Of Outfields and Men

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Coming back today from this exercise marks the end of our very last outfield, or so they tell us. But I’ll just assume it is true, because the end is an important point in which to organise my thoughts on this.

This outfield was interesting. We firstly had to find a path through jungle, then through a canal under a main road, then more jungle, then under a highway, then up a hill, into a small plantation. From there we moved into the objective by doing some stuff I’m pretty sure was illegal; but in any case it got the job done. The planning and execution took exactly 24 hours,  all spent without sleep and with constant effort. At the end of it our boots were soaking wet as were our uniforms. We smelled like gym socks and we were knocking out where we sat.

After all that there was not only the realization that this was the last one (could it really be?) but also that this mission that seemed tough when you list it out wasn’t nearly as tough as the things we had already gone through. A lot went through my mind the whole time; of all the outfield experiences, of which some stuck out prominently like a shark out of water.

As I was waiting to attack at 3:30 AM, my mind wandered to our very first outfield. The one we had during BMT. It was similar to the one they showed in the Ah Boys to Men series except there were some elements of that particular outfield that were more hardcore than in the movie. We were just 3 weeks into our tour as soldiers and we did so much during those few days in the jungles, that it shocked us into finally accepting that we no longer owned our bodies. We were introduced to physical exhaustion and raving hunger. We learnt of the nature all around that cared more about itself than us, and we accepted that things were not going to change for us—and that eventually we would have to change for them.

This first outfield was the most miserable one, like how first dates are usually the most awkward. I was missing people, missing simple comforts and missing all I once was. Just like in the movie, our parents letter did arrive and we got them one by one, that reminder of who we were and what we were fighting for. I was proud to be there, suffering so my family could apparently sleep soundly at night. We all sat on the dry sandy ground under the spotlights, reading these letters. Some of us sobbed, others looked dazed yet a few smiled quietly. It wasn’t just a single emotion that was brought out into the world, because all of us had our own way of dealing with what our parents had to say. There was definitely self pity, people wishing they could go back to how it once was, wanting so badly to immerse in the past. There was also yearning and hope for the future, knowing that this too shall pass. The only common understanding was: no one wanted to be stuck in the present. And that was all that made my first outfield experience so miserable: I would have traded the world to be somewhere else, doing something else.

As our time in army elapsed we gathered outfield after outfield under our belts. As it turned out, things could only get tougher for us. Even so, we didn’t become more miserable. I don’t think we ever stopped wanting to be in that elusive “somewhere else” the whole time, because there was always somewhere better to be. We just accepted that it was never going to happen. Every experience hit us like an egg hitting a fan blade, you knew what was going to happen but it still shocks you that such a mess had to be created.

The process of acceptance was a gradual one. Like I said before you start by rationalizing with lofty ideals like the protection of your home or national pride. This couldn’t last because you start taking these ideals for granted after a while. You could report sick and miss a week in camp and your family still came home to you every night. You start to see how these ideals had no physical weight to them. They were like puffs of smoke in the air, it only took a light breeze to dispel them.

We became less miserable because we started focusing on the little things. I remember our last mission in Singapore before we went crazy in Brunei. We were waiting at the roadside after 4 days of fighting in the jungles, and we had just waded through waist deep water to discover it was the wrong path all along. It should have been sheer misery, but in a strange way, we made the suffering our own. We created a verbal list of foods we missed back home and described the noise it made as we chewed down on it. We laughed about this in the dark. We didn’t even discuss the taste or the significance of these imaginary meals. We turned our hardship into a platform to appreciate every last thing we had taken for granted our whole lives. Once you reach that state, when the sound of your teeth munching down on soft white bread followed by a succulent beef patty can make you giggle, you certainly don’t need assurance from your nation that people are “proud of you” or what not.

And then came Brunei late last year. It was such pain and torture, to be frank. The weather there flitted between extreme heat to flooding rains. There were hardly any in-betweens. The jungle was ancient and everything was on upsize. It was like Brunei paid an extra fifty cents at the MacDonald’s counter. There were trees the thickness of a SBS buses that rose from the ground, towering above us and reaching the height of 12 storey HDB flats. Ants were the size of your average Singapore cockroach and there were huge insects called cicadas the size of teacup saucers. The terrain was as erratic as the weather; undulating knolls greeted our every step, the valleys in between demarcated by gentle flowing streams that did just enough to soak our feet. It was sheer misery in the day but at night the safety regulations meant we had to find a clearing and harbour. We cherished those nights more than anything. Our tired legs could finally get rest, we could hang our wet uniforms and take off our boots to examine our wrinkled feet.

We normally set a fire with dried twigs and branches, and sat around it laughing and talking. We did a lot of things to keep comfortable. In a few hours the sunlight would shine upon us and expose us to the reality of our situation: the surrounding jungle and the kilometers that awaited. But in the darkness we were safe, the light from the campfire could only reach the trees in the immediate area and we felt very much in our own world. I could safely think of home and all it meant without the discomfort of the elements. Provided it didn’t rain, the weather under the canopy was cool, and the mosquitoes, ants and bees seemed to cherish their sleep as well so those nights passed in relatively undisturbed comfort.

The night kept us sane. Because in the day the struggle was real. We would walk a few hundred meters and hear over the signal set that another team had to stop because someone had been stung by a wasp, or had sprained a leg, or had an involuntary full-body muscle spasm due to exhaustion. It was terrifying because you didn’t know if your team, or even you, would be next. Thankfully we only suffered some leg cramps and a minor sprain ankle in the end; that was lucky with all things considered.

That was how most of the guys in the company survived Brunei: with some luck and a lot of positive thinking. Most of us successfully dodged the rainy nights, sprained ankles, heat exhaustion and rotten toes. There were tears shed, spirits pushed to the limit and an immense longing for home towards the end. We felt like flaccid sugar cane stalks fully exhausted of their juice. There was little to nothing left to give but we went into the machine again and again hoping to find more.

Brunei pushed us in that way and I have to say that while it is sad that we wasted a part of our youth exploring the edge of the earth, I did appreciate that I completed it anyway. I can’t properly explain why and this is probably a naive thought but it just felt like something I had to do in order to feel some sense of completion in my army life.

When we passed out from our vocation we were swiftly trained to take on Taiwan. I know what you’re thinking: it never ends for us and you’d be right to assume that. The promise of the end brought about new tumultuous beginnings. I was tasked to be in a high stress role during missions—that of which the small group of us had to lead a body of men through the dark into the enemy land. One misstep and everything we worked for would be in vain and our positions would be exposed. In other words there was real pressure on us.

Taiwan reared its ugly head and we dove in head first, being the first few to enter the jungles and to try figure them out. If my first few outfields were miserable and Brunei was tough, the Taiwan outfields were that of stress. If stress was Ribena syrup, I was drinking it straight from the bottle. My team had to consider a lot of things before the main body of troops came in. Like Brunei, Taiwan featured undulating terrain but unlike Brunei, it was interspersed with scores of plantations. Mangoes, pineapples, onions and water apples. It sort of started making sense how supermarkets could top up on produce everyday. We needed a path through these hills, while avoiding civilian plantations and staying undetected by the enemy. To spoil the party there were uncrossable water bodies, broken bridges, antenna towers and a lack of confidence in our abilities.

One moment we were clearing a path to the top of a hill, then we had to guide a whole company up that hill, into the objective, fight with them and deliver the casualties down the hill after the fight. The pressure on us couldn’t have been higher. One thing was constantly on my mind: everything the men trained for would be for nought if we messed up here. So messing up wasn’t something you simply avoided, it shouldn’t even be part of the spectrum of possibilities. You either performed OK or surpassed expectations, but one thing was clear: messing up was not an option.

It wasn’t a hopeless situation; the weather there helped a lot for it was a dry 15-25 degrees in the day. We could move comfortably without feeling the heat build up within our uniforms. It was more comfortable than Singapore and Brunei in that sense. However there were no breaks at night like there were in Brunei so we worked through the nights with minimal sleep, where the cold was blatant. We had to be constantly on the move at night so we wouldn’t rest our bodies and be vulnerable to the cold. I remember shivering violently on a hill while waiting to advance when someone offered me a nature valley candy. It was sheer bliss, I felt like a bee that just found a single flower in a hedge of thorns. It soon occurred to me that it was not a matter of enduring, but that of forgetting— forgetting the cold, the desperation and the pressure and just doing what we did best, carrying on and executing our tasks.

And so Taiwan passed just like that. Desperation and stress gave way to hope and perseverance and somehow we made it to the last mission. Intense stress met with intense focus. The questions always popped up, to question the point of this all when I was at my lowest. The stress made me feel like going home yet the dull ache of responsibility kept me firmly grounded— the very thing that made me want to quit made me want to carry on as well. That’s something about life I can never quite understand. At the end of it we huddled together and took a nice group photo with our tired faces. A ninja (food) van arrived on cue and we got our share of the best of Taiwanese street fare right there beside the forests. Biting into the chicken cutlet and hearing its crunch, I almost convinced myself it was worth it.

Singapore was miserable, Brunei was tough and Taiwan was stressful. But then then came Thailand. Now Thailand was part of our course requirement to pass out from our vocation. So all of us had to go in order to pass out together and come back as a reservist batch. To make things worst we were the first batch to undergo this course in six years. Talk about fate. It was like crashing your car the day after its  insurance expired. I won’t be doing myself any favours by describing what we had to do in Thailand due to how everything is so confidential so just know we had to go into the jungles to do something to achieve a certain objective which involved us being out there for as long as seven days at a time.

The thing is, I sustained an injury before the trip so I ended up not moving outfield at all so I only did a watered down version of Thailand when I was back in Singapore (sounds so chao keng). I ended up spending only two days out there in Tekong doing this certain something and I realised 2 things. Firstly that I was tremendously fortunate, and that Thailand must have been abject pointlessness for everyone. It was probably a 40-60 mix of poinlessness and misery. My 2 days felt pointless enough, so I could only imagine how 7 would have felt. They were sleeping on moist soil every night and doing this miserable something every day while facing the heat and rain of Thailand. I was there in Thailand doing administrative work and stepping out of shelter in my dry uniform made me feel like a wet snail crawling across dry ground. There were also stories of rains that flooded everyone to their ankles and destroyed their hard work in securing a safe spot in the jungle. I admire everything they’ve been through and feel a bittersweet thankfulness that I only tasted a fraction of their pain.

I looked at my watch and it was 4:15 AM. I snapped back to reality. I got up from the ground and my buddy and I got to work. We led the men out of the jungle and through a fence into the objective. We led them in a few men at a time and as they slowly filed in it felt like a relieving of a burden. Not just the burden of this outfield but of all the outfields past. This was the last one; the outfield that ends all outfields! I kept telling myself. The last man went in to fight and my buddy and I sat at one corner to rest. It was almost 5 AM by then and I breathed in the cool air and thought about how things have changed so much from then when I was still a recruit to now as a soldier about to ORD.

Back then to motivate myself I constantly thought of what I was fighting for. When we were recruits we held on to ideas of courage and valour like a child holds his mother’s hand in a crowded shopping mall. Then months passed with jungles explored and stamps on our passports. We learned day by day what the word “service” really meant— that it was a verb and not a noun. I could no longer characterize service and glorify it, I became tired and started doing what I had to do, being pragmatic about things and keeping the tangible in sight. That is what has changed through all the experiences I’ve described, from the first to the last. That child grew up and let go of his mothers hand. That child started making his own decisions and decided what he wanted from his experiences and not what his country wanted. It was that simple, yet it took more than a year to realise.

We walked out of the jungle and boarded the bus back to camp for what I hoped would be the last time. The last time. It sounded so listless as I said it, like the stalled voices of people after a close shave with death. We pulled away and had a glance of the jungle that we spent so much time in as soldiers. It was the only entity that hadn’t changed after all this time. From early last year to now, there it was, the jungle. SAF changed to include more safety during trainings, soldiers changed to accept their fates and as individuals we follow suit and we transformed our ideals.

Everyone changes for everyone but the jungle stood over us as a stoic reminder that some things in life will always be constant. The jungle had killed soldiers in the past, broken spirits and changed people’s dreams. Like it or not, some things in life will always demand that you change for them.

The bus went onto the main road. I closed my eyes and fell into a deep sleep. Finally, it was time for me to rest.

Abnormalities, Disabilities, and the Singaporean Psyche

It was a normal Wednesday and I was travelling home on the train after my Final Theory Test for driving. It seemed to be a normal commute. Beside me were two young Indian kids with their exasperated mother. The squeals and laughter from the children was what I first noticed, because they betrayed no trace of sadness whatsoever. Some people find this annoying but really, how can you? It’s pure, unadulterated happiness.

At this moment I realised something was not quite right. Directly opposite me sat a mother and son. She was probably in her late fifties while he looked to be in his twenties. Though I couldn’t be so sure because it became immediately apparent that he was mentally challenged. I don’t mean this in a degrading way or as a hyperbole, for he was obviously mentally impaired. He clapped his hands every few seconds and slapped his arms and jabbed at his abdomen. To add to this he made grunting and whining sounds at irregular intervals. His mother sat beside him with a look of annoyance on her face, as if his mannerisms were a fly that flew and landed on her every now and then. She did nothing to intervene or correct his strange mannerisms. From once glance you could tell — she was used to this.

An uncomfortable air hung over everyone. His grunts were audible even into the ends of the carriage, where people craned their necks to have a better look. The people that were in his immediate surroundings had to be more discreet. The two Malay women beside him attempted to maintain their less-than-excited conversation while stealing occasional glances at him. The Indian man opposite stared straight ahead while blasting a familiar tune through his earphones. From his tense body language, you could tell he was affected by the presence of this mentally challenged man.

I, too, couldn’t help but feel the tension and contribute to it. I kept looking at my phone as if it would make this situation any more normal, and tried my best not to stare but I couldn’t quite help it. Half of me was curious, but the other half was definitely forming unnecessary preconceptions and judgements. That was when the idea to write about this came to me, I needed to understand, what made us as a body of people behave this way towards those with disabilities?

I watched a play called Fat Pig late last year. It was about a handsome young man who dates an obese woman and eventually breaks up with her for fear of society’s condemnation. A quote from the play really stuck with me. It went something like this; that we fear the back flip gone wrong, or that one extra Oreo we shouldn’t have eaten. As you can already guess, both actions have supposedly undesirable outcomes, be it permanent spinal damage or obesity. In other words, humans are scared of being a deviant from the norm. It seems to me that this is a vicious cycle. We are scared of becoming like these unfortunate people, and therefore condemn their existence, for it is a reminder of what we could become. Yet the more we condemn this the more we are afraid that we, too will be condemned as well if we fall into this category. To put it simply, fear breeds condemnation and condemnation leads to fear. Our justification for their alienation stems from fear itself, the reminder that the stability in our lives could be so easily compromised and our lives plunged into abject misery.

Not to fret, for there are positive reactions to disabilities and abnormalities. You just have to look to your bookshelves and self help sections of your local bookstores. You’ll see various examples of victims of horrific accidents or physical disabilities speaking up about the strength they have gained through their problems. Nick Vujicic, and some victims of acid attacks are among those who have had the courage to speak up about their experiences and are celebrated worldwide. You also see a lot of physically disabled and socially out casted contestants on talent shows win the hearts of millions with an incredible voice or quirky talent.

These are all positive examples but to be brutally honest they are largely for the bookshelves and TV screens. For in reality most of those with disabilities, especially mental impairment, do not have the capacity or motivation to speak up about their problems, much less inspire those around them. I saw this very clearly on the train. The man had no way of communicating and was reduced to grunts and awkward hand gestures. His mother must have struggled for years to bring this child up into this world, only to find it to be so, so cruel. The people around did not give her any encouraging gestures or hearty smiles, but awkwardly tried their best to dissociate themselves from her son. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we as a society have failed, but we have certainly let fear and resentment cloud our empathy and understanding towards each other. That was as much as I could conclude.

I don’t want to offer a clear-cut solution to this because I feel like this tendency to alienate outcasts is too deep within our psyches to root out. There is no simple solution. In a place like Singapore it’s all the harder to change. From young it is drummed into us to follow one solid path and be useful in society. Alternative lifestyles and career choices are not encouraged or even shunned. We see the government turn a blind eye to gay right activists, while the arts scene in Singapore is criticized for being largely contrived. These may be cliche examples but I hope to bring across the point that playing it safe and staying within the norm is a very central part of the Singaporean identity. Our time in this world has taught us that yes, this is the way to live so you better stick to your script! and so acceptance of abnormalities will not be something we can get used to anytime soon.

It is interesting to note that the only two people not affected by this man were the two Indian children playing directly opposite him. They laughed and clawed at each other while the man made strange gestures and sounds the whole time; but not once did they find this odd. They carried on and treated the man as one of us. What makes children so indifferent to such abnormalities? Was there a time when we were unassuming and all accepting as well? This was a good question I asked myself. We think we’re growing as we find our way through this world but what seems to be really happening is a narrowing of our minds. We open ourselves to less possibilities and variations that our experiences have taught us to beware of.

In the final analysis, we could perhaps take a pointer or two from these children: to be more open and view everything on a clean slate, and more importantly, to be kind to one another even when no one else is.

Reservist and Ranger Course

Where do I start? The experiences of this week have brought me to places I never expected to go, and do things I never expected to do, at least not within these few years.

The background to this week was that I had missed the long 7 day outfield in Thailand that everyone had to go for and so to make up for that, I was going outfield in Singapore for a make up. It was 8 other people and I, and we travelled there with heavy hearts, dreading the 2 days ahead and wishing we had gone through this sooner.

But whatever fears we had were swiftly abandoned when we heard the good news. We were each going to be tagged to a reservist team. So basically, we were joining in on the reservist batch! What a relief! We’ve heard stories about how relaxed yet focused  these people were about mission profiles. Being older and more experienced soldiers, they knew the ropes around such matters. Well, that was our take on it, we were about to find out for sure.

So we went out, and I had a great time. And I really mean it. I know it’s a jungle, and most people stuck in jungles start spouting positive banter to comfort themselves, but the transition from NSF (national service-men full-time) to a ORNS (operationally ready national service-men) batch was such a great leap that it took my breath away.

Everything felt easy. This is especially true when they take measures to relieve every possible outfield burden. I shall elaborate no more, but if you’ve gone through outfield before you’ll understand. They were experienced, experienced enough to take the most possible shortcuts without compromising on the mission objective. Shortcuts aside they were organised. They immediately knew which man should do what and where and how. I stood at one side just observing for the first half an hour. They were older and probably less energetic than I was, but boy did they know exactly what they were here for.

Everything is pretty confidential so let me give you an abstract example. Let’s say our mission was to build a giant sand castle outfield. These men would put all equipment down to look for a suitable spot to build this sand castle. They had far more knowledge and expertise in this as far as I knew. Then once they found a spot they’d divide the work into sand collectors, sand transporters, and sand constructors. Each role would pass over to the next in seamless fashion. Occasionally, we swapped roles and that was alright. We rested the muscles used for one role and used different muscles for another. I preferred the more physically intense roles for I was younger and stronger and less experienced. For example I would prefer carrying sand over instead of sculpting the sand castle. Some jobs took strength, others took expertise. I believe even the reservist guys thought I’d fare better as a labourer than a thinker, though they never did say it.

And just like that, 2 days passed. We had the most productive periods of my outfield life followed by the most spectacular mealtimes. These guys were embarrassingly generous with the food they brought along, and the methods use to cook them were admirable and brave, to say the least. Again I leave this to your imagination, but know that the feast we had out there would be highly comparable to that of our lazy civilian lives.

Finally we packed our things and were good to leave. The assessments by the superiors were a success. With a good early warning system (if you know what I mean and if you don’t, it doesn’t matter) we practised some good timing and got into position before the superiors came. We had amazingly positive comments. So positive that I couldn’t help but admire our hard work and efficiency. A piece of cake after all I’d been through.

We walked to a training shed and rested. I talked a lot to these men who were 6,7, even 10-odd years older than I. They had a lot of insights to share about life after army. What to focus on for your career. Finding the right girlfriend. Knowing your limits. Choosing the proper time to come back and kill off your reservist cycles. All that and more. We had a lot to say, and a lot to eat. They kept on asking when I was going to ORD (be discharged from army) as well as which university I was going to. It was strange because I felt no inclination to ask them what jobs they were holding outside, though I was a little curious, to be honest. I guess you can only be truly interested in something after you’ve gone through it. Besides, university seemed to be an interesting time in their lives, while work seemed to sap them of energy. The opposite may be true, but though I was eventually introduced to their jobs, it still felt like they didn’t really want to elaborate much on them. Perhaps they believed it to be boring? Stifling? That this was a good break from routine? I could only guess as far. It occurred to me then; I still had a lot to look forward to (and dread).

One by one we fell asleep on the hard training shed ground. I attempted to find the best possible orientation to sleep in, but the cold, hard ground discouraged creativity in this department. I was left drifting in and out of a light sleep, thinking about what life had to hold, then something silly like where I should go for the weekend, and then back to what life had in store again. But alas, I couldn’t fall asleep. That’s when the Rangers came walking toward the training shed.

Who were the Rangers? In a quick summary, passing out of Ranger course in the armed forces is like getting your masters degree in  university. It is arguably the toughest and most rigorous course a soldier would ever go through, specially designed to pick out the elite of our armed forces. Just like your masters in university, there is a choice of whether to pursue ranger course and those that do are likely to be sign-ons. It’s a couple of months of extensive torture, lack of sleep, punishments and outfields, to put it mildly. That was what I thought of ranger course, but I was about to see for myself.

Apparently half the training shed was used by Ranger instructors. They were so stealthy I didn’t know of their presence until then, when almost everyone was asleep! It was astounding to watch a small group of almost 20 men, half dead bodies carrying a tremendous load each, walking out of the jungle in a daze. The instructors commanded for them to fall in in front. After some less than friendly good mornings by the instructors, the main reason why they were called out of the jungle was revealed. They had not been guarding their various stores and equipment while resting and so some had been carefully taken from them, ever so sneakily by these instructors. The instructor looked down and shone his light at the few lonely pieces of equipment on the ground. The men stared on in disbelief. He said something along the lines of how could you? to these men, in a way more expressive manner. The air was still and the men now stared at their instructor.

I sat up from my sleeping position at the edge of the training shed. I was the closest to what was happening. They were to my right, and then I looked to the left and saw that the reservist guys were sound asleep. I felt alone in this world, trapped in the middle of a place where nothing and nobody was relevant to me.

I leaned in to listen. The instructor commanded them to only whisper and move quietly. Soon the men who had their equipment stolen took to a crawl. A sick game ensued, where those that were “safe” had to stay in a stress position with their weapons over their head while everyone else crawled one round around the shed and back to the start. There was the crunch of gravel, the groaning of grown men. You don’t often hear genuine groans from grown men, but when you do, you can’t help but feel pity. I’m sure that’s not the reaction they want to draw from observers. They know exactly what they’ve gotten themselves into. But you can’t help it. It wells up in you like water fills a sinking ship. I myself knew the very pain of such punishments. It breaks you physically first, and that’s alright. But then all of a sudden the pain evolves. It grows a hand and knocks on the door of your mind. I’m sorry sir but you ought to be giving up now. Think about what you could be doing instead of facing this pain. Yes, you could be left alone, or better, have a warm meal of chicken rice or steak with a cold beer. You could tell your loved ones how much you’ve missed them. You could go back to how it once was. No, I don’t expect so much from you. Why don’t you try putting down your weapon first. Then walking to the instructor saying a simple I want to quit just for good measure. It takes a simple but brave action to accomplish what you want. And let’s face it, you don’t want this.

I realized that I was no longer painting a picture of their conscience, I was using my own weak willpower and imagining its quiet whimper in this situation. I, who had not chosen this life, who had no inclination towards suffering of this degree. Who was I to impose my conscience upon this situation? If my thoughts were infectious it would spread to the Rangers like a virus. You would have observed each man walk to his instructor one at a time and say yes Sir Ranger! I want to quit! And as you’ve seen in American special forces documentaries, if you quit, you ring a bell they bring around for every exercise. It is the same here, and with accordance to that the whole training shed would have been awoken as one man rang the bell at a time. It was such misery.

One in the morning soon became two. Still there was the sound of crawling and groaning. New games were played where everybody’s minds and bodies were tested to various degrees. I have no desire to describe these games. All I can say is, they give good insight into the dark depths of human nature. You could see the instructors proud expressions in the dark, hear the smug indifference in their voices. It made me wonder, that in this day and age, how can one find accomplishment and contentment in commanding grown men to suffer? There came point where my mind could no longer keep up, let alone my body. I fell into a deep sleep.

If I had to draw meaning in this experience, I would say that it taught me two things: that in life, you have a choice in what you do. But once you’ve chosen what to do, you don’t have much of a choice in how much pain you feel. Like I’ve said, I felt as if I was trapped between two contrasting worlds at the edge of the training shed, feeling lost as I belonged to none. You had the reservist men leading comfortable civilian lives out there, with their own challenges in their careers, and in contrast there were the Rangers and their bid to be respected soldiers and leaders within the armed forces. Both were so different, yet there I was, a silent reminder of where they had come from; because once upon a time, both groups had been NSFs like me.

The choices they had made beyond this point have made them different people with different goals in life, with different challenges awaiting. I was presented here with the largest contrast imaginable. With the sounds of feasting and chatter of the reservist men dissolving into the muffled groans of the Rangers as the night wore on. With a different choice made, or in a parallel universe, the reservist men and Rangers could have easily swapped places. That was what struck me later on — you get to choose your path in life.

Alone on the edge of the training shed I also felt that pain is inevitable in any life you choose. Pain manifests itself in many ways. Watching the Rangers suffer it would be easy to assume that the reservist men felt no pain, but was that the case? In the lives they have chosen challenges must have presented themselves as well. Challenges where income was slashed, sleep was lost, and  hearts were broken. You don’t necessarily just feel pain holding a weapon and crawling over gravel.

The only thing that rationalizes such pain is your drive and how much meaning you find in the things you do, like how I realised my lack of drive would cause me great suffering if I were in the Rangers boots. Likewise a Ranger may find a lack in contentment and feel undervalued and depressed leading civilian lives and attaining an office job. Either way, there would be suffering if you lack drive. And so I guess it is true what they say about pain being inevitable but suffering being optional. You could easily reduce or even totally negate your suffering by choosing the right life for yourself. There aren’t any perfect lives I suppose, only a bunch of choices you can be willing to live with. With the right passion and determination at your everyday task, you’d be doing yourself a huge favour. Choice. Pain. Suffering. It all dawned upon me and overwhelmed me. I don’t think I could ever fully describe how I feel about this in words. I can only let this experience do the talking.

On the next day I found out that the Rangers were punished until the sun rose. We saw them taking a short rest and regrouping when we woke up. I was filled with nothing short of respect for them. I took one brief last look at them before we hopped on our vehicle and left the jungles for good.

And so it came to be that I parted with my reservist group with rushed goodbyes. Out of the jungle my thoughts scattered and the distraction of daily life and social media sucked me into a deep, thoughtless state. My batch mates discussed what happened over the last few days among each other. A strange experience, we all agreed.

Every experience is like a pair of tight jeans you mould to your build after continually wearing it. By continually thinking over my experiences I manage to find my own value in them. Life can be so strange don’t you think? More often than not the strongest lessons aren’t learnt in classrooms at all. The reservist men and Rangers had taught me something important without really meaning to, and I will always remember waking up to snoring on one side and groaning on the other.

We all choose our burdens in the end whether you want to believe it or not. You may not have the choice of where you start but you certainly have the choice of where you finish. You will definitely feel pain but you may not have to suffer.

There have been briefer outfield thoughts, but there you have it. This is what I hope to convey.