Military Service - Month #7

January 2014

Published on . Takes about 25 minutes to read.

Week #27 (04 - 05 of January)

I’m in Tartu for the 2nd Youth Improv Festival. It’s cool, there are workshops and a show where many, many Estonian improvisers are split into random teams and compete against each other. I meet my best friend who says I have a “military walk”: purposeful, equal length steps. Oddly, I take it as a proud, masculine  compliment. I greet my previous CO when we pass each other in nighttime city centre.

Improv festival

It’s the last day of vacation and time to go back. I shave my weeks worth of beard and cut all of my hair. It’s good I did this before the evening formation because the duty officer, 1st Ltn Mu lines men up and inspects everyone, one by one. Many get sent to the bathroom to correct their appearance. We hear that on the New Years, Cpt Jo had personally cut the hair of two disobedient soldiers.

Week #28 (05 - 12 of January)

I’m in a new unit now, the drivers have scattered into different teams along with the ex-SBC. The new week starts, as usual, with a small parade. Afterwards, our new CO introduces himself. 2nd Ltn Ns is perhaps one of the coolest officers in the battalion. He was in charge of the NCO course, is active, humorous and really everything a good officer should be. We’re super lucky to have him. Sergeants Ms and Pu are the two graduates of the NCO who have been assigned to lead our unit, they will be our CO-s during wartime.

Eriala ehk sidealane väljaõpe sidekompaniis hõlmab elektroonika ja elektrotehnika põhialuseid, raadio- ja traatsidet, IT-aluseid ning taktikalist sidesüsteemi ESTTACS (Estonian Tactical Communication System). ESTTACS on jalaväebrigaadi ühtne taktikaline side- ja infosüsteem, mille eesmärk on tagada Kaitseväele taktikalise telekommunikatsiooni võimalused: kõne-, raadio-, andmeside ning ühilduvus paralleel- ja NATO struktuuridega. ESTTACS on teabe suure edastus- ning töötlusvõimega sidesõlmede võrgustik, mille kaudu liidetakse ühtseks ning võimalusterohkeks tervikuks senised staapide, pataljonide ja teiste üksuste sidevahendid. - allikas

The day is busy and filled with introductory lectures. We’ll be doing only two forest camps for basic tactics training instead of the usual five. This is a big relief since all the rumours I’ve heard are about how miserable life is, doing fire and movement, ambush and similar exercises in the winter forest. Our future will consist of mostly waiting in warm machines, possibly with computers for company - we’re not meant to know more than the basics about infantry training. We’ll be split into teams of three to serve as a unit until the very end. I was active and sought contact with the SBC (I decided to keep calling them the SBC) and found two normal-sounding persons who will be my team-mates.

Tsitaate Esimesest Päevast

  • "No okei... siis läks veidi lappama..." - n-ltn Ns (kõik autojuhid sattusid ühte tuppa, SBK teise)
  • "Vaenlane jahib ikka high value targeteid ja need olete teie." - n-ltn Ns (seletades, et sõjas on meie väikesed üksused kerge ja väga strateegiliselt väärtuslik saak)
  • "Tavaliselt tagatakse ühtsus nii, et tekitatakse keegi keda vihata, rahvakeeli mingi seersant, kes kõiki nussimas käib ja kui kõik teda vihkavad, siis ongi ühtsus." - ltn Br
  • "Kõik algab ootustest. Kui meie ei saa, siis ei saa ka teie ja nii lihtne see ongi." - ltn Br (moraaliloeng: käituge hästi ja olete õnnelikud)
  • "Meil on siin reamees, reamees / kapral ja autojuht, kes on kõik spetsialistid, sest niisama te ei ole sattunud siia pataljoni eks ole." - ltn Br (kiitus meile, sest isikkoosseis on enamjaolt kõrgharidusega tehnilises valdkonnas)
  • "Selle poole aasta jooksul on ilmselt mõnigi mees oma tüdrukust ilma jäänud... kaitseväe rutiin, tavaline värk." - ltn Br
  • "Ohutustehnika on A ja O, sellest ei saa ümber." - ltn Br
  • "Kaks korda selle firma ajaloos on need mastid katki tehtud ja mõlemal korral olid need eestlased" - n-ltn Pa (rääkides sellest, et Mastsystem mastid üldiselt katki ei lähe)

Lessons in electricity basics, safety and power generation follow. This is physics, but really dumbed down, only the essentials. We learn to draw power grid and communication network diagrams. I’m participating and active, the topic is interesting and lt. Ns is a good and charismatic teacher.

We learn that the old routine of getting out every other weekend continues. This causes some grief. Really, there is no practical need to keep us locked up so much. I’ve heard things about other battalions, how they go out three times in a row and stay in once a month.

Our main piece of equipment will be the Cobham EXL masts which we will deploy in the field. The first lessons are all about technical data and theory and we set up a miniature version of the mast.

EXL mast
Lightweight telescopic EXL-masts are mechanical winch and belt-operated masts. EXL-masts are deployed by two or three persons and are elevated with a hand-cranked winch or by an optional electric winch motor unit. - link to source

I notice that the drivers are more grown up and self-disciplined than the SBC. This is evident in the small things, like keeping our closets always in order or polishing shoes when needed (not risking being yelled at). SGT Ms checks everyone’s closets and what do you know, the majority of SBC gets reprimanded for the disorder.

Our new sergeants win my respect quickly by being honest, fair, patient, authoritative and confident. They can make difficult decisions but also laugh about things and make others laugh with them. Menial chores that need doing get done when they order it. An example on the power of respect: using phones between classes is forbidden, but everyone does it anyway… but when Sgt Ms says not to do it for 45 minutes there’s not a phone in sight, even when we’re on our own.

I passed the DMV CE driving exam. Done with the driving school, ready to drive a NODE and it’s cart.

CE truck

On duty as the aide of the dispatch officer

I’m assigned to be on duty for 24h as the mess hall driver for the first time. I’m waken at 0230, dress and get the van from the parking lot. I’m supposed to be at Maardu, (60km away) in an hour to pick up the cook(s). This is the first time I’ve driven a car without a driving instructor by my side. The streets of Tallinn at night are quiet and dark and I listen to bad (read: pop) music as I try to follow every regulation and not crash into something. The on-board GPS directs me within a 100m of my destination and I drive my clients back to the battalion successfully (read: they’re alive).

I’m ordered to drive Maj. An to another city. I’m nervous, first because this is my second drive, secondly because he’s the Major. I stall the car at the battalion gate, he jokes that I’m green (I am) and sits behind the wheel himself until we’re out of the city centre. The drive is long and takes most of the day. At around five my work-phone rings and the Major answers for me. Pvt Rk called to say that my weekend pass is waiting for me (the Major smirks on that, making a subtle threat) at the hallway duty officer’s table. Later, he remembers the call as quite a fright, getting the  Major, instead of me.

A Russian-speaking fellow approaches me when I drop off the Major and asks for an Euro. I’m baffled, surely he must earn more from unabashed begging than is paid to privates in the army? After getting lost a couple of times (my GPS’s battery died a few kilometers before entering Tallinn) I’m back at the battalion. The others have left to spend their weekend in the city hours ago and those left behind are about to go to sleep. I do my best to fill my remaining duties as quickly as possible (pvt Kn helps) and exit the gate at 2150.

Week #29 (13 - 19 of January)

The First Tactics Camp

Yay*! The first forest camp of Tactics Basic Course (TBC)! This cycle of training is supposed to teach us basic movement, attack and defence strategies, but will be shortened in length due to our units unique role in the army. Of course, it started snowing the day before. Karma.

* - sarcasm implied

I volunteered to bring lunch from the battalion and get to drive a jeep. The rest of the day goes towards practice. We pitch three squad tents and settle in for the night. I read during my hour on oven duty.

The following day - more practice, more snow. Got to drive a big truck in the city and on highways while a squad of men shivered from the cold in the crate.

More tactics training, more snow. We fire blanks as the instructors drill us on what to do when an enemy fires upon a moving squad transport. Imagine: around twelve guys sit in the crate while the truck slowly moves in a narrow, wintry forest road. Shots are fired at us and suddenly, six of the guys  send fire back towards the shooter from right next to you, from the crate, as the car skids to a stop and men spring to action.

Assault Winter

The drivers get to teach classes to the SBC at the end of the day: how to put on snow chains, how to show hand signals. I slowly maneuver a truck between tight, tight trees without mirrors (the makers of the course made it too difficult) while soldiers of the SBC try to guide me safely to the finish line.

Darkness sets in from around four-five and we’re allowed to sleep from eight. The hard ground is really comfortable: the wetness from the snow has long since dried out from the heat of the oven, the result is almost summery ground with pine thorns. The sleeping bag is warm, although it gets a little cold when the man on oven duty is too laid back with the firewood.

On the fourth day, the camp ends with a final exercise with all three squads participating. Columns of troops move through the winter forest and get attacked by the enemy whereby they’ll have to quickly react with suppressive fire, take defensive positions and overcome the threat. The radio crackles with “Contact! Contact!” as shots are fired somewhere off into the distance and occasionally, we’re the ones reporting an engagement.

Lt Ns says we flunked the whole camp rather spectacularly. I’d give us at least a three, considering we’re not an infantry battalion. I think he’s just being pessimistic because it’s dangerous to give praise to privates lest they think too much of themselves.

The officers tent had power, light, iron beds and electric heating. And laptops. I can’t deny being more than a little envious.


When you happen to be up at 0600 in the morning (for whatever odd reason) and it snowed the previous night, you can bet your warm and soft bed that soldiers will be shovelling snow for half an hour right about that time. I’m not really complaining, this is a good change from running and stretching, but still, a bed sounds much, much better.

We dress in six layers (the snow means we put on white camouflage suits) and head out to a shooting range. Everyone gets about 30 rounds for two exercises. I shoot poorly and don’t care much about the results, although it feels good to shoot. Volunteering to be on the guard post saves me from having to learn to put up light cable lines. Towing cable is one of the more annoying tasks, especially in poor conditions. It’s cold.

Week #30 (20 - 26 of January)

Tempers

The drivers got out of having to participate in cleaning the barracks; SFC Ps had given us the task of fetching four NODE trailers from a nearby car park. I sat behind a wheel of a NODE for the first time. Hooking up the trailers took about an hour for each one, things were frozen solid and needed some creative engineering (a hammer) to function.

I made a dangerous mistake by reversing while pvt Tm was behind the car. The problem wasn’t that the car moved ten inches before he yelled at me to stop, the problem was that he didn’t stop yelling before or after the incident. Pvt Tm is terrible at self-expression and communication and when he speaks, it’s always with a judgemental, grumpy and accusing undertone. From me, it takes great self-control to talk to him and I have to restrain myself to a sentence or two. That night was the first time I truly lost my temper (my self-discipline is usually very strong), yelling back at him and being seriously pissed off. That’s the thing with the army: you can’t remove yourself from obnoxious people, no matter how much you’d want to. The incident left me depressed and isolated and angry both at myself and pvt Tm… and I saw that being a driver involves machines that could kill others and yourself. For a day, I didn’t want to be a driver any more.


Pvt Sk wrote a JavaScript page and started counting the days until freedom.

Reserv

I’m on duty as the mess driver again. The evening route took four hours to drive, over a hundred kilometers and one rush-hour traffic jam.

-18 degrees? That doesn’t stop us from exercising at six in the morning. Lectures on PC security and electronic navigation are a welcome escape from the cold. The drivers get to drive with trailers again although the wheels of two carts are frozen solid. This doesn’t stop us; the trailers got moved and parked and there are large skid marks across the roads where the wheels dragged. We have a laugh as we imagine SFC Ps coming to work the following morning, seeing the skid marks and thinking to himself, “Yup, my drivers have been hard at work…”

Lessons in radio waves, antennas and equipment begin. Super-high-frequency radios and antenna arrays look like straight out of tech-military movies. I’m excited to learn.

SFC To takes me to the DMV so I could take out my CE licence. He drove through a red light and almost collided with another car while taking a turn. The irony does not escape me. We have a brief conversation (again) as to why I look so serious all the time. Not wanting to talk about my depression, I grasp the first bit of truth that comes to my mind and justify my unhappiness with the fact that they don’t let us out very often (about 100 hours a month, at best). He tries to cheer me up by stating that it’s often enough and I’m not currently in a forest camp, so I should be happier. I don’t concur.

NODE computers contain LAN chat logs of previous soldiers. The stuff and mostly bu***it one can read from there is amazing.

It’s time to assemble the 35m EXL mast for the first time on the field. We’re in a team of six and get it up slowly. The mast seems incredibly high and wobbly, almost fell down twice. Pvt Tm is sloppy and has an accident with his generator trailer. Several men have to go and help. Cold feet and hands are more than an annoyance.

Raising the mast

I met a female officer from another unit, I think they were training the winter intake of SBC. Our brief conversation went something like this:

"Soldier, where's your weapon?"
"We didn't take weapons with us to this exercise."
"I didn't ask whether you did or didn't take weapons with you, I asked where your weapon is."

I walked away. The next time, I’ll start with something along the lines of “Show me your ID so I could know you’re not working for the enemy” before I say anything.

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of days for the drivers: days where we do nothing (the holidays, weekends, the whole of Drivers Specialty Course) [rare], days when training takes place (lectures or forest camps) [most of the time] and days where we follow our Master, SFC Ps and do his bidding (wash, refuel, repair, park, drive, check, double-check, triple-check, document, report, replace) [often]. A full day of working in the car park is not anyone’s (well, not mine) idea of having fun.

Minions

The results of the last years survey about compulsory military service before and after the service are in and although they are (as of yet) not available to the public we already know that our battalion got low, low scores from its previous inhabitants. One key statistic: when given a choice as to where to serve, 0% of participants chose our battalion. The effects are immediate: the Major allows new freedoms like organizing movie and shop trips during the weekends, but most importantly, the old order of getting out twice a month is abolished. Now, each unit gets out three weeks in a row and stays in to help with cleaning and security only once. Three out, one in. This is such a vast improvement it seems unbelievable. At the same time, I’m bitter that the change came at the half point of my service. Still, a cause for joy.

I get a weekend pass soon after. Forced to stay at a hostel, but it’s a good one and I have a nice evening. Played BSG with friends, had lunch with nice people from overseas and got familiar with Wacom tablet. Disney’s Frozen brought out the kid in me.

Boardgames Quote

Those who’ve served in the armed forces have a unique… experience… to bind them. I was at a PC store, asking for something and acknowledged the shopkeepers reply with an automatic army-vocublary “Sain” [understood]. The shopkeeper replied with “Kõik” [Over and Out] and we smirked over the private joke.

I got back to the battalion two minutes before my weekend pass expired. That was a first. The reason for this irrational behaviour was of course, the only justifiable excuse: a woman. I spent every possible minute of Sunday evening with her and ran (literally) through the city to change and report back. There was a line in front of the check-in station and officially, I was one minute two late. Fortunately, the duty officer was a reasonable man. Squad leaders were ordered to check that none of their men returned drunk.

Someone [pvt Tt] had stolen Sgt Õu’s underwear from the laundry room. We’re already tucked in and the room is dark when he comes in to enquire about it. The room bursts into laughter. Justified karma. I only hope pvt Tt put them on before realizing his mistake.

Week #31 (27 - 31 of January)

NODE teams are assigned to cars, I now have something I can call my own (kind of) and must care for. First inspection revealed an air leak which I was unable to fix, since it’s not serious it’ll remain so for the foreseeable future. The IT and communication equipment on the cars is checked as well, this is a much more pleasant activity since one can be in a warm “room” while doing it.

I started counting pvt Re’s farts on the room calendar in the hopes that he’ll show at least some degree of decency. So far, no success.

Using the words of my predecessor, I’d call SFC Ps an overachiever. The drivers have nothing to do? Maybe they’d want to clear snow from the roofs of all 40+ cars…

First Camp

The first NODE forest camp where the whole unit drives out. I’m behind the wheel of a NODE for the first time in the field, my team sits beside me in the cabin. We drive in a single file through the city. Discovered that my car has a really slow acceleration and getting the speed to 50km/h takes some doing.

I maneuver the car and cart on the forest roads to our allocated position and set up camp. The mast goes up successfully and comes down again in a short while: we’re ordered to relocate. Getting it up is about two hours of work and we’re not happy. The ground is frozen and driving stakes through the ice is painfully slow. One team spent three hours, trying to get six stakes in, another had to use the jack to get theirs out.

The second attempt to raise the mast starts at 2200, in pitch black and we use a work-light. It’s bloody cold, I have constant chills and muscle cramps. Sometimes I’d just stand there and shiver for my motivation had fallen to record levels. The pace is painfully slow. Pvt Sa goes in the warm car at every opportunity and stays there until someone orders him out. We’re 95% done when the order to pack up comes at 0540. I saw the sun set and raise which was the only consoling thing.

My team allowed me an hour of sleep in the cabin so I would be alert enough to drive back. I was too cold and uncomfortable to nap for more than ten minutes. We later found out the temperature had fallen below -22 at night and with the wind, it felt even colder. SFC To comes to every driver and speaks words of encouragement and orders us not to fall asleep behind the wheel.

We get back, clean our gear, weapons and go to weekend passes. I’ve been up to more than 32 hours, I’ve shivered more violently than I ever have and somehow still find the energy (or maybe I’m already in that numb place that arrives after the initial sleepyness of a sleepless night has faded?) to do my normal routine of shopping, eating and showering when I get home. The first thing I bought was a pack of cold medicine and handkerchiefs. Sleep on a warm couch has never been so welcome.