Year’s end

It’s surprising how fast 2015 has passed, but this probably because of my time in the armed forces. As the year draws to a close, I found things worth mentioning.

First up obviously has to be NS. Like what CO said, this has been a very busy year for the battalion, so much so that we become proper contenders for the best combat unit. ATEC 1, being activated [horrors of horrors] to build tent-ages at the Padang during LKY’s passing, guard duty at Jurong Island, NDP, and lastly ATEC 2 were the highlights of the year. Yet I reiterate that I am thankful to have the stars aligned for me to experience what most people would not go through during their NS journey, much less if I had really gotten into medicine. These are truly once-in-a-lifetime moments that normal civilians would be hard-pressed to get and as a result, NS has become even more meaningful. The people that I finished my stint with also made the dreary days both outfield and in camp all the more livelier. Watching live matches, painting the mess, working out to prepare for IPPT and even conversations about life were part and parcel to keep me sane in such a mad place. Also, the advice from PC still remains integral in my career path even as I find something that I like to do.

Secondly, friends around me have helped to keep a hold on myself. They have brought smiles when I was down, enlightened me on things I have been confused about, and aided me when I needed help on certain matters. They have introduced me to many firsts: live soccer match, different types of music, even alcohol. It has been refreshing being with them and with all the outfields we went through, I am proud that we have come a long way. Though there are some areas for improvement, it was a great achievement for me.

Being in Guards has also honed my character. Forcing myself to carry on [because there was no choice] made me realise how one could be mentally resilient when required. Through the many nights trudging in the darkness, often accompanied by rain, I often wondered when the mission could end so that I could rest. It was a shitty feeling smelling of sweat and mud, along with bruises and insect bites. I was often amazed how I could have survived all this. Looking at the places we fought in Australia, the immense distance [about the length of SG] we covered blew my mind. There was also the need for co-operation, both in completing the mission and helping others along the way. I cannot say that I have become wiser all of a sudden, but it has certainly refined me into a better person [I hope!].

I realised how much I missed God’s presence in this year, except during the major outfields. I often treat everyday for granted and though this shouldn’t be the way I must behave, I still can’t change this habit. I hope that with the new year at hand, I will be able to take charge of my spiritual life and also find out what the future lies in hold for me.

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Those three words are said too much

So ends another chapter of my life in NS and I must say it has been one hell of a ride.

I still cannot fathom how I managed to pull through such grueling training and being involved in another hundred and one things which we were not part of our job scope. Looking back at when I first enlisted in BMT, I felt more comfortable as I had been surrounded by people of the same pedigree as me– top school, well-behaved.  Though there were times where I was unable to pass IPPT and lagged behind in executing tasks, I could still hang around and discuss more ‘scholarly’ stuff. The 24km route march had been quite bad but leaving BMT was great if only for a week.

Being thrown face-first into 3 Guards was a nasty shock: as I have mentioned previously, the social and educational levels of the people there were markedly different. It was the first time in my life that I had been exposed to what many would call the ‘low strata’ of society. Coupled with an unceremonious turnout on my first night, things started to look bleak. I began training for the sake of it, never trying to show the commanders how I was as a soldier. This eventually led me to be ranked as one of the lowest in the platoon. I was like,” Oh really? I don’t care!” I didn’t want to be here and I vainly hoped that entry into medicine would help me leave this ‘hellhole’. As I got rejected, I started to resign myself to this unpalatable fact of 3GDS being my home for the next 1yr plus.

Now as I type, I reflected that this person here has a lot of people to credit for making life bearable here. For me to go through so many outfields, including in Australia and Malaysia, and being involved in this year’s NDP, was by no means a walk in the park. So here goes:

To NC: Being put into platoon HQ and meeting you was instrumental in changing myself. I cannot express how much you advised, helped, and pushed me along the way. The badges I wear would have been non-existent without you. I still remember how I had to hang on your fieldpack to pull me through the last 8km of the CSB march. How we got close I don’t know, but coming from the same background as me must be why I felt very comfortable with you. We could always talk about our school life when we were shifted below. Even the gold IPPT was due to you: running together after RO, PT in bunk did improve my fitness [although the new format made it all the more easier from fail to gold.] I admire how you went down the platoon to give out sweets during outfield and your professionalism as a runner. Furthermore, by going the extra mile in designing the farewell book, and being involved in other stuff, you gravitated yourself to the platoon where everyone liked you. You are a really remarkable, yet unassuming individual who deserved to go to command school. Not forgetting the times we harboured together, especially in Brunei!

I remember how you also exposed me to manga/anime and different genres of music. This at least allowed me to catch up on what I had been missing out so far. Furthermore, your non-confrontational mien helped me to calm down after that silly, unnecessary incident before the parade. I was disinclined to add fuel to the fire but you talked sense into me. Your mannerisms also never fail to make me smile. All in all, without you, I wouldn’t have accomplished things that would have been beyond my reach. You made my NS life all the more sweeter.

To YL: It still puzzles me, and many others, how you became a sergeant from a trooper. Whatever it is, you have enriched my life intellectually even when my mind was supposed to stagnate during NS. I only found out about your existence only after GAIT and somehow we clicked. Perhaps it was the notion that “great minds think alike”, or that we were both frustrated at where we ended up. The conversations we had helped me to think deeper, along with the outings and makans at the stone table. I was a little sad when you left Bravo, but I am glad that your experiences at HQ have made you a stronger person. I doubt that I will become as open as you by publishing in the news and etc, but it has certainly made me more aware about the world around me. Seriously, you were one of the few that I trusted here. It was great to be able to confide each other’s secrets and ambitions. I wish you all the best in your future journey and hope to see you as a leader for the people!

To CJ: I couldn’t believe that you ended up here as well… I thought I was the only one! It was really nice seeing a familiar face, especially from church. Though we are from different coys, being side by side made bumping into each other easier. I am comforted by your presence and it was refreshing to be able to talk to you at times. Congrats on your best platoon award and all the best in your future!

I must also mention people who were instrumental in giving me the extra push during outfield as without them I would have lost faith in myself. To G and FS, the last distances for the GAIT tekan and Brunei were by your efforts–it was tough carrying my load but it spurred me to push on and not to burden you people so much. Section 2 also deserves credit for making my first few months in the platoon a comfortable one with all the times we had in the bunk. To JY and F, I have not forgotten your heroics during navex and I feel paiseh for putting your efforts to waste after falling out. Otherwise, both of you were able to gel with the platoon and keep us entertained as well. There was also PC who motivated us through the outfields, by shouting or doing TBTL in the platoon mess. You helped me to feel more comfortable and nudged me back into the fighting force. You also cheered us with the platoon cohesions organised–though some of us felt weary by it, we enjoyed them. Furthermore, thank you for advising me on writing the resume and cover letter–it has been handy so far.

Last but not least my family who never failed to brighten my weekends every booking out–I cannot describe them in words. The encouragements along the way have made me feel more upbeat despite the toughness. I am able to stand in front of you today and declare that I have become an ah boy to a man. Without your support my life would be all the more dreary.

“These are the days we’ve been waiting for/ And days like these who couldn’t ask for more/…/ These are the days we won’t forget.” (Avicii, The Days). I am proud to walk this significant journey with you people and for the last time, ORD LO!

Land Down Under #2

It was a great relief leaving TH and embarking on our R&R like, finally after 3 weeks/months/years. On our way out, I saw the scenery that we had passed in utter darkness when we came here.

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Herds of cows on the way out of camp

It was a long ride to Cooberrie Park, passing through long roads and surrounded by bush.

Entrance

Entrance

It is basically a petting zoo where you could feed kangaroos, emus and ducks roaming around the park. The novelty of feeding animals wore off when we realised how small the zoo was. Kangaroos salivated a lot when feeding them… and they shit right after that. [Must be something in the pellets.]

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A street in Yeppoon. Note how high the road slopes upwards in the background–steep-sloping roads are common here

We then left for Yeppoon town for some grocery shopping at FoodWorks. I managed to buy Tim Tams and a 1.5l bottle that cost 90c! Unfortunately, when I returned, the TTs were also retailing in SG as well. Traffic in Yeppoon was about as busy as Queen Street on a weekday and there were people going about their daily chores.

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There are parking lots along the centre and the side of the road–making u-turns are easier, if not slightly more risky when reversing into oncoming traffic.

Lunch was at Keppel Bay Shipping Club, which overlooked the beautiful Yeppoon Main Beach. Natural and clean[!] sand four times as wide as East Coast Park, what’s not to love?

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It was a short fifteen-minute jaunt to our accomodation– Capricorn Resort Yeppoon after Farnborough. Quite a nice place to stay in–rooms were spacious enough, there was a fridge, microwave oven and utensils in the kitchen and a bathtub! It gave the impression of being at Rasa Sentosa though. There was a stretch of beach behind our rooms along with a chapel and a helipad. On that afternoon, wind was blowing so strongly that sand whipped us full force. Still it was breathtaking.

Some of us decided to make a trip to Yeppoon via the resort bus at a cost of A$10 for a back-to-back trip. The receptionist herself drove us there after collating the number of people.

Reaching town at around 7pm, it was already dark with most shops closed.

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This is akin to 11pm in SG, despite it being 5pm back home. There are plenty of roundabouts around as well.

We decided to buy liquor to celebrate the end of our exercise. There was a large liquor store selling all types of alcohol–from canned beers to even a 4.5l bottle of Grey Goose. Prices were lower as well–total price of a Chivas and Smirnoff Green Apple was around A$120. Some friends and I also bought two bottles of Yellowglen champagne.

Pic from google.

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Intoxicating view

While waiting for the bus to pick us up, some locals interacted with us. I would say they are more gregarious– a man on a bicycle kept talking/rambling to us and a woman walking her dogs asked us where we were from.

On our way back, I realised that streetlights were only on along major stretches of road–we were travelling in total darkness when we turned off towards the resort. We went to the beach mentioned earlier for the drinking session and it was an experience. I settled for the Smirnoff, being of lower alcohol percentage and snorted from a bottle. It was done by lighting a flame at the mouth and covering it, before breathing in the vapour at once. By the end, I felt woozy and slept at once after reaching my room.

Next morning we proceeded to check out after a good meal at the resort restaurant. Tried vegemite for the first time and it tasted like soy sauce. It was another long ride from the resort to Emu Park district–there was the usual glimpse of coastline, bush and water. We stopped at Kele Park, a war memorial site and were given free time. This consisted of us exploring the rocky coastline that jutted out to the water. Other than that it was terribly boring.

Yet another 44km ride from Emu Park to Rockhampton proper, and being a city it was bustling compared to the places we went.

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Junction in Rockhampton. There are Domino’s branches just like Macs and delivery are done by cars, not bikes.

Our shopping was at Stockland Rockhampton–a one-storey but quite large shopping centre. The food court area was reminiscent of Takashimaya and there were 3 major supermarkets inside. Shades were cheap there but there was no need to buy it. I had a hard time finding souvenirs to buy–clothes were not really cheap and so I resorted to buy food. Unfortunately there were no GB nougats for sale but I did purchase nougat bars. Cadbury chocs were selling at $2.50 and I bought flavours not found here.

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Exterior of Stockland ROK

Dinner was at Central Queensland University and there were kangaroos right outside the cafeteria.

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We proceed to the airport and saw the Frame 3 people standing at the front with their equipment. This prompted us to make fun of them as they embarked on their training.

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Back home on Air New Zealand

I was on the last row of seats on the plane, so reclining was difficult. Air NZ had a MIB themed flight video which amused everyone. I watched Paper Towns and Minions before trying to catch some sleep.

After landing at Changi Airport, the plane stopped in front of the DNATA building for some reason and we had to take the airport bus to the terminal proper, probably it was a special flight.

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A little bit about cars there since there are some differences. Most vehicles there have car trailer hooks to attach whatever trailers they have. Some also have rear window louvers, probably to shield from the scorching sun. A number of cars had really loud engines which was unnecessary.

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Car towing a boat

About 30% of vehicles are lorries and Land Cruisers and 40% are Holdens of all types. Vintage cars are few but I did see a hot-rod truck and a 1960s Chevrolet. Luxury cars are rare considering the terrain–there were a smattering of Mercedes and BMWs.

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B-double trucks are common. They have a “Do not overtake turning vehicle” due to their length.

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Customised nameplates are allowed. I saw cars from as far as South Australia and Victoria

 

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Number plate confiscation notice on a car at CQU

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Our 57-seater coach with a toilet at the back

It was a relief to be back home, away from the perpetual sandy climate and crude camp accommodation. All said and done, it marked a satisfying end to our NS journey and I was happy to experience this last fight with them. In other news, Rockhampton is too boring af but peaceful.

Land Down Under #1

All our training for the past 1+ years boiled down to this major exercise that was conducted in Australia. It was a summation of how our battalion fought and our state of readiness according to what they said.

“…than the ___.”

Right after our last local outfield, we packed for the trip. It entailed a lot of cleaning due to Australia’s strict rule of no foreign biological stuff in their land. The biosecurity guys came down to check and we were given the green light to go. On the day of departure [18 Oct], we waved goodbye to our loved ones and boarded my first-ever SQ flight to Rockhampton. I watched Furious 7 and Ted 2 before sleeping during the 8-hour flight.

We reached ROK at 8pm local time [+2 hrs ahead of us] and proceeded to load up our luggage on the coaches. The Frame 1 Armour people were about to depart for SG in the plane that we just came from.

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Outside the airport

We pulled off around 9.30pm and reached “虎山” around 11pm.

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The bus turned into this side road called Raspberry Creek Road. After travelling for don’t know how long, we reached a fenced area and travelled for some distance to reach camp. It was around 30km along this road.

As soon as we reached, we were given a tour of the camp and its facilities. I need not mention the shower system–you can see it on facebook. The toilet area was split into urinals and toilet bowls. Urinals was simply a funnel that reached underground while the toilet bowls were planted on top of a huge hole in the ground that was supposed to contain shit. No flushing system either–scoop sawdust from a mound and cover your waste up. Water was precious there–we ran out of water twice during our stay [attributed to wasteful shower techniques]. Bunks were 16-man tents with a safari bed, pillow and sleeping bag.

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That night we had to fix back all our equipment thanks to the Aussies’s insistence that we dismantle everything. Sleep came late and morning came early. At 6am it was bright already. Meals were provided by SFI–they were sumptous at first but food didn’t seem nice after some time. Usually kiwi fruit was available! Apparently the whole camp is maintained by Primary Industries Queensland Logistics, from food to even the canteen. There is a “cyber cafe” consisting of laptops with terribly slow internet connection. Canteen food was okay– I liked the kebab, chips and  Breaka milk . It was also the place where the whole battalion charged their phones and portable chargers, thus going earlier was required to “chope” a prized socket spot. Movies shown there were often the negative-reviewed ones on IMDB (The Cobbler, Unfinished Business) but there were gems like Pitch Perfect 2 and the third Hobbit film. Sometimes Top Gear or Havoc were shown. It can be quite hot in the day with temperatures more than 35 degrees C but the nights are blessedly cool at around 20 degrees–natural aircon everyday! Rain came once during our outfield, such is the timing of it all.

There was a day and night orientation walk for us to get used to the terrain. Basically vegetation is less dense and sometimes it can be sparse. Compared to terrain here it was godsend. What made the walk more difficult was the presence of deadfall and the crossing of dry creeks, especially at night. This was a recurring problem during the 4 day outfield later on. However, we were aided by the full moon and the stars were breathtaking–unlike the ones you see here.

Preparations were done for a 2 day outfield, which was sort of a rehearsal for the real 4-day one. Due to the presence of thunderstorms 5km away, we remained under shelter and were transported some 2km from the objective.

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Our objective name: an urban ops area

It is an area created by the Aussies, consisting of some 200-300 Royal Wolf containers. We experienced how tricky it was due to the mutual supporting nature of the containers: passageways connected one building t another and there were false walls as well. Quite fun to fight in but differs from our ‘real buildings’ approach. Defended the area but our sector was untouched. After all was over, we took a chopper back to camp. I sat right behind the cockpit and saw how the pilots operated it–quite cool!

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Satellite image of the area

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Exterior of objective: we had to walk through chest high ‘lallang’/weeds from tree cover.

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Wrecked cars line the outside of the buildings. All were 80s to 90s Japanese models.

Next up was the real fight–a grueling 4 day affair. The same preparations and rehearsals were done, and on the evening we moved out, our superiors gave us impassioned pep talks to do ‘what we have done for the past 1 year or so’.

First mission: we walked a mind-boggling distance of 20+ km through the tortuous bush. Rest was short-lived and everyone were dead tired. Compounded with enemy patrol attacks right before the place, we felt like a mess.

Objective 1

Our direction of attack was to take them by surprise, so we had to climb up the face of the hill where they did not expect us to come from. It was quite steep and the approach felt brainless, though we managed to grab an important foothold. The other coys suffered heavy casualties as well. Being dead, I rested at the ‘dead people site’. It started to rain and it was only until the evening when we went back to the platoon. A cold wind blew and heat packs appeared in a flurry in an attempt to warm ourselves. We were troop-lifted to an airfield to sleep for the night. I was awoken at the ungodly hour of 1am due to some problem with my GPS.

Morning dawned and we were given some rest before moving out in the afternoon. Objective 2, which we fought before, had to be attacked in the evening. It felt straightforward, but many things went wrong. We were delayed by mobile enemy patrols which inflicted damage on our forces, and the 10+ km walk included walking through an open field in pitch darkness [the moon was not out by then]. In the end, we commenced assault somewhere around midnight, some 5 hours late!  Torchlight beams and rifle lasers flashed all over the place and people were shouting at each other about the situation. For one building, the walking dead became a human shield to forcibly clear the enemy camping by the stairs. From what we heard later, we fought well enough to impress the brigade senior command, who followed us all the way.

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Vegetation: there were plenty of these clumps of weeds/bush, some burnt, leading to many potholes. Trees can be few at times but usually not that spare.

Hopes that this was the last mission were unfortunately extinguished based on what the enemy told us–they were fighting us again. Even they were surprised: but based on our nature, 3 missions was the norm. The plus point was that we did not have to carry the fieldpack for the last mission.

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Objective 3

The route there was nothing worth mentioning since it was easier. My coy managed to escape an enemy patrol but was delayed due to injuries. Then we had to literally bash through branches and relatively thick vegetation, scale a rocky mountain some 200-300m high before coming down again. It felt like Brunei all over again. How on earth was this monstrosity formed out of nowhere and why did the creeks dry up? Most of them had trees growing on the river bed–it must have been at least 50 years ago. A select few only had puddles of water. The mission was a success–the enemy didn’t expect us to come from the back and were all facing the wrong direction. After the dust had settled, paradise was declared much to everyone’s joy and (discreet) photo taking commenced.

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View from halfway around objective 3: one side of the hill had been dug out to form the giant mound on the right [I think]

However, some of us had lost equipment and we were ordered to return the next day to search for it. For us, we couldn’t find what we needed but others elsewhere found extra ones to top up, so it was a relief. Our paradise came a day too late. Cue the returning of stores and cleaning of arms which took another day, and there was an end-of-frame dinner organised. Our company was declared the best though our platoon wasn’t. Awards were given out to those who performed exceptionally well and got noticed. Our platoon commander thanked us for putting our best, and since he was leaving soon, it felt poignant.

During the dinner, lamb chop was served along with grilled chicken, prawn and squid. I managed to try some kangaroo meat–it tasted like bacon and beef. Alcohol (Victoria Bitter, XXXX Gold beer, Bowler’s Run and Gossips wine) were provided and drinking games began. The spirit of merriment permeated the camp–natural reaction when the last outfield was over! On the last night in camp, the canteen vendor declared that everything except the alcohol would sell for A$2–quite a bargain, but I didn’t buy anything. Our bags were already packed for the free time the next day (Part #2).