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Week #5 (01 - 04 of August)
We’re still in the forest camp. Sleeping outdoors, days full of lessons and constant activity.
You know how in the movies, the SWAT team uses fancy hand signals that look really bad-ass? We practiced that, too. Hand signals are useful and cool… but they require team play, focus and the ability to multitask effortlessly. Our signals are similar to the game of broken telephone: the meaning morphs or goes lost and never reaches the last man. This seems odd when coming from improv where cooperation is effortless.
Life in the camp is always busy and the events of the days get garbled together. It’s difficult to remember what happened unless I write it down.
Night under the trees means darkness, even though it’s still summer. We’re only allowed to use red light and have to keep the sound to minimal levels. I guess the guys broke both rules more severely than usually so a class on the topic was held in the dead of night: the instructor walked some ways off and demonstrated how different light sources and noises look like from afar, how they give away ones position quite effectively. I think the guys knew that already, but again, it’s a matter of discipline. I think the camp would have been perfectly dark had they told us that we were in a hostile situation. I didn’t even see my feet and the instructor spoke only in whispers, this made the atmosphere quite… real and spooky.
- The first cleaning day where I wasn't in the toilet team.
- Got to visit the Estonian War Museum.
- One of the rare opportunities to visit a shop, bought some tablets that add taste to drinking water... and sweets for 20 euros. We don't get to shops often enough.
- Started reading Potter's last book, in English.
- Chores like gear maintenance are so much more enjoyable with good music. Spent two hours scrubbing dirt out of my stuff and was happy about it, too.
- Sundays are awesome, we get to sleep one extra hour and have the whole day off.
- Mr. Ko. brought me candy (the sweets run out quite quickly) and a programming book about Go (which turned out to be really advanced and not at all like an introductory book to a programming language should feel like).
- I held my second improv lesson. Asked permission to eat before others and managed to find the time to focus on theater. That's the thing, you don't really have free time during SBC, but some sacrifices and willpower and it's doable. I enjoy teaching improvisation and the feedback after class ("[it was] the best thing that's happened to me this week") made me feel extra good.
Week #6 (05 - 11 of August)
I have mood swings: one day can be perfectly good, I’m content with being a soldier… while others are depressing and sad. The last is more frequent and has a subcategory of its own: having absolutely no energy to do anything, where lessons go by me without learning, I fulfill my duties poorly and even walking requires effort.
(My mood during August. Each data point represents one day. Scale: 0 - suicidally depressed; 10 - just had great sex)
The unit was taken to the edge of the city to run a map reading exercise. By run, I literally mean, run: the time was measured and we ran thirty minutes in combat gear around the forest. It was, of course, a sunny-hot day and we were quite drenched by the end of it.
The driver of our truck was a fun-loving fellow, the trip back was the first time I lost my grip and literally rolled around the car crate in a turn, much to the amusement of others. I wasn’t the only one having trouble with the g-forces.
Another amusing observation from the day: we finished the track and moved to a waiting area. A major road was about hundred meters from us, we were quite close to the city limits. A 20-ish girl, in very short summer clothes, walks her dog past us. Instant reaction from the guys, all the (rather loud) chatter dies down and everyone behaves. I’ve seen looser discipline in a formation drill.
It’s my first official 24h shift as a duty officer (more precisely, one of his aides). The responsibilities include things like guarding the weapons room, dealing with the day-to-day problems of soldiers and keeping order in the hallways and rooms. The responsibility is scary, there’s a lot to do… and a lot that can go wrong, especially with the weapons. It is the responsibility of a duty officer to know the state and contents (down to a single round of ammunition) of the weapons room and keep it in order. The head of our company picked my first day to audit. Did I know where everything was? Luckily, no punishment followed.
There’s much to do as a duty officer. So much, in fact, that when we were supposed to go on a 15k hike (in full gear) the next day, I offered to go without lunch. I’d been busy organizing something while the others were already boarding the car, I had dry rations and thought I’d last the hike on them, making the whole unit wait (packed tightly in the crate) while I ate seemed rude. My SO had to give me a direct order, twice, before I ran to the mess hall. That turned out to be a really good idea.
I wouldn’t have lasted until the end without a decent meal. The hike was extraordinarily difficult: the blazing sun (when are we ever in the field without a weather suitable for sunbathing?), a heavy backpack and battle gear, dusty, straight roads (or bumpy forest ones), a long distance, crazy fast pace. We had only two short rest stops. I learned later that this was intentional so that our feet would not ‘lock out’. When you exhaust your legs and then rest for a while, you’re unable to continue.
I lasted less than half of the track. The weight and the heat were too much, I wasn’t used to that intense physical activity, I was groggy and slogging at the back of the column by the end of the fourth kilometer. The slower ones are put to the front of the formation and I wasn’t ashamed to go there. The group moves only as fast as the weakest member. Still, I fell behind. Privates Kp and Sa literally dragged me along: I could stand, but was having difficulties putting one foot in front of the other, a hand on both of their harnesses pulled me forward). Private Pl had taken my weapon to lessen the load. I gave some items from my backpack to privates Kp. and Sa. to carry for the last five or so kilometers.
We had to cross a rope/board bridge to get over a wide river. This was the first situation during my service where I felt scared for my life. The bridge was sturdy enough, but also bouncy and the waves below made it look like the whole thing was moving sideways. Had someone lost their balance and fallen in with all the heavy gear strapped securely on their back… unless the guy was really fast and calm…we’ll, we’d finally have a guy who’d been granted permission to leave.
The whole hike was a nightmare, although it lasted only four hours from start to finish. I was pushed to the limits and beyond both physically and mentally. I had cuts and some blisters (the only positive thing: my feet have proved to be remarkably resilient; quality hiking socks also help). Everything on me was soaked in sweat.
Private Te. was doing much worse than me and had collapsed on the way. The lieutenant gave him first aid (water) and carried his pack in addition to his own to the nearest car. That’s the second time I’ve had reason to be really proud of him. Ltn Sm. doesn’t let anything happen to his soldiers.
- In a hurry, I managed to break one of the major straps of my harness. That would have meant being benched, but I found another private with a similar build who lent me theirs.
It’s five am, I’m groggy, but still putting on the gear to go for a day out in the shooting range. It was decided that our unit will be the first to go out and come back.
I missed. A lot. I don’t really want to shoot, even at targets. There is some kind of a psychological block right at the moment I pull the trigger and the weapon moves just slightly off target (I try to not close my eyes, but it happens). I accounted my poor shootings skills to that and the fact that my glasses have become too weak over time. One of the instructors didn’t buy it, asked eighteen guys to wait, took my gun, performed some shots (he’s really good) and proclaimed that my sight was off. True enough, my next shots at least hit the target area.
We got back three hours later than planned. The guys complain loudly, I have a problem with outspoken, non-constructive whining though I don’t say anything: I still have to live with them for some weeks.
- Grenade launchers are scary weapons. Wouldn't want to find myself looking at them from the wrong end. I now know how to shoot one though should the situation require it.
- Spoke with Mrs. Ka; I'm planning to invite Improgrupp Jaa! to perform here. This would show people what improv is and get more people to play with me on the weekends. It would also be good to make the theater group official, this would make it somewhat easier to find practice times or even go out and perform.
On duty for the 2nd time
Friday is the best day to be on duty: you can sleep on Saturday morning, meaning no weekly cleaning tasks for the first part of the day. Morning exercise was graciously cancelled and the day started nice and slow.
It took over an hour to take over the weapons room. This can be done anywhere between fifteen minutes to two hours, but the previous shift can’t sleep before the room is checked and their sleeping time isn’t that long. The guys were quite pissed, but I don’t want to do my duties poorly.
- Handing out and then taking back weapons for the whole unit is not fun.
- I get to walk out of formation while going to eat. Small privileges.
- Fixed a jammed printer. The most IT-ish thing I've done during the service.
- The evening count is a paper-hell. It's especially fun to track down the older drivers and investigate whether or not they intend to show up on time.
- I am unable to be serious and mean enough to be respected as the duty officer (aide). Respected in a sense that people would actually obey orders like 'clean the floor'.
- Allowed to drink coffee during the night, a good time to think and write and just be. Cleaned the drawers of old junk.
- Got to visit the artillery / garage section of the war museum. Big cannons are big.
- The best time in a duty officer rotation is right after being relieved: everyone goes to classes, but you can enjoy a hot, peaceful shower and go below the covers for an hour or two.
Did some running with the whole unit. The person making the tempo did NOT care that nearly half of the runners fell out and yelled at them for being slow. I was fit enough to keep going, but chose to lag behind with the rest: carelessness towards the weaker ones is not how to bond a unit. Bad attitude, bro!
Played some football, visited the library (we’ve got lots of IT books!), read my favorite Estonian author, Leo Kunnas. The family visited and brought some energy gels (will be needed during the next hike). Improvised for an hour with my actors. Good Sunday.
Week #7 (12 - 18 of August)
Went out to the countryside for a class during the morning, the weather is windy, but nice; it’s good to get some fresh air, so to speak.
Sports competitions! Got to sunbathe while waiting for my teams turn to start (last team to go). As soon as it came - big freaking raindrops, falling really fast, everyone wet in seconds, impossible to see with glasses on. Oh, irony! Who knew that raindrops can be so bitter in the eyes? 1:50 to finish the course. Lots of running and throwing and fooling around (how many guys does it take to push a truck uphill? Downhill?).
"Do you feel emotions at all?"
- while doing shots with a handball "This is the emotionless dude" - later on by the same guy
I’ve become so good at hiding my emotions over the years. I can seem completely Silent, yet feel emotional turmoil inside. This skill is really useful in the army, but destructive to me as a person. Those particular comments put me in a depressed mode for the rest of the day.
Another hike in full gear, this time with the whole battalion. The pace was just right and we had enough rest stops along the way. I used up 1/4 of my bottle of talcum (the stuff is great). Protip: if the belt strap of your harness slips below the shrapnel vest, attach it to the chest strap with a cord or another strap. This doesn’t let it slip off and you’re able to carry on without killing yourself.
The hike was actually quite good, the average pace was around 4.6km/h, the weather was nice and I didn’t hand out my backpack. I used nearly all my energy gels, which helped a lot. There was very little complaining / whining and that helped, too.
Two majors, the highest ranking officers in the battalion, handed out shoulder badges to every soldier who made it across the finish line - which meant all of us. We’re now officially part of the family. The ritual made me wonder about such things in the army and indeed, they do motivate and lift the mood.
Had no major injuries, but my feet are damaged enough that I can’t march and the back… what wouldn’t I give for a massage!
A busload of privates from another battalion visited.
- Soldier dude #1: "Where's the bathroom?" (note the lack of introductory statement)
- Our private: "[instructions]"
- Soldier dude #1: "OK"
Dude walks straight into the command HQ building. You don't simply just walk into the HQ building. Ever.
I love the sunrise during morning exercise: when we begin, the sun is behind the horizon, when we finish, the grass is beautifully lit by shafts of sunlight.
The cleaning day went okay, I’m promoted to be responsible for the toilet commando. Nine men under my command. Discussed astrophysics with the guys while working. Most of us are from an engineering background, you can have such conversations here.
We’re reminded that we’re still maggots. No-one of us important, we’re the lowest of them all. We didn’t get into formation in time so we practiced. Running in, out, ten seconds… fifteen… again! Discovery: the more they mess with me, the more depressed I get. I live my negative feelings inwards and get really down… which is probably not healthy.
- Got an epic letter from a new, but dear friend. Smiled a lot that day.
- Prepping for the upcoming forest camp.
- The laundry machine decided to leave everything soaking wet. I put my wet clothes in a plastic bag. Private Tm. didn't. There was a big puddle under his closet.
- Out of chocolate. This is bad.
- Called a friend and found a place to stay during my weekends of freedom. That's extremely sweet of her.
- Gas masks were handed out, walked around the building to see how it feels. Do not want a punishment involving gas masks.
- No amount of rain can stop scheduled outdoors lessons.
- Physical fitness test. 66 push-ups, 32 sit-ups, 3.2k in 15min. Significant improvement compared to the start of the service. Passed.
- Weekend passes are a powerful motivator for those who care. A subtle threat to leave people in does wonders to the formation, suddenly everyone has the right step and posture and the faces look serious and proud.
Week #8 (19 - 25 of August)
Waking at 0500 is no fun! Dressed and ate quickly and headed out to a shooting range before the sun was fully up. Passed the marksmanship exam, much to my surprise: eleven out of twelve hit the mark and the twelfth one skimmed the board.
Ltn Be. demonstrated the power of camouflage once more by hiding himself in the forest and ordering us to find him before he shoots us - which he did, of course. We utilized our sneaking and observation skills, but got killed. He was on his stomach with nothing but his uniform to disguise him, just a couple of meters from us. The day ended when we arrived to the location of the next camp. Set up the tent in darkness again.
We’re lucky to have a lake for washing. Mornings start with a run to the water which is cold, but bearable. The forest is beautiful during the early hours, silent, misty and Celtic. If only I had the time and a camera…
Lots of civilians move about. The running joke is that this is a popular make-out spot for young couples, in which case it’s none of our business. We’re trained on how to handle situations where civilians get too close to the camp.
Map-reading exercise during the night. Found three points on our own, but zombified quite quickly from tiredness.
The next morning brought with it the second time I’ve been quite afraid during the service: the gas tent. We put on our battered gas masks and -suits and went into the smokey tent. There are two ways a gas mask can fail: either you don’t put it on correctly (in which case it’s not airtight) or the filter malfunctions. The first depends on yourself: have you paid attention and know how to check for leaks? There’s nothing you can do when the filter is bad. The tent was full of residual smoke and visibility was close to zero. The first breath after everyone was in and they lit the gas flare was the worst. The second was a relief. My mask held and the air was clean. A few guys weren’t so lucky and had to stumble out in tears. A lot of us (including me) had put on our protective suits improperly and had leaks, the gas got to the skin and made it sting. The instructor’s humor was to ask for the time and yell at guys stupid enough to reflexively bare their wrist.
Continuing with the adrenaline: a lesson on how to extinguish a burning soldier, which involved jumping on him (and the flames!) with a blanket. Some of the guys had their rear ends snipped by flames (much to the amusement of everyone), the blanket had a hole.
Another map reading exercise in small units, but this time we were armed (with blanks) and told to evade everyone. The atmosphere changed noticeably, everyone tried to be silent and observant and whenever one of the officers managed to track us down and opened fire, we retaliated and ran from the fight with no casualties. There were cases where we detected the enemy, went to ground immediately and waited for his next move. Lying on the forest floor semi-camouflaged, pointing your weapon at the enemy, ready to open fire, knowing your unit is doing the same and waiting for the order to retreat or pull the trigger. Quite an adrenaline rush.
Some fun, too: we “killed” some guys from another unit with friendly fire near one of the checkpoints (the squad leader decided to shoot first, ask questions later) and fired upon a squad to force them to flee and clear a path for us.
The whole thing was done with no water. The lesson: I can manage without drinking, if I must.
There’s not much sleep during this camp. In purpose, of course. The guys use every opportunity to get a few minutes of rack time. I find it difficult to keep my eyes open as well. The feeling is familiar (I’m a developer, after all) and I know it gets better soon.
A sobering lesson was about war funerals: what to do with the body of a fallen. Yes, body. Because the army isn’t a summer camp, you die in wars. I decided to keep wearing my dog tag even after the army as both a reminder and a practical measure.
Trekked around the lake, 22k. No backpacks, full battle gear, extremely fast pace, as fast as we could muster. The thing was a competition and there were talks that the winner team gets out for the weekend. Our squad did extremely well: the map reader didn’t get lost even once, we had only two five minute rest stops, finished in four hours and even the weakest members of the party showed strength by keeping up. The atmosphere was motivated and positive, you might even use the word “cheerful”.
I gave away my weapon again after discussing the matter with the guys. The dilemma: I could push on and collapse near the end, thereby stopping the entire unit or I could overcome my pride and look at things objectively: not everyone are strong, physically
We were the third team to finish. Damn it, we really really tried! Lost to the second squad by seven minutes, they had run near the end. Collapsed into a heap and let my legs rest, the discomfort came when they had ‘cooled off’. SFC To. said he was proud and that does not happen often. Got an hour to sleep and was woken by a camp-wide alarm.
The alarm meant manning the trenches. We were loaded with blanks and when the officers started firing at us from the enemy lines, we opened fire. The sad thing is that my weapon failed me, I had loaded it sloppily. As a result, I didn’t get to fire a single shot. The morale: always check that your magazine is in order. I found a jammed cartridge in my weapon afterwards, in the barracks, during weapon maintenance.
A hilarious incident happened after the alert. We were on standby and opening fire was forbidden without a command. Private St. was sleep deprived and bored so he decided to perform a routine safety check of his weapon. We’ve done the simple procedure many times, it’s already in muscle memory. Private St. however forgot to remove his magazine from the weapon before starting the check and so it was that when he pulled the trigger, he fired (a blank). That got him awake nice and proper. His punishment was to carve a wooden weapon with a removable magazine and the loading handle so he could practice proper safety techniques without putting anyone at risk. He finished the carving right before the end of SBC.
- The sleeping bags are excellent and the mornings are that much worse: from perfectly warm to chills in seconds.
- Lots of people and cars move about, mostly for berries.
- Spoke to an English-speaking biker about keeping away from the camp. The warning signs were in Estonian, you see.
Field trip and marching
We are going to visit another battalion down south. Stops at two locations along the way: a war memorial dedicated to remembering the fallen of one specific area who fell victim to horrible acts during the occupation and a graveyard where the fallen of foreign missions now rest.
The other battalion is impressive: much, much bigger compound and larger personnel. More companies. Bigger housing and common rooms. Stricter discipline - they have drill sergeants! Everyone behaves their best. The lunch is excellent (although, we later hear it’s especially for us).
The summery landscape is nice to look at, even from the car crate. We get to stretch our legs and rest, away from the city noises and air.
Sunday is an important day: we march through the city. No officers come with us, the units are under the command of the more competent privates. We march up to Toompea and down through the Old Town, the busiest tourist streets of Estonia
The marching is accompanied by singing, we have three units and three songs, when one unit finishes, another begins. It really is something when a hundred soldiers sing “Jää vabaks, Eesti meri!” [stay free, Estonian seas] in the echo-ish space of a tunnel. Everyone stares, most cheer and laugh and point fingers. A civilian at us: “Why are you being so serious?”… but we are. Soldiering is a serious profession. The march ended on the site of the only “official” battle against the 1940-s coup.
Week #9 (26 of August - 01 of September)
The military police arrives during a lesson. Everyone is ordered back to the dorms to perform a thorough search of personal belongings. The MP-s were, for the most part, serving time, like us, this seemed to be more of a training exercise for them. They had special equipment, good discipline and looking-mean skills as well as sidearms. Everyone’s clothing and closets were searched, items taken apart one by one and inspected. Nothing illegal was found from our floor, though there were rumors that not everyone had obeyed the rules 100%. There might have been something in my pocket that was supposed to be in the locker, but they didn’t say a word about it.
I’m on duty again. Taking over the weapons room is and will be a pain in the arse, it took 1.5 hours, the previous guy was quite pissed and in the end, I still got yelled at because he hadn’t done his job correctly. The days on duty are always busy, there are so many little things to take care of. All of the older guys who continued their service longer than required gave away their gear and are merry. Their time in the army is coming to a close.
The best part of being on duty is the night. I’m allowed to drink coffee and read a book, nothing disturbs the night except for a few guys travelling to the bathroom and back. The first minutes of being off-duty are awesome: you’re no longer responsible if there’s a cartridge missing from the weapons room, everyone else rushes to lessons, but you get to shower and relax and sleep a little.
We’re learning “proper” military technology, at last. Portable radios and communication protocols. I want to be the guy who does something like that in the future, but the career path is still quite unclear.
Machine gun exam. Sure of my failure, but got a 4 in the end. This seems to be a trend. Calculated my GPA for the first time: 4.2. There’s hope for a silver / gold medal. I guess I care a bit, after all. Academic achievement, no matter the field, seems to be a passive motivator in my life.
Our career choices are explained, at last. There are many positions, but only two I won’t be miserable in: IT support and field communications officer. The first requires networking knowledge though; I’m sure there are people who can calculate subnet masks better than I. The second means becoming and officer, which is too much effort for far too little benefit. Who will I become? The guy who stirs soup? The irony does not go lost on me: high-paying IT specialist -> …?
We visit a patriotic concert in Liberty Square. It’s rainy, but the emotions are high. Estonians like to sing about their country. Famous Estonian singers sing and the visuals are stunning. My favorite orchestra Reaalmažoor plays, the violins were especially awesome.
Seaside and lanterns
We celebrated The Night Of Ancient Lights near the sea. The walk there, through the city, was both beautiful (we had torches) and embarrassing. Guys, really: force discipline upon yourselves, the public is not the place to talk in formation. Actually, you should never speak in formation. There is enough spare time to do that. Also, it’s not too difficult to take note of proper alignment, we’ve done drills.
The shoreline was beautiful in the night: the lights of the harbor and the city. Yellow lights of torches, lanterns and a roaring fire, around which people were merry. Lots of sky lanterns were sent off to the sea.
- Lessons about a new automatic rifle begin. This is the weapon I learned in high school that is notoriously difficult to assemble.
- I was quite bad with maps, but the amount of map-reading exercises we get has slowly improved this, I actually found all the points I was supposed to and had some interesting philosophical debates along the way.
- Private Mi. promises to introduce me to the bar scene of Tartu during our vacation after SBC.
- Aced the marching exam. The negative side of this is that I've began to march in civilian life, too.
- Ltn Mu. is being mean again, apparently we've been doing the nightly count all wrong for the entire time.
- Dear fathers, a girl does not belong to the barracks at evenings.
- There is a cute redhead soldier from down south (we have visitors), but the army is not a place to think about such things.
- Played the piano in the mess hall, some of the guys happened to hear and complimented me later.
- The guys discussed suicide in the army.
- Apparently, 75% of women leave their men during service. I'm both happy (I'm single) and sad (life, thou art a heartless b*ch).
- How amusing would it be if someone managed to smuggle in a whole (warm) pizza, wake the room and have a small secret snack party?
- Feeling down and sad a lot.
- Did random improv things with the actors.
- Got loads of candy from visiting relatives.
- There is a guitar somewhere in the building, I intend to borrow it when things calm down.
- We have a common room with around ten computer terminals, but they are all but unusable: sluggish and malfunctioning a lot. Still better than nothing.
YouTube’s leidub huvitavat huumorit. Näiteks:
Leidsin ka võitluskaaslase blogi, kes teenib minuga samal aastal: Ajateenistus Logistikapataljonis aastail 2013-2014
I fear I babble. The high-school essays were only 300 words and I got everything said.