My first month in the army is over, I’m still alive and sane enough to write. I got out on the fourth week, much of this was written during that time.
I decided to write this series in English (and it’s proven to be quite difficult), but some of the things only make sense in Estonian. There’ll be sections of native text.
I am a pessimist by nature; all is not as dark as I seem to indicate. Indeed, the situation here is quite good compared to what it is/was elsewhere. Most negative experiences are due to my personality and should not be seen as damaging to the reputation or morale of the army.
- « The previous month: On Compulsory Military Service I
- » The next month: Military Service - Month #2 (August 2013)
Week #1 (30th of June - 7th of July)
My last free day. I went on a bus to Tartu (the gathering point) with a plan to spend the night outdoors, but my best friend happened to be on the same route and didn’t let me have any of it. She’s awesome. Woke early and enjoyed my favorite music one last time on my way to the reception. Funny, how one appreciates simple things like sunshine when there are counted minutes of freedom left. The reception was full of men with no hair and their close ones, saying goodbye. Men were loaded to busses, the trip to the capital was silent. Some slept, some made the most of their remaining time with a smartphone.
The base itself is located near the city center, which is both the best and the worst location from a soldiers perspective. On the one hand you won’t have to travel far to go home, to the shop or to the cinema, on the other you’ll always be reminded that you are, in a sense, a prisoner: trains, traffic, buildings and people are visible over the walls, the sound of the city overlays day-to-day activities yet you are forbidden to interact. The sleeping quarters on the 2nd floor look towards the city roads.
The new arrivals were ushered in, had their personal items searched and went through medical. Clothing (uniforms, socks and more) were handed out as well as tactical gear such as helmets, sleeping bags and more.
Every man, as far as I saw, was perfectly disciplined. No fidgeting, no talking. The mood, for the first two days, was extremely somber and quiet - like someone had died… and in a sense, something had. This passed after the second day when no-one came at us with whips nor guns.
Every piece of gear must be tagged with the owners name (everything is identical). The 2nd day went mostly for that while the management dealt with another bunch of arrivals.
Things got busy after that.
There’s never time for breathing - on principle. The schedule lists a number of breaks, especially on the weekends, but they aren’t available for us, the SBC (Soldiers Basic Course). We go from one lesson to another, often already late when we are released from the previous one. Time for washing is scarce, there are well over a hundred men, one washing room and around ten - twenty minutes to shower. Cleaning only the feet and going to bed sweaty is inevitable (this changed on the third week).
Speaking of feet - we have two pairs of boots: new and used. The new ones are stiff and hurt like hell to wear in. They don’t breathe and our feet are constantly drenched in sweat. Talcum powder was handed out after the first few days, that helped.
First collective punishment didn’t take long to happen - although, for the record, they aren’t punishments, but “exercises” - and nothing cruel or impossible to do, usually just push-ups.
I moved to the ground floor on the second day: our unit was formed. The outside world is no longer visible from the windows nor are the closets located conveniently in the same room. The first is perhaps a good thing, the second, not so much. Most soldiers in my group have bachelor or higher education, mostly in technical subjects. Lots of IT and electronics experts. I wonder whether that was deliberate.
The morning wake-up is at 0600. We have 60 seconds to get dressed. A sort of routine developed quite quickly - many wake a few minutes earlier (without an alarm clock, mind you), sit up and wait for another 16 hour day to begin. Those minutes are precious. Imagine that you wake in a semi-dark room, sit up, groggy, and remember where you are… and what’s waiting for you in a few brief moments. You sit, try to collect yourself and see fourteen faces come up one by one as they wait for the signal to begin.
The closet and the bed must be in order, at all times - and that order is measured in wrinkles and centimeters. Some older soldiers showed us how to make the bed and soon after, we practiced: five minutes to make the bed, perfectly. Thirty seconds to tear it all up and start again. Washing machines aren’t allowed during SBC, the laundry is washed from the sink, manually. Sunny days and physical activities mean that things get soaked in sweat quite quickly.
The first trip outside the compound walls was liberating. There is a stadion right next to us, we went there to get a baseline on our physical abilities. I ran 3.2k in under 16 minutes - the preparations paid off although I did not pass. Some girls were playing football while we ran, that gave the activity an illusion of normality.
…an illusion, because life stopped being normal and became routine. A routine of commands, drills, discipline, learning and (in my case) sadness. Although the physical demands are not as bad as I feared, the emotional aspects are. I am constantly depressed and lonely and that feeling is amplified by the total deprivation from hugs. There are men around me (in fact the only time one can be alone is either in a bathroom or in his dreams), yet I feel like I’m in solitary - which, in a sense, is true. There is some time for calling, but I rarely use it.
“Your face looks like you have never laughed. You walk like a serial killer, eyes looking at one spot.” - A private to me after observing me while I was in a particularly sad mood.
I lost a friend right before starting the service. The forth morning started with a nightmare about that. I’ve never dreamt of a dead body before, yet there she was and it was my fault. The harsh psychological environment does not help with keeping unhealthy thoughts away.
I’ve found that the mind is the only mechanism for grounding myself. Long periods of standing in formation or performing a physical task (running) are times where I can think back on the happy memories or daydream. Ironic - exactly a year ago was the happiest period of my life (no exaggeration). A year later - the low point. Dreams offer some solace and companionship and even though they are the constructs of my subconscious, the effects are real. Real enough to keep me near emotional sanity.
Entertainment is scarce. Phones are forbidden, but books should be OK. I chose not to bring one, but this will be solved once we’re allowed to visit the library.
I can not recall any free time from the first week or two. Some half-promises were made about it for Sunday, but that did not happen. Instead, the idea of a calm Sunday turned out to be a test-hike in full gear, 2km. The sore throat and a slight fever I had that morning did not help my case. Funny, western civilization: we push ourselves so hard since childhood: several schools, work, army, work. Never enough time to deal with oneself and the needs of the body. Sickness is an inconvenience for which the busy lives we live just don’t see the time for.
The second week brought medicine, communication and weapon lessons. We learnt basic first aid and elementary weapon handling skills. The weapon lessons took part next to the low boundary wall of the compound, overlooking a cemetery - rather ironically. The instructor had to stop the class at one point to allow two civilians to pass in front of the imaginary line of fire. I am disturbed that the psychological part of dealing with weapons and war hasn’t been handled: what is it like to kill? This should’ve been done before the first weapon lesson.
We have our first rotating leadership position - a person who must always be responsible for the whole group. There’ll be additional roles in the near future.
The morning starts with a half-hour exercise time. The physical load is manageable for me, but even I stop smiling at the 60th push-up. The exercises depend on the leader and most are reasonable with the load.
We have a good obstacle course with various challenges. I managed to pass all obstacles but one, even the several meters tall ladder where you had to throw yourself upside-down. I am afraid of heights, but the instructor was very inspiring and I overcame the fear.
Sweets have a special place in (not only) my life - there is never enough chocolate. The 500g max turned out to be untrue. We are allowed to visit the little shop once a week (if all goes well) and the stockpile of a weeks supplies is quick to run dry. Sugar is something visitors should always bring with them.
The future seems unsure - they’ve explained that we’ve only got two choices: either an officer or a driver. Some special people get special treatment, but the chance for that is slim.
The unit eats together; one has some fifteen minutes to finish. Not everyone were used to that. The lunch itself is excellent (three course meals). Everything is taken with a sense of disciplined humor; at one time we waited for the slackers in push-up position…
About inspiration and motivation - there really is a place for that in the army. There was a rather boring lecture and I fought the urge to sleep. Then a senior officer came in and spoke lively, passionately, well. My will to serve was increased dramatically for some time after that lecture. On the other hand, things like pointless harrying and (in Est) huiamine brings motivation down and doesn’t really accomplish the intended goal.
One of my fears - obnoxious people - is mostly untrue. There is only one officer and one soldier who I can’t stand, at all. Most are professional, nice and highly educated (many of us come from a technical background, there are a lot of IT professionals). It’s easy to get agitated, use foul language and in the end not solve any problems. Dealing with the repulsive people around us - suppressing the anger and acting nicely - is one of the many challenges I choose to pass.
The lieutenants assigned to us are young, really young (that is not to say that they are inexperienced), and with a unique sense of humor. For example, it is quite impossible to maintain a serious face when standing in a formation and lieutenant Mu. decides to (in purpose, I suspect) make us laugh… and laughing, of course, is forbidden. Such activity is quickly stopped by a loud “No laughter!”. They say that many of the older officers have been replaced and our life will be considerably easier than of the ones who served here last year.
There is a beautiful young woman, a college student, walking around the base. She’s doing a research paper on behavioural changes in men during their eleven months of service (also one of the reasons I’m writing this series). Some statistically relevant men were interviewed. One thing I couldn’t understand though: how could an anthropologist who studies men in isolation not foresee that they will eye at the only girl they see in months, especially if she’s as beautiful as a model. I wouldn’t have taken offense.
The first hike
The greatest “cherry on the cake” was the first hike, 15km. We were loaded into trucks and taken to a nearby forest where we had to hike back to the base. The walk itself was exhausting, but crossing the first obstacle - a river - was, in ways, worse.
There was a single taut rope and we had to get across. I’d never done such a thing, least of all with equipment and a weapon on me. Most of the guys fell in half way through, I was sure of my fate… but alas, I made it across. The feeling… incredible relief and surprise at my strength. Lieutenant Br. told us to push as hard as we can, as quick as we can. Sergeant Tn. kept yelling encouragements and commands not to quit, which helped a lot.
I am proud of my instructor: one man managed to fall from the rope into the river head first, Ltn Sm. didn’t waste time, jumped in and pulled the poor guy out.
"Eyes front, soldiers! You'll get your turn in three months!" - When passing a lake where mostly clothless people sunbathed. Of course we looked at the women.
I drank about 4-5 liters of water, but didn’t pee at all - everything went into sweat. Undershirt, uniform, vest - all soaked. The final stretch, through the city was… unique. Civilians staring, we, dirty, in uniform, in formation, with weapons. Feeling 20% proud, 30% like a caged animal in display, 30% envious and 20% sad. Zero recovery time: weapon maintenance is always done before washing or resting.
I am a bit pissed about the learning methods in the military: they are based on negative, not positive affect. You do something wrong, you get punished. This doesn’t really encourage taking risks and wanting to learn. For example, whenever a question is asked in class I don’t see a reason why I should raise my hand, even if I know the answer. What is more: maybe the reason why I found it possible to cross the river was because of the presence of a inspiring officer, not the punishment of getting wet. Then again, I can understand why this system is needed and has worked for so long. Still…
I was fourteen when I first thought that I am more grown up than my peers. I’ve experienced the world a bit differently than the mainstream opinion of a typical teen and been hurt harder. Maybe this is the reason I have so good self-control. Still, I am surprised: many, too many guys lack elementary skills to discipline themselves. There is bickering and loud mumbling. People are late to places. Some think too much of themselves and find cooperation difficult.
There was a mandatory IT test for everyone which was presented as a general test to see how good in IT we are. The reality was a bunch of tech-support and killer CISCO / networking questions. I’m proud of the things I do well and when some page says that I know very little of IT… that’s unfair.
We have an evening push-up tradition - the whole unit does it together. Some do sit-ups as well, right after the curfew. The bed is a good place to perform the activity, but of course they squeak. I’ve lived in a dorm and the sound of four-five beds, rhythmically squeaking, brought back memories.
Honestly, I did not think of that before this week: what if I could do improv here, in the army, with soldiers? The thought seems feasible and would offer a great outlet for all of us. I spoke with a senior soldier and the person in charge of our extracurricular activities. This will happen, I will teach the freedom of improv to soldiers who live in a totally different world. This has never been done in Estonia and as far as I know, in Europe.
- They arranged a HIV lecture. I wonder why.
- I got my first blister.
- Saturday is cleaning day. I've been in the toilet team way too many times.
- First exam and grading. I'm doing reasonably well.
- The "gift" of the week was two hours of real, tangible free time.
More weapon lessons. Communications got exciting, we got to try out a couple of different wired and wireless radios. Some of them are quite old and boy, are they heavy. This is kind of ironic, Estonia is one of the leading IT countries where you could fit ten civil communication devices in one hand, yet the military… could do with upgrades.
I got to try out the piano in the dining hall. The intention is to come and play on the evenings when the room empties. The men pressure me to do it while they eat, I think it to be a bad idea. I play for myself and as strange as it might seem… it’s a form of therapy. The sad melodies don’t need to be heard by anyone else.
From an IT professional to a driver
Twenty of the best from the “general” (heavy sarcasm here) IT test were released from lessons and invited to job interviews: there are positions where IT skills are utilized, not wasted, but not everyone get that chance. The interview felt like a traditional, structured list of questions, although the specialists asking the questions were quite nice. Nevertheless, I felt… rejected, really, since I didn’t get the position. I don’t even know why. I was honest, didn’t oversell and actually wanted it. Perhaps because I’m not a network administrator, perhaps because my vision of myself in a five years time does not include the army. The rejection effectively removes any chance that I can be utilized as an IT guy in the army. Under no circumstances do I want to be an officer (at least not for ground troops) so this leaves only one option: a driver. I don’t even like cars that much… oh, well.
Surprisingly many people who I know are here with me. Some from IT College and one from my improv team. We did some improvised two-man long form scenes in the half-empty room, to the joy of the few spectators. The sign-up sheet for improv lessons went out at the start of the week. The first lesson was of basic theory and warm-ups, nine people showed up and we had a surprisingly good time. I didn’t do a lot of promo for the classes, I’m hoping to get Jaa! to perform here.
An interesting lesson in disguises took place during a field trip to a nearby forest. The guys painted their faces green, attached a couple of branches and grass and disappeared from sight. We had to locate them from fifty meters, twenty guys in a small sector of the forest. Really cool how at one moment there is nothing and then you see two rows of men training their guns on you.
- Some take too long to wake up in mornings so we practiced. Clothes off, everyone to beds, lights out. Whistle, clothes, into formation. We managed to get the time down to thirty seconds.
- We got our name tags - proper, sewn ones (we wore painters tape until today). Instantly felt more soldier-like.
- The search of sleeping quarters revealed a bunch of phones, hidden under mattresses. The superiors were not happy with that. Not happy at all.
- Three first get out for the weekend.
- Sore throat, chills. Cleaned the toilet anyway. No opportunity to be ill.
- Read a book for the first time in three weeks.
- First visitors day
Week #4 (22nd of July - 28th of July)
First tactics and engineering lessons: explosives! I got to blow up stuff. Kind of scary, kind of cool.
There is no need for running. When an engineer runs on a battlefield, we're screwed. Then there's something wrong." - Staff Sergeant Ta
I had to go to a foot doctor, outside the compound. The drive through the city was along familiar roads, which brought back happy memories from the previous summer, but were quick to turn bitter. The knowledge that my basic civil liberties can be restricted is like a weil that turns good things sad. We were left alone in the civil world for the first time. None of the men have made a run for it and I don’t think anyone will. This is good.
An active mind is great for brief escapes from the military routine / waiting around. So it happened that I was standing in formation with forty other guys in a hallway, waiting for a lesson to begin. Lieutenant Be walks by and I give the command for attention. The officers usually say “At ease!” almost immediately (in which case the person who gave “Attention!” repeats the command) and I, being more focused on my own thoughts than what was happening, yelled “At ease!” half a second earlier than the officer. He stopped, looking rather amused and remarked sarcastically: “You’re in a pre-emptive mode, aren’t you?”. Everyone held their breath and / or laughter. Lucky for me, the officer in question is care-free and good-tempered so he let it pass.
Twenty six days and I am rewarded with my first three-day pass. Recruits don’t usually get out so early in training, but they decided to experiment with this as a good motivational gesture. Three “best” get out every weekend until the end of basic training when life gets easier. I don’t understand how I am one of the first to go.
We packed our bags and lieutenant Sm gave a briefing on what we can and can not do. Getting out of the gate was extremely liberating, I wanted to laugh. I changed out of the uniform as soon as possible and was a civilian again.
“Kohe näha, et kuu aega pole keppi saanud - mehed on närviliseks muutumas.” - Rms Rk
The weekend was… living. I saw a movie, met with a relative for lunch, stayed at a friend’s place and got some badly needed company and warm breakfast. Bike ride on the summer-y streets of Tartu with my best friend, sunbathing on the porch, fresh apples and a movie night. So much warm emotion in such a short while. I felt alive and positively charged.
The last hours of freedom and the next day felt completely opposite. Maybe that was the point? Be a month without smoke and you kind of get used to it. Then give the subject just one cigaret and he’s on the edge again. I heard similar stories from the others: coming back didn’t lift anyones spirit. Still, I’m grateful.
- Running in the pouring rain. With a warm weather, quite enjoyable. With cold wind - not so much.
- We got our dog tags. Shiny.
- Passed the weapon exam. I am now allowed into the shooting range.
- Standing in formation. Hearing the commentator and the crowd from a nearby stadion take up a chant.
- Something is wrong with my wrist, can't do push-ups nor apply any load. The doctor says all is good.
- Trips through the city always make me sad. You don't realize how much freedom civilian life offers until it's taken from you.
- Some of the guys start getting on my nerves with their loud talk and low humor.
I got back on Sunday evening. The first forest camp started early on Monday morning.
Week #5 (29th of July - 4th of August)
We woke early, did some last-minute packing and were off.
I shot with the gun I had been practicing with for the first time. I had done some shooting with a similar weapon a few years back, that helped a lot. The recoil isn’t so bad. The weapon (and I) turned out to be quite accurate.
The most memorable thing from the first day was the trip to the camping site at dusk. The night was almost dark, there weren’t any lights except for the cars, which were moving in a single line along a very dusty road. I was on the first machine. Looking back: a huge cloud of dust, everything is white. Six-seven headlights shine through the cloud. Doesn’t sound spectacular, but it was. Add to it the feeling of being in a crate with around thirty soldiers, tired, sleepy and you get one of those positive experiences the guys talk about.
We reached the camping site at three in the morning. The tents were put up in darkness as quickly as possible (having learnt the skill just hours earlier). The first time of sleeping on the forest floor was surprisingly warm and comfortable - the standard issue sleeping bags are excellent. I woke in a bush of blueberries, the forest was full of them. Just reach out from the sleeping bag and there you go, amazing breakfast. The rest of the week was on combat rations, of course.
Life in a forest camp is busy. The day is full of lectures and exercises, one after the other. There is little to no free time. I ate my food cold, heating wasn’t worth the time. Digging my first trench took three days (more precisely, nights). I’m sure I get to practice that more in the future.
Digging in the night is no fun, especially if it rains. The water, tiredness and low motivation made me gave up on erecting the tent (after being allowed to go to sleep at… 0230?) and I slept fully clothed, under a tree. Practical, but not really comfortable. Was the first to get in the trench when the alert came. This was considered cheating and I put up the tent on the following nights. The ground was angled downwards on an eight degree angle; luckily I did not roll down the hill in my sleep.
Examples of Disciplinary Actions
… that aren’t actually punishments, but “training exercises”. Standard action: X number of push-ups. Sometimes, though, the commanders have a military-minded sense of humor. Examples include…
- Speaking while in formation - 8 laps around the building, singing
- Turnaround in the wrong direction (over the wrong shoulder) (command "About, FACE") - Run around the formation, repeating: "This is my left hand, this is my left hand!"
- Bed unkept - Everyone practices, all the beds in the room must be made in 4-5 minutes, perfectly.
- Late to the formation - Everyone waits for the person to arrive in the position of push-ups
- Forgetting to greet an officer - Everyone practices
The lieutenant decided to teach us a (rather gruesome) soldier’s running song that goes something like this:
Taevas särab võidupäike Kõikjal maas on vereloike Võllas rippub desertöör See on meie kätetöö Mets on nagu tapalava Vaenlasi seal kõikjal lamab See on nende maine haud Ronkadele pidulaud Liigume kui põrguvägi Meie taga lasub häving See, kes meie ette jääb Taevas varsti ingleid näeb Tappev kuul see lendab, jee! Otse sõbra kehasse Jooksen ligi, hüüan abi Kild mul lõikab kõri läbi Hingan sisse enda verd Tunnen et on viimne tund Pärast võitu tunne hea Higine on kiiver peas Automaat on tuline Tääk on otsast verine Paljud meist on jäänud maha Sinna võõra piiri taha Neid on viinud võõras kuul Nende haudu silub tuul
More random thoughts
- I proved to myself that I'm not hopelessly addicted to computers nor coffee.
- The lessons are not overly difficult.
- The living conditions are excellent.
- There is no free time.
- My body is getting stronger by the day. I'll probably be in a really good shape at the end of SBC.
- They'll mess with you, but none of that crap about toothbrushes and toilets. We didn't have to do anything inhuman or degrading.
Advise to the next generation
- If at all possible, pick a bed that's strategically hidden from the door. Behind a post or a closet.
- Be polite, make friends. You'll depend of each other.
- Keep your mouth shut. In 80% of cases you are not the wisest.
- ALWAYS keep your closet in order and bed made
Stuff I wish I had brought with me
- Black electrical tape for the harnesses
- WD-40 for cleaning everything that rusts
- More chocolate
- A book, minimum 600 pages. You don't have free time, but there are 5 - 10 minute windows and of course, the time when you're supposed to be sleeping
- A vacuum flask (especially useful in forest camps when it rains and you don't have the time for making hot water)
- Power bars or gels
- MP3 player with good music and IT podcasts - Now, I'm not saying that one should break the rules and listen to it when not allowed... just that there are moments where you wish you had it with you for distraction. Usually, somewhere around the 5th kilometer.
The first month
One down, ten to go. Leaving the civilian world behind and adjusting to the new life is a bit of a shock. I am in a constant, fluctuating state of sadness, much of it of my own making. My professional development has been stopped for a year.
Every day goes towards learning how to protect our country. While indeed a worthwhile goal, I can not wait to get back to living my life, free of obligations. Soldiers do not want a war to happen. Killing is awful.
The next month should bring more training, hiking, two forest camps - and the midpoint of SBC.