I continue from where I left off in the previous post. Sharing my experience meeting soldiers from other countries.
Some time in 2002.
I was looking forward for this course. I was looking forward to get off from Bedok Camp. Though I have settled down there, I never enjoyed my army life. I think I mentioned it in a previous post, I had days of leave and off that got “burned” because we were not allowed to clear them, even until the day I ORD. I never liked the working culture there. No off, no leave, book out once a week, awake from 5:30am to 1230pm. It was not fun at all.
So I really looked forward for this course. It was a General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) Commander Course at the School of Infantry Weapons (SIW) located at Pasir Laba. It was a 4 weeks course. It was a “Stay In” course, meaning we would be required to be in camp throughout the week, book out on Saturday afternoons and book in on Sunday evenings. But, it was a 9-5 course. Meaning, we would wake up for breakfast on our own time as long as we made it to classes and trainings at 9am. It would end at 5pm and it would be our own time from 5pm onwards. We also had nights off, meaning we were allowed to go out of camp after dinner at 5pm and be back in camp by 10:30pm. The nights off didn't happen every night but we had a number of them, maybe twice or thrice a week. Definitely better than the nights off frequency back in Bedok Camp.
These nights off were random. All of a sudden, they would say, “Night's off tonight.” So it happened on random evenings which we had no idea when. I have never really like random things. I like things to be planned. Random things make me anxious. Only recently when I found out I have “AS” do I understand that people with “AS” do not like random things. Since it was so random, I couldn't make plans but my girlfriend at that time was very nice. She would travel all the way from Tampines to Jurong to meet me whenever I randomly tell her that I have nights off. We would then spend most of that 4 weeks at Jurong Point.
In these 4 weeks, the trainees will be trained to be proficient in handling the GPMG and also trained to be the commander of a GPMG team.
Initially I was a section commander for Platoon 8 Section 2. Then I was transferred to platoon 9 GPMG team because the commander for that team got downgraded. I quite liked the transfer. I have less men to think of about now. (A GPMG team comprises of 3 men including the commander as compared to 7 men in a section) I was more concerned of the load that we had to carry. I was skinny and the things we had to carry as a team are heavy. I mentioned about our load in this post ; Our Cool Weapons. I was about 57kg to 60kg but the total load I had to carry was 40kg. More than half my own weight. But ok. What choice do I have?
Anyway, a GPMG team usually have to walk on our own once the platoon reaches its assault objective. We would be deployed as a firebase to provide covering fire for the rest of the platoon to assault. So ok. I wouldn't have to be involved in a direct firefight. But I have to walk further. So I don't know. There's always the pros and cons.
I went to the course with Martin. Well actually his name is Paul. Martin is his surname. But we all call him Martin. He was assigned as the GPMG team commander for platoon 8.
There were about 20 trainees in the course. I cannot remember the exact numbers. Let's just say 20. 10 trainees from the SAF and there were 10 trainees from the Brunei army. It's cool to meet soldiers from another country, as mentioned in the previous post.
To be honest, the most memorable experiences I have from this course, is the interaction with the Bruneians. They were cool. They were regular soldiers who signed up to be in the military. They were in their early to late 30s. Older than us. They were from a reconnaissance squad. “Pasukan Pemantau” they called it. The highest ranking personnel was a corporal. The rest were lance corporals and privates. Just like the Malaysian army, they were surprised to see sergeants who are so young.
What was it about them that were cool?
They were quiet and very disciplined. They didn't talk much. They were nice but they didn't talk much. Unlike these noisy Singapore boys in the bunk next door, the 10 of them had this “air of military” about them. They walk, talk and move quietly. Their faces were rugged and fierce. They had focused eyes. They were lean. They looked like real disciplined soldiers. And they were all also quite small. Lean, fit and strong but very small built. I think the tallest among them was 1.7metres tall.
On the final week of our course, we had a one night in the forest for an exercise. Yup. That was the only night that we were out in the field throughout the course. That night, I saw the coolest things that I have ever saw in the army and I still remember the images till today.
We went out to the forest in Pasir Laba. The idea of the exercise was for us to dig a GPMG trench in the hills and pretend that we have to defend the area.
One of the topics in the course was learning about creating a GPMG trench (or foxhole) and that night, we would be having a practical lesson and had to dig a real trench.
A GPMG foxhole is bigger than a normal 2 men trench (last I dug a trench was during “Exercise Nutcracker”. A Guards unit do not dig foxholes as we are always on the move. We only dig a much shallower ditch called a “shellscrape”.) If the 2 men foxhole was called a 3 room flat, the GPMG trench was called a “5 room flat”.
So in the afternoon, we broke into 2 teams. The SAF boys in one team and the Bruneians in one team. We were supposed to dig a trench each. A GPMG team comprises of 3 men but we had 10 guys to dig one trench. Should be easy right? Nope. Digging a foxhole with just that mini “cangkul” was not easy. It took hours for us to dig them. The bigger and normal cangkul was too big for us city boys to control and the smaller cangkuls are too small to dig more earth quickly.
The Bruneieans completed theirs in less than half the time we did it. While we were still digging, they were already relaxing and drinking hot drinks. They didn't help us because we were supposed to dig and learn on our own.
After like maybe 6 hours, we completed digging ours. We were then suppose to chop down trees to make the roof of the trench. We calculated and we needed about 12 stems.
I was tasked to chop down 4 trees. So I chopped a tree with a parang. I don't remember how many times I swung the parang and hit a tree. It was a very very slow process with that semi blunt parang. The other trainees had problems cutting down their part too.
Then one Brunei soldier came over to me. It was the last week so we were already talking and chatting and got to know each other since 3 weeks ago. Though I have forgotten their names.
One of them, I remember how he looked like, he was the smallest guy there. He came and asked in Malay if we needed help as they were already done with their trenches and it was getting dark. I said, my parang was blunt and I have been swinging till my arms ache and yet not one tree has fallen. He said, the parang was purposely made blunt for our training but there is always a way. You need to strike the tree stem at the right angle.
He took my parang and stood in front of the tree I was hacking. Two big swoops to the right of the tree, two swoops to the left of it and the tree has already a V shape cut. That was 4 swings and he pushed the tree down. My mouth and eyes opened wide.
“Berapa lagi?” (How many more?)”
“Three more....” I said in Malay.
He chose 3 trees in front of us and asked if they were ok? I said that they were. And again, 4 swoops and 1 tree fell. He did it again to the other 2 more trees and in less than 5 minutes, I had 4 trees down compared to like maybe 1 hour hacking at the same tree.
He then moved on to hack down all the other 8 trees that were being “scratched” by the other SAF boys.
Unbelievable. 4 swings, 1 tree, with a blunt parang. 12 trees in total for us. And he was the smallest of the Bruneian army there. Really unbelievable.
Another cool experience.
After our trench was done, we were supposed to stay there for the night. So basically it was just like camping in our 5 room flat. There were 10 of us, so we just slept around the area.
I couldn't sleep. We kept getting bitten by mosquitoes. Somehow, Pasir Laba mosquitoes have sharper and deeper bites compared to Tekong mosquitoes. We all had to use a generous amount of insect repellant but still they would bite through our clothes.
I couldn't sleep. I walked over to the Bruneian side to chat and smoke hoping the smokes would shoo the mosquitoes away. Most of them were sleeping heavily. I went to the corporal who was drinking coffee. It was in the night, it was dark but not so dark that we could not see. We could still see everyone but we couldn't see the mosquitoes.
So I sat with him and talked. He asked why I wasn't asleep yet. I said I couldn't because of the mosquitoes. I saw most of them sleeping and I asked if maybe there weren't much mosquitoes in their area. He said, it's the same. They just sleep even with mosquitoes.
To me that was cool enough. They could sleep with mosquitoes buzzing around. But I didn't smell any insect repellant. I asked, if they got used to be bitten by mosquitoes. He said, the mosquitoes don't bite. I didn't understand. Even as I was talking to him in the dark, I was constantly getting bitten.
Then he said and showed me this cool thing.
He said in Malay, “This is their place. We are humans entering their place. We have to respect their place. Mosquitoes are God's creation, just like us. We are not here to kill them. We are here to do our work. So, talk to them nicely... mosquitoes, please do not bite me. I am here to work and when I'm done, I will leave. Remember, we are in their place. Ask them nicely. Mosquitoes, please do not bite me. And then they won't.”
And then he turned on his torchlight and shone in front of him, between me and him. There were mosquitoes all over my limbs and body but none of them were on him. There were so many mosquitoes I could see so clearly in the light but they were all flying in front of him and none on him at all.
He said, “See.... say nicely...”
It was so cool. After our chat and smokes, I went back to my trench. I tried. I talked to the mosquitoes nicely and then tried to sleep. I didn't get bitten the whole night and slept soundly till morning. Maybe I was tired and didn't realise anymore. But here is a secret I'm sharing with you, from that night onwards, I continued doing what he told me to. Say nicely.... and I never used any insect repellant throughout my army days from that night all the way till I completed my reservist cycle 13 years later.
I remember these 2 experiences very clearly. Even more than the rest of the times I had in the course.
1 blunt parang, 1 man, 12 trees.
1 man. Say nicely, and no insect repellant until I'm done with army.
Some things are never taught in textbooks or courses. We may have a high education standard but there are many more things that our education will never understand or attempt to cover.
NEXT WEEK : WE'RE THE MARINES!
Categories : The Army Series
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