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.

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