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Week #10 (02 - 08 September)
Feeling strangely numb: not motivated, nor down, just… going through the motions. We’re wrapping up with AK4 lessons and making preparations for the next forest camp.
The third forest camp
The third camp had a lot in common with the first one: same location (our old positions were still visible), busy schedule, lessons, lessons, lessons. We heard shots, there must be another camp somewhere nearby. I worry they’ll attack us during the night, but the officers say it won’t happen.
Learnt to build common barbed wire obstacles. Never in my life would I have imagined that I have to solve graph theory problems in the army. The task was to connect a set of poles with barbed wire so that there would be no “double” connections - two wires between the same posts. Our unit split in two: the ones who understood the nature of the problem and the ones who were too tired or hadn’t heard of graph theory or just didn’t care. The first group tried to figure it out on paper, the latter just started connecting poles. At this point I agree with L. Elias:
Ütleme nii, et siin kõrge vaimsusega kohas, lausa Harituse Valges Kantsis võiks öelda, leiduks ainest vaimse arengu mahajäämusest doktoritöö kirjutada.
This is overstated, but I was quite pissed at the time: seriously, hold your horses, let’s figure this out together before starting something that’ll end with having to redo a lot of work.
I realized that slacking is passively encouraged. I’ve started to escape little chores (if everyone does that it must be the expected norm, right?). I try to keep to the background and be unnoticeable, which might involve ducking behind a tree when “volunteers” are in high demand. I don’t like myself very much for doing so, but yet, that’s who I’ve become - an unmotivated cog.
In a team of five, I had the honor of working with one SOB who categorically refuses to participate. The lesson is about to end and we have a deadline to disassemble the equipment, the rest work frantically while he sits under a tree and tells everyone to sod off. Not cool dude!
I have the cold and a slight fever. It’s time for the trench-digging exam: four hours to dig a perfect trench. This has historically been one of the more difficult exams, but I got a ‘B’, barely. Pretty darn good, considering this was my third hole in the ground.
Varsti hakkate kaevikut kaevama, küll te selle haiguse välja higistate! - MSG Pt
It’s my first time to be in patrol during the night from 0200 to 0300. The task - sneak around the perimeter and point your weapon at anyone who moves, identify and either a) let pass b) detain. My partner, private St. came up with a plan on how to escape this night of terror: what if we “guarded” the perimeter in our sleeping bags and he’d wake the next shift? Unfortunately, he shared this brilliant idea near some of the officers and surprise-surprise, new orders came quite quickly: the patrol shall move only in the center of the camp, where the officers sleep.
Waking up with a slight cold, after a few hours of sleep is difficult. Convincing yourself to get out of the wondrously warm bag is a battle. This was the first night I used my woolen sweater (four layers of clothing). The patrol was uneventful (fortunately), although slight excitement was caused by an unidentified rumble, which turned out to be SFC To, snoring under a truck. Finding my sleeping bag in total darkness wasn’t easy either, but getting back inside was miniature heaven, the bag heats up in seconds and sleep arrived soon after.
I like how easy and quick it is to eat - can and spoon out, eat, done in five. Quick breakfast is quick, ate while waiting for an exam. Used a burner to warm hands with another soldier. The mornings are beautiful (the sun, the trees and the morning frost), but chilly.
Measuring distances by sight alone is not my thing, that exam went to hell - and to top it off, they don’t let to redo any of the exams we do in the field. I wouldn’t care, except this means no (silver) medal, no extra two days of vacation.
I thrive towards academic achievement, no matter how silly the subject might be. Despite my average grade of 4.2, this exam fracks everything up. Should I even care about the upcoming exams any more? What use are those grades to me in the civilian life? I’m quite sure a war would mean my end and I can’t deny I’ve been thinking about it more often than sometimes so why should I care about becoming a “good” soldier? They cancelled weekend passes again, we weren’t “good enough” as a unit. Don’t remember how many weeks in a row now, I am certain the one and only time I got out will be my last during SBC.
We left the camp immediately after the flunked exam. I have the cold, but I don’t go to the sick bay - too minor reason and I don’t have a fever. Will bring my own cold medicine when I get out.
The majority of the old drivers left for good today - their service is over. They walked around in fancy civilian summer clothes, gave away now useless items (shoe polishing brush, anyone?) and looked merry. We were cleaning our weapons, they were waiting in line to check out of the battalion for good. They were so happy…!
We’re allowed an extra hour of sleep (one of the things that truly sucks is the rule of sleeping only when its allowed, even if you happen to have an hour of spare time). I’m in the toilet team again for the cleaning day (why does this keep happening?).
Some days are good days… as good as one can have during SBC. Held an improv lesson with the guys in a secluded lawn space. The duty officer didn’t like the idea, but he couldn’t exactly forbid us, either. Dear officers, cultural activities are worthwhile in the army. For some, this might be the only thing for venting oneself of all the crap.
The guys from upstairs managed to piss off the duty officer (closets not in order). His yelling was loud enough to reach all the way to the square where we formed up to go on a field trip. Everyone was anxious and in a hurry to get going, but we weren’t fast enough. We’d taken only a few steps when he came flying out of the barracks, ordered a few guys (from upstairs) to ground and made it clear that the closets must be kept in order at all times. Lucky for us [me], the first floor had been satisfactory. We’re out of the battalion by one o’clock.
This weeks field trip was to the fair of Estonia (100th birthday). Several theater-related attractions and an epic stage with a symphony orchestra and singers. Had a cup of delicious coffee in a park, a rare luxury. Found a book from a nearby bookstore and gave it as a gift to Her an hour later. We had such a lovely afternoon.
- Managed to buy a new micro-USB cable a day after the old one broke. My phone is saved.
- My thermos doesn't work. Too bad, it would've been really nice to have easy access to hot tea.
- We have no photographer, although it is allowed. SBC passes with no pictures, a pity.
- Timing has improved, the guys are not late to places (as often).
- Teaching the guys improv has some nice side-effects: we had many exams this week and lots of time for just waiting. Can now do short sketches and exercises with a partner.
- Participated in a ceremony to celebrate Estonian freedom fighters. Embarrassed about men's discipline again. Had a picture taken with the previous president.
- Started reading the next book in Kunnas'es trilogy along with some psychology books.
- Designed a circuit for a laser-tripwire thingy that would be awesome to use in the next forest camp: the enemy unit trips the laser, a phosphor light-emitting charge (sold in fireworks shops) lights.
Week #11 (09 - 15 September)
It’s my turn to be responsible for the entire unit for two days. Woke several dimes during the night, not really looking forwards to the responsibility. The day went by at a slow pace, the official activity was packing for the two-day hell that’s happening tomorrow: the hike that marks the end of SBC and is mandatory for everyone.
I got a list of names who were destined to become officers after SBC. Private Ms swore and was miserable when he heard the news (he managed to get out of it by being in the right place at the right time). All of the future drivers were rounded up and taken to a driving exercise field, drove some easy laps [first time behind a wheel in six months]. Some posts got murdered.
After much debate, I decided NOT to take my expensive, fragile smartphone with me to the final hike. I’ll get soaked in sweat, water, mud and who knows what, there’ll be some hard hits and moisture. Instead, I borrowed a MP3 with good music from a friend. This will be incredibly useful by distracting my brain from how shitty I feel. Feeling exceptionally depressed, but resolute, I can’t get out of it so let’s just do this…
Found that my spare boots were still wet from the previous forest camp (we ran through a lake). Called Tn. just to hear her voice. The cold is gone, which is about the only positive thing I see at the moment.
The final hike (~56km, two days)
Alarm at 0545. We wash, eat and load onto cars. Arrived to the sandy staging area, unloaded, adjusted our gear and went out at 1105. The track was circular and teams would start in both directions at once. We were separated into squads by rooms, my by-now-familiar group consisted of 15 men, everyone with heavy backpacks, battle gear and weapons. The first day amounted to around 28km with five checkpoints.
The earphones went in after the first kilometer. I didn’t care that it was “against the rules”, to me it was more important that my mind doesn’t break down from exhaustion. I was in a sorry state by the first checkpoint - the backpack is supposed to rest on the harness, which distributes its weight to the waist, not shoulders, but mine kept slipping off. SFC To. noticed and took pity of me, helping me adjust the buckles. That helped, quite a bit.
The first exam was about hand signals, quite easy to pass. Got to rest and refill water bottles.
Next, burying ant-tank mines. Again, nothing overly complex if you remember the few key points. Still, one managed to fail: apparently, he decided to stomp on the mine to test its stability on the ground, and of course he did so by stepping on the detonator…
The next checkpoint didn’t have an exam, but we found a smiley SFC As, which is rarely a good sign. Another squad was there before us, changing out of wet boots. Crap. We knew that we’d get wet at least once and this was it. We’d made a rest stop right before the checkpoint since the map showed a river ahead and everyone changed their boots to the less-comfortable ones. The task - climb through a man-sized pipe that ran below the road, halfway full of water.
SFC As. was positively cheerful (and just a bit mocking) and made distracting small-talk with everyone who went in. This was actually very helpful. The water was clean and clear and not at all as cold as I expected it to be… or maybe it was the adrenaline. Military boots are quite good quality - when you tie them tight enough, they’re almost waterproof. Almost. Water started coming in about halfway through and the boots were soaked just before the end. There was a rope running along the walls and we used it to pull ourselves through. The water was to the waist level, although those who stepped into the deep end on the other side got it higher. This was one of those no-way-in-hell-do-I-want-to-do-it experiences that turns quite cool once they’re over. Change of boots and socks and onwards we went.
The night had fallen when we reached the next checkpoint. There was a cheerful fire and a chance to rest - until the two guys who had walked away from us started screaming. The medicine checkpoint had a simple scenario: two comrades injured, give first aid and get them to safety using whatever means you can. We ran to the scene (the landscape was quite treacherous and downhill) and the stronger ones carried our injured men back up. Private Rk. (I think he had a concussion and a lost limb) got into character and swore colorfully.
It was a pity to leave the fire, but the last checkpoint awaited. We got lost a few times (thinking the officers at the checkpoint had given up on us and left for the night), but finally made it. The exam: different ways to move (running, crawling, sneaking…). The scores were mostly below average, including mine, but by that point I really didn’t care much.
We finally made it back to the starting point and could call it a day. I slept in a bush and didn’t ever bother to put up a shelter. Possibly the best sleep (while it lasted) I’ve had.
The time to get moving came all too soon. The breakfast wasn’t particularly enjoyable, but the hour we took to have it was appreciated by all.
The first checkpoint was a thought exercise/puzzle where failing could gain your team some bricks to carry. We did just fine.
One of the longest stretches between checkpoints was during the morning of the second day (around 7-8km). The route took us through some amazing scenery that made everything seem surreal and straight out of a fantasy movie. We traveled in a single file over some low-sloping hills like Hobbits (the scenery reminded me of the beautiful landscapes of New Zealand and movies such as Legend Of The Seeker and Lord of the Rings). I forgot the weariness and enjoyed the sights along with my favorite music.
The next checkpoint - crossing a river on a two-strand rope bridge. There were two ropes over a medium-wide, knee-deep river, one to step on, the other to grip for balance. Everyone had to go across in full battle gear. The task was easier than the crossing we did during SBC and no-one fell in… although there were some amazing acrobatics when some hurried and lost it for a moment.
Some kilometers onwards and there’s a memory exercise to be solved. We did four mistakes, which meant four “motivational packages” that had to be taken to the next checkpoint, each one weighing quite a lot. We had a stretcher with us and two people took turns to carry the load; it was a slow and exhausting duty.
Since so many people had failed the exam on measuring distances by sight they let us redo it. The exam took place between two checkpoints and I passed this time. I’m looking through the binoculars at the target and calculating, 2nd Lt. Vi asks me technical questions… when suddenly: “So, did you have fun at the book shop on Friday?” [the day of the Estonia fair]. Estonia is a small world. Luckily, holding hands is not indecent for a soldier and I was allowed to be in the shop.
We finally reach the last checkpoint, exhausted. The guys had been sparing me as one of the two weaker members of the group; I didn’t have to carry the stretcher. Still, there wasn’t much fight left in me. The last task was easy enough - make it to the finish line as fast as possible. The team with the best time gets rewarded.
We ditched the stretcher and went onwards. It is worth to mention that the first few hundred meters were an obstacle course in a swamp. You had to go from a patch of solid ground to the next or sink in. Indeed, one guy managed to get stuck in the mud up to his waist. Private Te collapsed after the obstacle course and we distributed his backpack amongst the men. The pace was quite fast, although we didn’t go for the win, we just wanted to get it over.
Private Vk went to relieve himself and we lost around ten minutes (he ran back about a kilometer to fetch a forgotten piece of gear). We later found out that we were the 2nd best team to finish, if not for that delay, we would’ve been the first.
We crossed the line, had our gear checked and were in cars in under half an hour later. Light rain blew into the crate, but I didn’t care to move, just sitting and relaxing sounded too good. We reached the battalion and unloaded. SFC To promised there’d be white bread and jelly for us when we finished and indeed there was, only the first room to arrive had eaten it all. Gear maintenance was left for the next day, a quick shower (you wouldn’t believe how much I sweat over the two days…) later and I’m hot from the sauna, in my heavenly warm bed by 2245.
The next day was about through gear maintenance and licking of wounds. Around 25% of men can’t march in formation because of their feet. I have a few blisters, but have managed to escape easy. We’re preparing for tomorrows graduation ceremony and open doors day.
Don’t read the next section if you’re going to do SBC in the future. This is one of the few good surprises.
It’s 2230 when the alarm sounds. Everyone is ordered to clothe and get into formation outside the barracks. We’re confused and a bit nervous - this is something unprecedented. There is someone playing a solitary military drum that accompanies us when we march to the nearby graveyard. There are candles along our path and the mood is somber and formal.
We gather in an open rectangle in front of a war memorial. The officers hold battalion flags; a trumpet and the drum play, there are candles and the highest ranking officers await to give a speech. The night is about growing up and recognition. We’ve gone through the final test of SBC and are considered senior soldiers. We should be ready to lay down our lives in defense of our country and serve with pride and respect. We are one and we are Estonians.
The major hands out soldier badges to the best graduates. Some get the normal one, a record many get the silver one and a few select finish with gold. Some had flunked an exam and get nothing. I shake hands with the major and am rewarded with a silver badge, having redone the only flunked exam and studied well. The ceremony is very military-formal and everyone does their turns and presentation to the major as well as they can. I feel proud and just a bit patriotic.
We march back to the dorms, the mood has changed to joyful. We’re ordered to sew the badges to our uniforms by morning. Some cheat and use two-sided duct tape. Private Vt is the last one to finish, we’re already trying to go to sleep when he swears and admits that he accidentally sew his pocket shut as well. Uncontrollable laughter ensues.
It’s Friday the thirteenth and the day of the formal ceremony that marks the end of SBC.
There’s time for some cleaning tasks before family members and a whole bunch (a hundred? more?) kindergarten kids arrive. The ceremony is semi-public.
We form up in front of the spectators and the morning inspection routine is carried out one last time as a show. There is a formal ceremony, speeches and the singing of the anthem. We’re allowed to open the top button of our jacket (a closed topmost button is the symbol of SBC).
There’s time to walk with the family and show them the grounds (it’s an open-doors day). The kids are divided into groups and given a tour by the officers. It’s amazing to see how the strict order-giving men change into loving fathers around them, explaining soldiery stuff to the small ones. My parents leave and I spend the remaining few hours before a week-long vacation in my room. Groups of kids come in one by one and are given a tour of a soldiers room. Private St. shows how to make a bed, others demonstrate the contents of a in-order closet. There are several attractions outside, everything from armored vehicles to paintball to soldiers in full camouflage.
Once everyone leaves, we clean the grounds and say goodbye to the instructors. A group photo is taken. 2nd ltn Mu shows unusual humor and poses. We do some paperwork and get our vacation permissions. I am the last to leave the floor and feel a bit nostalgic when taking out the lights.
- Spending time with the family and meeting my brothers first girlfriend
- Epic boardgame night with friends I haven't seen in two and a half months
- First Twister experience
- First live symphony orchestra experience
- First time staying alone at a foreign hostel. There's this epic place in city center where all kinds of joyful and open and awesome foreign people hang.
Week #12 (16 - 22 September)
- Met good friends I hadn't seen in a long time.
- Had pink tea in EIK robotics club.
- Improvised with the guys in Tartu. Went to an improv show.
- Met many of our unit during the unofficial-official afterparty of SBC.
- Bought quality gear for personal use: Led Lenser K2 has proven to be extremely good. A spork is always useful. WD40 makes weapon maintenance easier and is good for avoiding rust anywhere.
- Didn't shave for over a week. Correcting that luxury just outside the gate was uncomfortable.
The silver badge meant I’m expected back on Saturday evening. The guards manning the gate were extremely friendly and even joked. The duty officer checked all the stuff we brought in with us. Some guys had taken their laptops, this is now allowed. I wasn’t sure and chose the middle ground by buying a Bluetooth keyboard. Todays Android phones are many times as powerful as my first computer, but input (blogging) is still a pain.
There’s an order to post perimeter patrol for the following nights, I’m on todays shift. We slowly walk our rounds and talk some, nothing suspicious happens. Kind of eerie and sad and exciting, we’re armed with non-lethal weapons, a radio and a flashlight.
I’m a bit tired the next morning, but we’re allowed four hours of extra sleep (instead of the usual two on Sundays). The guys who brought laptops with them make the most of their time: some watch movies, some read news, a great many do IT-things, there’s even some Java pair programming going on next to me.
The whole day is free time. I’m in the quick response unit (for the first time) and don’t allow myself to get too comfortable. Some guys from another battalion arrive to be included in the new courses (NCO / drivers course).
Week #13 (23 - 29 September)
The first week of the not-SBC-any-more drivers course is moving day. We’re kicked out of our old rooms and new units are formed. I’m moving upstairs and have the fortune to be the first to pick my bed. Naturally, it has all the possible benefits: farthest from the door, near a heater unit with wall outlets nearby. The room used to house around fifteen people, but now there’s twenty. Extra closets and extra beds make the room seem as small as in a submarine. It’s tight, two people can’t stand side by side between bunks and there’s not a lot of leg room elsewhere, either. On the plus side, the closets are located in the middle of the room as a wall, effectively shielding one side from the door. This is great when an officer decides to fly in, looking for volunteers… or to catch wrongdoers.
The new guys trade stories, the place they came from seems much stricter: they have drill sergeants, a lot bigger territory and lots of messing around.
Technical and driving textbooks were handed out, we settle logistics issues, the new officers in charge introduce themselves. We get permission slips that allow us to go to driving lessons in the city at any time… and the best of all, a promise that punishments will not be dealt by denying a weekend pass.
I was tired from another patrol and rested my eyes for a bit. Someone coughs pointedly and I find my new CO standing a meter from me. Embarassed, but didn’t get punished, even joked a little. He seems nice.
“Welcome to your new SBC!” - a welcome speech to the NCO unit
The new SBC people (two units worth of men) arrive in a week. I surprised myself by volunteering to be one of the six helpers who lead them around and help getting settled (gear, rooms, medical, etc). Should be interesting. I don’t remember who did this to me, but at the time they seemed older and intimidating and very soldier-y like and quite honestly, I wanted to seem like this to the new guys.
Moving to the upper floor means more surface to clean every night. I’m hoping that the new guys start helping out really soon, for the moment the entire floor is for us - forty men. The schedule seems scarce and we have a lot of free time. Comparing to SBC, that is. Example: Time for washing during the first few days - around ten minutes. Now - take half an hour if you need to.
Finished todays patrol in time for the morning exercise. Running has become a no-effort activity: we run for about ten minutes and I can enjoy the slight physical strain while thinking my own thoughts.
We have started with the theoretical lessons. There are a lot of drives, studying regulations and reading about trucks in general. I need a lot of coffee to stay alert, but I have a mug now. The pace of the day is much slower than I’m used to and that’s a bit scary. SFC As pops in every now and then to check on us. Pvt Lo was busted three times in rapid succession: twice for sleeping on the floor (soldiers do that sometimes when they’re tired; can’t wrinkle the bed) and once for holding his hands in his pockets for way too long (guess who had to sew all of his pockets shut).
The drivers are used for random chores, like fetching extra beds and closets for the new SBC, due to arrive soon. The new NCO fellows got to order us around for the first time. All drivers are, by default, volunteers for such tasks. A random officer might come in and grab a few guys to help him take a box of stuff from A to B or to organize Y. It’s amusing what happens when someone yells “Five free drivers!” and everyone tries to hide or think of a solid excuse as to why he’s currently busy.
Theory lessons seem to be the only thing we do. Some are in the classroom, some in the common room, some in rooms.
- We need to choose a new marching song, but all seem too lazy to learn it.
- Pvt Mk fixes the broken hot water dispenser with his pocket knife.
- I troll my bunkmate out of boredom. His name sign now reads Konstantin.
- Pvt Mk climbs on top of the closets and makes loud noises at unsuspecting victims who enter the room.
- Went through medical and was declared healthy enough to drive a truck.
- We can now visit the local shop / common room as often as we please. Bought a drink and reveled in the luxury.
- The drivers get weekend passes every other weekend - there are two units, one always stays in. This is ten times better than during SBC.
Ecodriving to finish my B-category drivers licence. Got to drive through the capital in a really comfortable car and remember how to drive - the first time in … six…seven? months I’ve really driven in (any) city. The skill is something you won’t forget and the car moved rather smoothly. Driving in the capital doesn’t scare me nearly as much as it did.
Drove to the south to practice driving on slippery roads. Six cars, losing control on a wet-track one by one. Had an “accident” at 7km/h and climbed out of a car upside-down. Pvt Pa discovered that he had taken the keys to the weapons room with him, a hundred kilometers away from where they were supposed to be, that didn’t end well. I’m surprised how they trusted six fresh-out-of-SBC privates with a van and sent them off. The drive was fun and motivating.
We’re the only unit in the battalion for the cleaning day, the others are on a weekend pass. Lots and lots of autumny-rainy leaves to clean. Pvt Lo has to do one push-up for every fart, the counter needs two digits.
The duty officer welcomed the arrivals from the city with an alcometer. I’m on duty and allowed to use the laptop during the night - this is awesome!
Week #14 (30 September)
The new guys arrived today. I am one of the reserve handlers, there weren’t as many dudes as they expected and there’s nothing for me to do but to listen to the radio chatter and observe. The guys march in, still looking like an average Joe and start to transform bit by bit: getting an uniform, the gear, cutting hair, standing in formation, moving as a unit.
They look smug and scared, everyone behaves and is quiet - reminds me of myself. None of them knows what to expect. I try to look bad-ass with my uniform, silver soldiers badge, crackling radio and a calm, but sure voice when issuing orders. The roles have reversed, now we are the older, more authoritative drivers and they the new SBC. The rank is the same, but there’s this intangible respect towards us that stays at least to the end of SBC.
First lesson with an actual truck that I got to drive! Yes - I drove a large military truck all on my own and it felt awesome. The evening went to assisting the new guys, mostly by showing them how to make the bed (they really don’t get what “wrinkle-free” means) and answering random questions.
The end of SBC
The two and a half months of “Sir, yes sir!” are finally over. The pace of our lives has slowed down considerably, we’re treated better and have extra privileges. The new SBC looks up to us and we get to play around with big trucks.
SBC was… well, it was and it’s better to leave it like that. I don’t have many memories I want to remember fondly in the future. Yet I can not say it was living hell. From what I’ve heard from the other battalions, we had it easy and it shows. Our officers were never overly harsh and always fair. Safety during field exercises (especially the final hike) was always the top priority. We ate well and the weather was warm. In short, I’m glad I chose this base to serve in.
I still think the military is not the place for me. My mood and self-respect were at all-times low and I felt lonelier than ever. I couldn’t find the opportunity to rest or ground myself, to recover (the only exception being the one and only weekend pass). Staying positive - three down, eight to go.
Photographs in this post: the first day of SBC final hike, MSG Ov, digitally altered.