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.