat weight in under 7 hours. During that time, we have to clear at least 2 skills tests (weapon handling, grenade throwing, etc.) and we have to cross a ‘water obstacle’. At the end, we also have to pass a combat shoot.
Now normally, this test is conducted on the Singapore mainland, on normal roads with the water crossing at the 29km mark so you only have to march for another 3km soaking wet (the water adds at least another 5kg / 11lbs to your load). However, I experienced the dubious privilege of doing it during this strange transition period wherein the Chief Infantry Officer thought it was “too easy” to pass the test. He wanted the test to be more ‘elite’.
So instead, we went to Pulau Tekong, which is the offshore island where basic training is conducted and hopes go to die. For the uninitiated, Pulau Tekong has no roads; it has rocky dirt tracks in the jungle. Also, it is on average 1-2°C hotter than the mainland, depending on the time. Lastly, my unit had just returned from [redacted] which enjoyed a semi-temperate climate and hence we were not ready for the sheer, sweaty fuckery about to befall us.
So off we went, bumbling into the dark jungle in the middle of the night, unable to see where we were walking, on incredibly challenging terrain. Again, the march is still timed, so we’re practically running the entire time while humping 70+lbs. People are tripping over rocks and such in the dark, and lots of people need to fall out from either injuries or heat exhaustion. About 19km in, we arrive at the ‘water obstacle’.
Remember how I said the other route on the mainland has the water crossing at the 29km mark? Yeah, it’s been brought forward by about 10km worth on this route. Second, the mainland water obstacle is a small river. What we had on Tekong was instead a swamp. A swamp that smelled like ass and, as I later found out, was actually being used off-and-on as a latrine point, and hence was filled with human excrement.
Not that we knew it at the time, because you know, all swamps smell bad.
I’m the second man to cross. Now I haven’t told you yet of the blisters on my feet that had burst and spawned new blisters inside of them, or the spots on my body where the skin had been abraded off, leaving only ribbons of raw flesh, but let me tell you - as soon as I set foot into that cold brackish muck, my entire body lit up like what I imagine a Christmas tree would feel like if fairy lights hurt and trees felt pain.
The mud beneath the surface is thick and clings onto my boots as I move forward, my pack floating behind me connected via rope, my rifle held overhead. The water rises with each step. And then it rushes overhead as I plunge under, head fully submerged. I’ve managed to stumble onto the section where the swamp bottoms out.
I keep walking, my eyes squeezed shut, clinging onto whatever breath my lungs still have. My boots shuffle forward. Then they find purchase on a slope, and I rise up, sputtering and covered in filth. It is still pitch black so the instructors can only see what their lights show them, but a human figure emerges from under the slick, oily surface. The water drains from my helmet and aside from my heart pounding in my ears, I hear someone scream at me,
“Well hurry the fuck up, everyone’s waiting for you!”
And then I carry on. I continue forward until I extricate myself from the swamp fully. I can no longer smell anything. Covered in muck and filth, I fall asleep by the side of a dirt track as I wait for the rest of my company to cross. It is the best sleep I’ve ever had. All the while, I am enjoying the taste of humid night air more than you will ever understand.
45 minutes later, we move off, soaked to the bone and our equipment soggy. We finish the march in 6 hours and 20 minutes. I score full marks on my technical tests and the combat shoot. I earn my Combat Skills Badge.
And then like 2 days after I come down with a nasty viral infection of Herpangina that manifests in like a hundred ulcers in my mouth and a 40°C fever. I am unable to eat for a week, and I learn new benchmarks for what constitutes pain. I still don’t know if I got it because my head got dunked or because of all the open wounds that I had.
Either way, thanks for the story, shit-swamp.