Singaporean sons have a love-hate relationship with National Service. Sometimes, it’s just hate-hate, as one of my colleagues vehemently emphasises. There are positive aspects of course, but rarely would you find anyone with only good things to say about this immense sacrifice. Yes, I do believe National Service (NS) is an “immense” sacrifice, and if you’re scoffing at that, allow me to explain.
NS doesn’t only take away two of the prime years of your career. It also means having to remain at the beck and call of Mindef until you complete 10 cycles of reservist, or In-Camp Trainings (ICT). These dreaded visits back to the military life span over one to three weeks, and if you’re in a combat vocation like me, the gruelling exercises serve as timely reminders about how fast your body can age. I never fail to discover new joint pains and body aches during ICT.
When all the griping about sacrifice is done, however, I have to admit my time in NS has brought some truly memorable encounters. I’ve met a mob of intriguing people, discovered my physical and mental limits, and experienced things most people never will (like firing explosives and live anti-tank weapons).
One of my favourite things about being in the army are the hilarious stories I’ve come away with. The stories I’m going to share revolve around one particular object: the SAF Helmet. While it isn’t scientifically proven, it has been theorised that whenever a soldier puts on his combat helmet, his thinking capacity shrinks immediately, and I’ve personally witnessed this phenomenon.
In 2011, during my stint as an instructor training potential sergeants, I was tasked to be a range safety for an anti-tank live firing exercise. My role was to make sure the cadets followed safety procedures and not end up killing themselves or me. Although the live firing involves a rocket launcher of sorts, the entire exercise is generally safe.
On this day, however, a number of cadets that were assigned to my lane fired at the wrong targets, which are giant concrete slabs marked with large clear numbers. When one cadet came up to shoot, I gave the order “Cadet XYZ, shoot at target three.” He responded with a thumbs-up but proceeded to fire at the target with an unmissable “4” on it. I thwacked him on the helmet and yelled “I said three, you idiot.” When the next cadet came up, I told him as clearly as I could, “Hey, look at me. Fire at target three, all right?” To which he looked at me in bewilderment and asked,
“Sergeant, shoot at the trees?”
I’m not immune to the helmet phenomenon myself. During a mission in my last ICT, we were given the task of conducting an urban assault. The training facility we used for this purpose had simulated buildings that look remarkably real. My mortifying blunder occurred as I was storming a building that resembled a terrace house. As I charged up to it, I saw that there was a window open, so my scumbag of a brain told me the only logical way in was to vault over the ledge. And this I did so enthusiastically that I ended up nose-diving through and landing in a heap on the other side, groaning in pain. Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, the soldier behind me entered through a door just around the corner like any sane person would.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoy NS, but it’s experiences like these that are funny to recall. The camaraderie Singaporean sons share when they start yapping about NS stories make the whole sacrifice a tad more bearable. We aren’t the only ones who sacrifice though, the true heroes are the wives and girlfriends who have to hear these stories over and over, and over again.
This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of AUGUSTMAN.