Today was an especially tough day because it is my fifth day outfield. I always thought from the movies and from what people said that it was quite a cool experience, to be out here fighting in the wild and being all macho. But now after five days, I have to admit, it is nothing like what they portray it to be. Now I know that it is tough, and it demands that you give it everything, be it your body or your time with loved ones. I am rather miserable now, and to think that it is my moms birthday tomorrow does not make it any better. I sincerely hope she will be fine, and I hope everyone around her will be fine. I just want to go home. I really do. But when I think of my family, I have no choice but to persevere. This is something I have to do.
REC (Recruit) Tan Jin Hong
I read the diary entry and smiled. Yet another recruit seems to be finding this experience too tough, exactly what this experience aimed to achieve. Misery and heartache are inevitable side effects of being in the army. As a BMT (Basic Military Training) instructor, I knew this all too well. I sat there in the training shed sorting out diary entries. A lot of these entries had sweat stains on them mixed with dark green camouflage cream, the paper moist with the relentless humidity of the dense jungle. I gave it the chop of approval and signed it, before placing this entry on top of the “done” pile. The crickets formed a layer of thick noise above the mini tents the recruits have set up. From my vantage point atop my field chair I could make out two neat rows of tents. We had even forced them to dig up a mini drainage system around their tents so that any rain would be nicely siphoned away from their surroundings.
But of course, all of us knew that it wasn’t going to rain. The weather forecasts for the whole week indicated clear skies, which was highly unusual for such a tropical nation like Singapore. It’s almost cruel to say this, but it seemed to me that all these tents and drains were constructed purely for “experience” and nothing else, experiences that would not help them a single bit in life. I guess being here a few years before, and having experienced it all has turned me cynical. Before long I was done with the entire pile of sixty-six entries. With one leg numb from sitting too long, I hobbled over to my hammock. I had cleverly constructed this between two poles and my substantial frame filled it up to the brim. I fell into a deep sleep almost immediately.
I woke up to an astonishing sound. The sound of rain. It wasn’t just rain, it was a downpour. I sat up and looked around. The tents seemed to be shaking in anticipation in the wind and rain, as if their purpose had been realised. The drain system the recruits painstakingly created was filled with thick, brown, Milo-coloured water. So much for the forecast, I thought to myself. I silently hoped the rain would begin to flood the tents surrounded by shallower drains. Now that would be quite the outfield experience. Sure, it was a sinister thought, but it would teach the lazier recruits a lesson to dig deeper next time.
At this point, a dark figure appeared to my right, coming from the direction of the tents. The figure walked with such sloppiness that it scared me at first. There were many stories surrounding these jungles: genital mutilating female ghosts, and spirits of dead recruits looking for their disemboweled intestines. My freshly awakened self would have jumped out of the hammock if I hadn’t managed to compose myself just in time. It was probably just a fellow instructor or a stray recruit who lost his way to the makeshift toilet.
As the figure drew closer I took a look at his epaulette and saw that there wasn’t any rank attached to it. I let out a deep breath. He was just a recruit. “What you doing here, recruit? Can’t you see the rain is heavy? Go back to your tent!” Once he stepped into the shelter of the training shed he stopped. He stood before me, hunching over, face still partially green and black with camouflage cream. His uniform stuck to his skin and made him look skinnier. Not eating proper food for five days straight had made his face look gaunt and his arms seem lanky. “What are you doing here?” I repeated as if he mattered. He started, “Sergeant Ben, please understand, I didn’t come here for shelter…” I looked him straight in the eye. “I DON’T CARE! YOU GO BACK NOW BEFORE ANY OF THE OFFICERS SEE YOU HERE! THERE IS NO PLACE FOR YOU HERE!” I bellowed. I couldn’t accept this. He had no right to walk here like this, not in the rain or because of nightmares, not in any circumstance. “No, Sergeant. Listen for just a few seconds. I’m sorry that I walked here like this, but, I just came to ask of a favour, one that you will probably refuse, and it may sound very silly to you, but…” I was growing impatient. “Spit it out or leave,” I said calmly. He looked me in the eye. “It’s my mothers birthday today, and I really want to wish her.”
Mothers’ birthday? Why did that sound so familiar? Yes, I remembered the diary entry. One of the recruits said his Mothers’ birthday was soon. I looked at my watch, and it said 02:12 AM. Enraged, I looked up at him. “So what if it’s your mothers birthday? What can you do about it?”
He looked at me and motioned with his eyes to my pocket. I looked down and felt for my smartphone.
I understood his intention. “Wah! Call her now ah! On the stroke of midnight is it! You think this is Facebook is it? Want me let you log into Facebook then you wish her lah, tell her that you are two hours late, how about that!” “Sergeant, I just want to call her.” “GO BACK TO SLEEP!” I raised my voice again. “THE WHOLE PLATOON GOT PEOPLE WITH MOTHER, FATHER, GRANDMOTHER, GRANDFATHER, BROTHER, SISTER, GIRLFRIEND, BOYFRIEND, EX-GIRLFRIEND, EX-BOYFRIEND MAYBE ALSO GOT. TODAY IS THE 15th OF MARCH, ONE OUT OF 365 DAYS. CONFIRM AT LEAST ONE OF THEM ALSO GOT SOMEONE’S BIRTHDAY TODAY. I ask you, why do you think there is no queue in front of me now, all asking for my phone to call their loved ones? If you can answer that question, I will let you call.”
He stood quietly in front of me at first and said nothing but then suddenly got onto his knees. I stood over him and looked down at this pitiful sight. His lower lip was trembling. “Sergeant….please. Just thirty seconds. Please. Just grant me that. I beg you.” He glanced up at me, and I could barely make out the soft glow in his eyes, eyes that were pleading for a moment of humanity amidst the madness he was thrust into. But alas, he did not give me an answer. I calmly stepped back into my hammock, trying very hard to ignore his desperation. It pained me tremendously to say, “if I don’t see you gone in the next ten seconds, you’ll be having some special treatment tomorrow morning. This treatment may or may not involve you crawling until your elbows bleed. So look, you can choose. You walk away now, and we can call this a night, and pretend nothing happened. If not…”
I counted to ten, and as I counted I thought of myself as a recruit, breaking up with my girlfriend when I was in BMT and missing out on my father’s birthday as well. Towards the last week my Sergeant barged into our bunk to tell me that my grandmother was in a critical condition. Within an hour, I had to send in my weapon and leave camp for Tan Tock Seng. I remembered tearing profusely on the cab, and thinking how I would have stayed in camp for a thousand more days just for Grandma to be alright. I knew all too well, that serving your nation came with that sort of burden, so what right did he have to call his mother?
“Ten.” When I looked up, all I saw was the heavy rain in the background and rows of tents behind. I looked to the other side of my hammock to make sure. Yes, he was gone, nowhere to be seen. By then I noticed that my hands were trembling. It was tiring work pretending to be someone you’re not, and I knew deep down that I was this close to letting him make the call. I felt so cold and empty inside, but at the end of the day, I assured myself that what I did was the professional thing to do. It was my role as an instructor, after all. Like my Commanding Officer told us, once your heart softens, these maggots will not hesitate to crawl over your head. Relieved that I made the right choice, I fell back to sleep, comfortable amidst the rich smell of rain.
The next morning, I woke up to a bright sky. I shot up from my Hammock, startled, and immediately checked my watch. 09:34 AM. I had overslept for 2 hours! How did that happen? It wasn’t my shift as Duty Instructor today but still, it was my unspoken duty to be there and overlook the activities. Sure, I might not have set an alarm, but why didn’t anyone wake me up?
I stood up and toddled over to a group of instructors standing around behind the training shed. They looked smart in their new uniforms and branded sunglasses. Some were smoking, but most just stood around. “Eh paiseh I just woke up, gosh. Why you all never wake me up?!” Warrant Officer Josh looked up first. He looked solemn. “Eh Ben, sorry sorry, we thought of you but then some serious shit happened la.” Serious shit? Maybe last night’s heavy rain could be considered as serious? Anyhow, I probed on. “How come no activities today, I thought the recruits practicing for grenade throw, and you’re the conducting?” Josh sighed. My batch mate Ezekiel chipped in, “Activities are on hold, we had to send this boy back to mainland lah. The call came early in the morning at about 0700, he had to attend to family matters.”
“Yeah, cancer lor. Terrible, feel damn sorry for him.” Josh added, “speaking of which the boy is from your platoon eh, Ben. Yeah anyway damn sad lah, his mother battling cancer for quite long already then this morning she suddenly slipped into a coma. The chances of survival seem slim. I know because the father called, told me the doctor told them she had a few months left so the family still let him come here to Tekong for field camp. But who knew right? Few months can become few weeks, that life can be so fragile and unpredictable? Don’t know how he can take it at such a young age. And the worst part is, we just found out also, that coincidentally, today is the mother’s birthday. Poor boy, poor boy.”
The other instructors nodded along in grave agreement. The crickets continued chirping in the background, invigorated by the entire night of rain.