Military Service - Month #11

May 2014

Published on . Takes about 28 minutes to read.

Week #44 (01 - 04 of May)

We get one final city pass before the Spring Storm. It’s Thursday morning and I can not focus on doing anything productive with my last hours of freedom. I buy a bagful of fresh apples and other luxury items and return to the barracks.

Lt Mu canceled mandatory evening news and gave pvt Mo five laps around the barracks for swearing on the radio.

Our company is the first to deploy and the last to head home from the Spring Storm. That’s because our service - communication links - is needed through the exercise and it must always work. We have three days in the field to set it up before the rest of the troops arrive on Monday.

Friday morning sees last preparations: the cars are loaded with fresh water, inspected and made ready to head out. The major - the commander of our battalion - gathers everyone to the volleyball field in full battle gear (we squat in a large semicircle) and gives a speech, ordering all to do their best so no-one could say that our battalion couldn’t handle the assignments we’re responsible for.

As my three-man team is on the reserve, we’re among the first to head out. It can be said that I was one of the first (servicemen) to arrive to the exercise in 2014. The drive across Estonia is tiering: 3 hours of monotonous driving. SFC Ps had set the maximum speed limit to 70km/h (military regulations), but the officers didn’t care to make the journey even longer and pressed it to the max (literally, because it’s almost impossible for the old trucks to go faster than 90km/h).

It’s interesting to drive in the dark: there’s fog and the pavement is composed of loose stones (it’s the countryside), I dare not drive faster than 50km/h. The command is already up and operational when we get there and we’re allowed to sleep in the officers tents temporarily. The ground is dry long hay, it’s warm and comfortable.

The first task for the next morning is to fix another teams lousy cabling work - their version of a air cable (from tree to tree) was two meters from the ground, across a road. Any decent truck could have destroyed it.

The officers let us use their water boilers (extremely useful for coffee and food) and we’re allowed to bring our laptops to the tents. Yes, indeed, we were allowed to take laptops to the Spring Storm. Now, before you get your trousers in a fret (“Such injustice”, I hear the infantry yell), it’s because our single task during Spring Storm is to see to it that the radio and cable links are operational. What it means is monitoring the status of different machines 24/7. Imagine sitting alone in a 2x3 cell 2473 hours with nothing to do. The laptops are allowed to keep us sane. I use that opportunity to blog and am very content with my current life: spent the evening in a warm sleeping bag with my laptop, drinking hot tea.

Perhaps the single most important truth I learned through my service is that nothing is ever certain (in life and in the army). So obviously, when I expected my comfortable life to continue, it did anything but.

I had shut my laptop around 2400 and put it away in a canvas bag near my head, then hit the sack. Around 0200 I’m suddenly awaken by several men in my tent, frantically screaming. I sit up, see men moving about and the long, dry grass before my feet burning with open flame. There’s smoke everywhere.

We usually sleep in a circular tent with the oven in the middle, our heads to the outside wall and legs about 40cm from the oven. The officers didn’t bother with guarding the fire through the night (and of course we didn’t press the issue) and so it happened that the hot coals spilled from below the oven further than expected and lit the nearby dry grass. Pvt Sk had woken to find his feet on fire (the sleeping bag had melted).

Pvt An grabbed his laptop and went for the door. Someone found the fire extinguisher and used it in four bursts. Instead of the orange light of the fire and the gray of the smoke, the inside of the tent was now white. I couldn’t see, the bitter white residue of the extinguisher made it difficult if not impossible to breathe. Those who hadn’t already exited the tent made for the door. I, being one of the furthest from the entrance didn’t bother and in a desperate attempt to find fresh air dived underneath the tent wall and crawled out from there. Srs Hm yelled at me from the door to get out, not yet realizing I was already safe.

I saw the officers exiting their tent in their underwear, quickly getting dressed and relaxing upon seeing that everything was under control. We stood there in our underwear, barefoot and laughing in relief at the excitement. The doorway of the tent spilled out a white mix of smoke and fire extinguisher. The tent was breathable five minutes later, although every visible surface was covered with white residue that made the air bitter. My weapon wasn’t covered by clothing and got the full blast of the fire extinguisher. I fear I never get it clean. We cleaned up as best as we could. MSG Ls came to take stock as to what was destroyed (one sleeping bag and my bedroll). Pvt Sk was delivered to the infirmary with minor burns.

I’m glad my laptop was in its protective bag, but from that night onwards, I always took it back to my truck for the night. I’m also proud of my companions (except pvt An) for reacting as they did, especially the officers. Made me realize that when it matters, I can count on them.

Finally, some pleasant work! I am tasked with driving to every NODE team to deliver warm breakfast. Pvt An is my navigator, my only job is to drive 150km (4.5h lap) through the sunny countryside. Really, really nice way to spend Spring Storm (I love to drive). It started to drizzle as we got back and of course we, the reserve team, have to head out then, to replace team 13. Luckily, they left their already assembled equipment for us. We park the car, set up and I get the first sleeping rotation.

The position is in an open field which belongs to a local farmer. He’s a friendly fellow, coming to chat with us about days past and life in the army.

Week #45 (05 - 11 of May)

Hello, routine. My time passes in a predictable pattern of rotations: patrolling the perimeter, monitoring the communications equipment, sleeping.

Many find this - no action, just constant vigilance and monotonous waiting - boring, but I enjoy it very much. Sleeping in our small, but comfortable tent (with heating, mind you) is relaxing. I configured the IT equipment to be as automated as possible, a red box or a changed status line tells me whether I have to do anything, so most of the time on watch duty passes with my laptop (I’m doing various developer things, including programming - and I’m not the only one writing code to escape boredom [lots of software developers in our battalion]).

Patrol duty is in ways the worst. On daytime, it’s more bearable thanks to the sun, but the night is both chilly, scary and boring. I had strategically parked the truck so that the most dangerous attack vectors would be visible from the cabin and yes, I sometimes “cheated” a bit by doing my rounds from the drivers spot. Still, I’m more vigilant than some of the other teams whose idea of a patrol means sleeping.

Pvt Kn came over on the third day with his fuel truck to refuel the generator. I joke that should he manage to get me some fresh apples the next time he comes around, I’ll believe that the supply services can get us anything.

A radio link falls down during the night and causes some alarm. We’ve learned that the commanders are not shy about ordering us to relocate if we can’t get our equipment working. The wind is strong and jostles the antennas around. The delicate civilian tent flaps around wildly, I stake it down to the ground more firmly before my sleeping shift. Despite the wind, the tent stays warm. The outside temperature drops to -1°C during the night and raises to +10°C on daytime. I wear full winter gear while on patrol during the night.

Historic event on the 7th of May: finding out how to do ones business in the woods.

Nature Nature Nature Nature Nature Nature Nature Nature Nature

The nights get colder: full winter gear AND my sleeping bag, but I still shiver while standing watch. Yes, I’m a softie in terms of cold tolerance.

I get four hours of my morning sleeping shift when the order comes to pack up: pvt Tm’s team will replace us. I’ve developed a strong distaste for him and we yell at one another while prepping to head out. I allow my self-control to lapse, because I need to vent and he deserves it.

The camp has developed dramatically since we were last there. There are armed sentries, warning signs, barbed wire… We’re ID-d and allowed in. The camp is huge, everyone moves around with weapons and looks busy. The atmosphere is very military-like and I totally get some kicks from being a part of that.

We’re back in the officers tent, waiting for new orders - which come soon enough. Chores need doing and we spend five hours on various tasks, after which we’re allowed to quickly hit the showers before the next deployment. There is an actual shower, built from hoses, wood and plastic. The water is lugged in with trucks and heated over a fire, a compressor pressurizes the system. The water is still cold when we get there, but there’s no time to waste and any shower is better than nothing so we get to it (I sequel). Twenty minutes later I’m geared up and driving out with my team to the next position.

There are problems with the equipment and we spend the whole night working to get it fixed (I’m not kidding, from sundown to sunrise and onwards). I’m dead-tired. In the end, it’s a fruitless task and orders come to take the mast down - but alas, no, it won’t come down. Two officers come to help, we try every trick, still nothing. Finally, just as we’re about to call in the cavilarry, Sgt Ms tries to beat the 35m mast with his foot. Of course that works and the mast lowers without further problems. I think the Russian repair method has some truth to it after all. The officers help us pack, Sgt Ms is in a nice black humor mood and we joke around while working.

We do a quick pass through the HQ to replace the probably-faulty equipment and head out again. Regulations state that a driver should get at least six hours of uninterrupted sleep per 24h, but I’m clocking in 36+hrs already. I have the right to refuse driving, but I don’t. Still, I’m extra careful while driving.

The new position is a clearing in the middle of a deserted woods and requires careful maneuvering to get in. I’m getting better and better with navigating difficult terrain with my truck. The third man from my team didn’t come with us (pvt Sk-s leg is still hurting from being on fire, he went to medical), the officers help us settle and set up the equipment. We have no patrol now, but I think we’ll be OK - the enemy should be quite far from our position, still.

We take shifts of 10 hours, one asleep, the other on monitoring/patrol duty. The only viable spot (smooth ground) for the tent was beneath a half-fallen tree, on an ants nest. The tree looks threatening, but I don’t think it falls and squashes me without some major wind. There are dozens of ants roaming around in the tent, but I pay them little mind and sleep off my 36+ hours of wakefulness.

I open my eyes rested and cheerful. Why shouldn’t I be, there’s no patrol rotation and I get to spend my next ten hours with my laptop. I even rig up a feasible Internet connection with my phone. Sgt Ms comes and takes over the monitoring duties for two hours while we take his car and drive to the HQ to have a quick shower.

I’m getting more and more content with this life. Two man team, a predictable routine. There are occasional issues like a malfunctioning networking device, a phone call to respond to, reports to file, generator to fuel, but all of them can be handled rather quickly and efficiently. I cook a very fancy meal (rice, sauce, jell-ow, sprite and bread) for myself and spend some time making stakes for the tent: it looks like it’s about to rain, I want to tighten up the tent beforehand.

I have time, the Internet and laptop. I accept a random web development gig from an acquaintance and earn my half-month soldiers “salary” in two hours.

“Kuhu me selle katkise pasa parkisime?” - Pvt Rk väljendab arvamust Kaitseväe autode kvaliteedi kohta.

Week #46 (12 - 18 of May)

It rains heavily, but I don’t care. Both the tent and the comms compartment is warm and dry. We’re still on 10hrs shifts, either on duty or sleeping. The officers aren’t satisfied with some teams and threaten with repercussions. I’m angry at the others, why must they screw up our good life? Luckily, nothing major happens. Pvt Sk returns, in full health again and we go back to one hour patrol/monitor rotations.

We’ve been on the same spot - a three man team, operating in the middle of the woods, away from civilization - for a week and life is pretty predictable. The clearing we’re in has only one access road and it’s visible from the car so we don’t take patrol duty very seriously - although one man is always on the ready.

Orders come to relocate back to the HQ: the reserve forces have finally been mobilized and join the Spring Storm. One team of theirs comes to replace us. They’re so slow compared to us! But also more carefree and professional. We pack up, drive back and go to sleep in the officers tent.

The reserve guys are bearded and long-haired, but more experienced, disciplined and superior towards us. We do nothing for the whole day, except wash. The entire unit has twenty minutes for a shower, we organize a line: everyone undresses and forms a line, as soon as a guy comes out from the showers, another goes in. This is some effective and fast washing! The water is hot this time, there’s steam. I’m patrolling in the camp for a few hours during the night.

I wake when a thrown boot hits my head. How rude! Everyone gets their assignments for the day, only my team stays in the camp with two officers. We take shifts patrolling, it’s crazyily hot. There’s gunfire from about a mile away and I, being the man on duty, run to alert the officers who already exit their tent, gearing up. They might be relaxed and joking while nothing happens but Lt Ve gets really business-like now that there’s a threat. The six of us take our positions around the camp and stay on guard for two hours. Luckily, we’re not attacked.

We pack up the camp on the following morning and relocate to another, nearby one.

“Martma! Situb ruttu! Jätkab hiljem!”

We’re still the reserve team and hence not officially assigned to anything until there’s need for us. The officers advise us not to ask questions or draw attention, just be in our tent, doing whatever. My laptop has been open for a few hours when orders come to head out.

Our route goes through a nearby major population center and we decide to use the opportunity to visit the local supermarket. The business in the area is booming, both the officers and independent units like mine get their goods from stores.

I drive into the parking lot with my big CE truck only to see the three officers of my company there with a jeep, buying burgers. Oh. Crap! We’re so dead… We haven’t shaved for god knows how long, are dirty and smell - and no-one gave us express permission to make this pit stop (although no-one specifically denied it, either). But, surprise, surprise, the officers only mockingly greet us (something along the lines of “fancy seeing you here…”) and leave us be. We’re just about to leave when the military police shows up. I make a quick escape and they don’t harass us. I suppose it’s viewed as unavoidable that soldiers shop.

Our new task is to provide a comm link to the anti-aircraft division located some ways away from us. We choose a spot atop of a small mountain (again, forested area that’s been cleared, there are stumps everywhere and I have to drive carefully). The landscape in Southern Estonia is quite bumpy, if we’d chosen any other spot we would’ve been in trouble.

A pretty (but professional) female officer from our customer hikes through the woods alone to greet us. We have to tow 900m of light cable through thick bushes and woods. It’s a miserable ordeal, but we manage - only to fall short 100m from our destination. My partner went to get more cable while I stayed behind to wait.

We were close to the camp and their patrol made their rounds very close to my position. I had forgotten the password to identify myself as friendly and didn’t want to get shot so I hid under a nearby bush. It was dark enough for my form to be indistinguishable from a short distance, but the threat of discovery still gave me some adrenaline.

We finally managed to complete the cable line and introduce ourselves to the battalion, but surprise-surprise, the cable didn’t work. We’re miserable and unsure as to what to do. No-one wants to redo the entire line. We wait for orders, the night passes miserably. Just as orders come in to disassemble the line and redo it I try using another port from the switch. Heureka. Life is interesting.

Week #47 (19 - 25 of May)

The heat and routine activity continues. We’re on top of a hill with no escape from the sun, except in the car where the air conditioning can’t keep up with the weather.

A Forest Fire

I’m on patrol duty when I notice smoke rising from 100m ahead, on the side of the hill we’re on. I take the smallest fire-extinguisher from the car, alert pvt An and run to investigate. 120m from our position a 6x8 (approximately) section of the hill burns with open flame.

My adrenaline goes up, I empty my small extinguisher on the fire (first time I ever had to use one), run back to get a bigger one and alert pvt An, ordering him to fetch the last extinguisher from the generator unit. The second spray of CO2 contains the burn somewhat. Pvt An arrives with the last extinguisher, having notified the command of the situation. I head back to wake the sleeping shift and to fetch the water canister. The phone rings, I give more details to our CO. We douse the flames with water, stomping and a shovel.

Help from a nearby friendly unit arrives four minutes later: dozens of uniformed men, having gotten the call of our CO and ran a kilometer towards us to help, a truck loaded with canisters of water following shortly after. This was an inspiring sight, privates and officers (up to the rank of a Major) running together to aid us, the Major taking command and starting to organize the cleanup. We had managed to extinguish the open flames before they got to us, but the dry ground was still smoking ominously and even burst into flames again.

I explain the situation to them and to the military police who arrives some time later along with a fire crew. The MP-s collect some information from me and are dubious as to the nature of the fire, but settle on it being a self-combustion case due to the hot weather. The firemen douse the area with water and we are allowed to continue with our assignments.

The excitement of that day was not over yet. Around midnight, a thunderstorm rolled in. I wake from my shift of sleep and squat in the tent, warm, dry and protected from the weather as heavy raindrops pummel against the tent and flashes of lightning illuminate the landscape. I think of our position on top of the hill with a big, high lightning pole (an antenna) and shiver somewhat.

I can’t go back to sleep again and end my shift early. Ironically, we still have the Internet: although we disconnected from the radio antenna as a precaution, we’re still connected via the comms cable we set up a day earlier. So we sit in the dry and warm car, following the storms movement via (live storm tracking). Finally, the storm moves over us and we resume our duties.

We abandon our position at 0800 the following morning. We roll up the kilometer of cable, pack and meet up with the nearby anti-air unit to drive together to our new position.

Our new placement is in a swampy forest road. I get my car stuck deeply; we’re unable to move until help arrives… which will take some time, since the HQ was attacked by the enemy and “killed”.

A recovery team comes to pull us out from the mud. It takes two attempts, since the first car of theirs got himself stuck as well. We choose a new position on a nearby, dry field of grass. Best landscape I’ve been on yet: smooth and without obstacles.

Stuck Getting pulled out Getting pulled out Fog Morning Towing cable Towing cable

It starts raining while we set up the equipment. The others go into the forest to tow a long cable line, I set up near the car alone. It’s wet and miserable. The cable takes a long time, I’ve managed to set up mostly everything when they finally return. We get comms up near the morning: another team had a fault in their setup and were incompetent to fix it by themselves. My boots are soaked, I use the heat exchanger of our diesel generator to try them.

Another 36hrs without sleep. I try to last until the end of my shift at 0900; it’s difficult to stay awake while sitting, but I manage. 7 hours of sleep is my reward.

The last day on the field is uneventful. We take it easy; I get an extra few hours of sleep before the long drive back. We pack up the following morning, early. Rolling up 1.8km of cable through a dense forest is no fun, but I take comfort in the fact that the exercise is over. A local farmer and his daughter come to talk with us while we work.

We meet up with the rest of the unit and drive back towards Tallinn. The drivers are reminded of the speed limit - 70km/h, but no-one feels like enforcing this. We reach the battalion and go straight to the car-wash station. Lt Mu is giving us a hard time, yelling at people for no particular reason. The washing takes a long time, I go to sleep (in my bed!) and wake at 0500 to get my turn at the washing station.

Gear maintenance

The rest of the day goes entirely to the cars (while non-drivers clean other equipment): it’s like a weapon, all those nooks and crannies to wash after a month of being in the field. Officers show up from time to time to inspect and say “it’s not clean yet”. I keep at it until after 2100 when I’m finally convinced it’ll pass inspection. I’m the last man standing, the other drivers have managed to finish with their cars faster and are already asleep.

Srs Ot staabikaitse rivi ees: “Staabikaitse rühmale reservi puhul kolm korda elagu!” Srs Iv tagala rivi ees irooniliselt: “Aspirant Ma õele kolm korda elagu!” /Kolm kompaniid sõdureid (v.a. staabikaitse) naeravad (staabikaitse rühmale meeldib “elagu” öelda)./

The next order of business is cleaning up our personal equipment, then the weapons, then the battalion grounds. We’re allowed out for a single night, I clean my closet from all personal effects and take them home. I take the opportunity to wash most of my dirty uniform clothes, watch a movie and have a single bottle of cider - which makes me tipsy quite quickly. I’m not a drinker, but a month without any alcohol whatsoever has lowered my tolerance.

I’m back the following morning. We’re finished with our own cars, but wait, there’s more! My entire day goes into washing a single car: every time they come to check, there’s a new dirty spot to be found. To future drivers: 90% of the time goes to the underside of the car, the sides are easy.

Week #48 (26 - 31 of May)

More washing of cars. Refuelling of cars. Packing of equipment. Washing of equipment. The entire battalion is in full-maintenance mode, there’s an air of lets-get-this-done. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone started humming “freedom is in the air”.

We spend an entire day, from noon to late evening, cleaning our rifles. The officers walk among the men and check, it is known that we return our weapons the following morning so they have to be spotless. We’re allowed to sleep when the last man finishes.

All of the officers from my company come to check our progress the following morning. Weapons are disassembled and checked. Mine was spotless - that’s a first. We return the weapons to the storage room where they will await new users.

The men are lined up in the hallway with bags of their clothing equipment. Every item is checked against a list and packed. The men who have lost a piece must file a form. The packed bags are put into storage containers, each bag is a complete set of standard equipment, ready for using.

The Last Day

It’s 29th of May, 2014, 0600 in the morning. Srs Ma bursts into the room in civil clothing and plays a fanfare from his phone. The men wake and get out of bed, the orders are to dress in civilian clothes, leaving our uniforms behind.

It’s raining, the temperature is 7°C. Most dress in shorts and T-shirts, I’m in jeans and a sweater, but one guy goes all the way and wears a Scottish kilt.

We brush the roads one final time, then line up and march to the diner for breakfast as a unit. This is so odd, marching in civilian clothes! The last items of Defense Forces equipment are returned, afterwards we sit in our rooms, waiting. There’s an air of relief and expectancy, it’s finally over.

Srs Pu: “Rühm, VALVEL! Kasarmu ringselt söökla ette TAKTSAMMU MARSS!” Keegi rivist: “Nendes riietes [tsiviilides] ei tehta taktsammu!” Srs Ms, naerdes: “Ei virise, läheb taktsammu!”

Every man gets a paper where they have to collect signatures from different officers and officials, signifying that all is well between us (no missing equipment, no books to return to the library). We give a parting present to our CO-s: a potted plant with the name tags of every man glued around the pot. They joke that there will be a watering duty rotation for the plant.

I had a printed copy of the blog of Lauri Elias and decided to leave it behind for the next rotation of troops to read. There’s a group of kindergarten kids roaming the premises as a field trip, they visit the room of our sergeants which is in a total state of mess.

The beds are cleaned of sheets. I get a thank-you note for participating in the battalion poetry competition. The national jail service comes to test their drug dogs: men are lined up and some get set up with suspicious white packages of powder.

The officers are not giving us a hard time on our last hours.

Last lunch as a unit, then a formation. The Major and our CO-s give small humorous farewell speeches and a few promotions. Then, finally, the last command is given and we march towards the gate where freedom awaits. The officers accompany us and I allow my posture to relax while exchanging last words with SFC To.

Ltn Ns: “Rühm, VALVEL! Seersant Pu, viige üksus reservi ära!”

Certificate of participation Waiting in bed Room inspection sheet Guys, I created a song... Checklist Dressing at 6am A few hours to go... Waiting... Equipment checklist Free! Free!

Väike Kaitseväe Sõnastik

  • Märg toit - saad normaalset, sooja toitu süüa
  • Kuiv toit - toitud NATO pakkidest
  • Slangiit - haigus, mida põevad mehed, kes tööd teha ei saa
  • Võllid - kaader, eriti tähtsad ohvitserid
  • Keppima, keppimine - välikaabli vedamine teleskoop kepiga
  • Nussima - reameest tahtlikult mõtetute ülesannetega kiusama