I’m never going camping again
Going out for 7 days of missions and training last week gave me a fresh chance to reflect on why outfields suck so much. And they really do. On so many different levels, and in a variety of ways.
For one, there’s the prep, which starts days before boots hit the ground in the training area. Lists and lists of equipment and stores to draw, attach, replace, and pack, maps to fold and wrap in plastic, rations to collect, all to be crammed into a field pack that looks depressingly heavy the more you squeeze into it.
And for us officer cadets, there’s the hours of planning we pour into each mission. There’s pages of orders to read, dozens of diagrams to draw, and then hours of presentation to sit through as the appointment holders for each mission give a formal brief. It gets pretty mind numbing by the 3rd hour of listening–often, I find myself wishing that the prep was over and we could just go on the mission already!
Then the D-Day arrives, when you first step into the jungle that will be your home for the next few days. Singapore is heavily urbanised, covered in roads, buildings, people and cars. Yet, swathes of jungle still exist, and when you enter their green maws, it’s like a completely different country. Tangled trees, razor-sharp thorns, swamps and streams—you realise Singapore’s natural jungle is just as thick as its urban jungle.
Even cell phone reception sometimes disappears, which feels like such an impossibility in hyper-connected Singapore. But that doesn’t matter to us cadets, since we don’t even get to bring phones. The whole platoon gets an involuntary technology and social media detox every time we go outfield, courtesy of the army. It’s such a weird feeling to be discussing events like the newest COVID regulations, or the latest F1 race, and literally not have any way to get the latest update.
Night falls, and the mission begins. We get to the start line early in the morning, maybe 0300hrs, and begin marching to the objective. Over the course of a few hours, the straps of the field pack slowly cut off blood flow to the arms, and it becomes harder and harder to move them around as they grow numb. Your shoulders throb with a burning ache, but there’s nothing to do but try and shift the pack around a bit, grit your teeth and move on.
If you manage to ignore the pain, marching can be quite a zen experience–the night is (relatively) cool, stars might be out, and the only sounds are from crickets, frogs, and the soft crunching of boots on gravel roads. I might think about home, family, life before the army, or if I’m more tired, just exist in the moment.
That’s exactly what I was doing on one of the missions last week, when suddenly, a trail of sparks sailing through the air caught my attention. “Huh,” I thought, “that looks like a thunderflash.” There was a moment of silence as the sparks disappeared into a bush. Then a loud bang. And another. And another. I dived for cover as a dozen more went off up and down the line. We’d just been hit by a simulated arty strike.
When the noise stopped, the platoon sprang into action. We looked for “casualties,” cadets the instructors had declared dead or wounded, rolled them onto stretchers, little more than pieces of canvas with handles, and began dragging them out of the area.
That began 20 minutes of panting, stumbling, exhausted hell. The agony of carrying the stretcher is not just physical, although there’s certainly plenty of that–the real pain is the tension in your mind as its torn between listening to your limbs, screaming for a break, and your heart, urging you not to let your buddies down. It doesn’t help that the instructors always down the heaviest in the group, so the smaller cadets are left to carry them, and all their equipment. You have to dig real deep to find the strength to continue, and I’ll admit I’m pretty bad at digging. But there’s nothing to do but to stumble onward, trying to ignore the stretcher handles cutting into trembling fingers.
Times like these are when you curse the infantry, the army, and your miserable life with every questionable Hokkien phrase in the dictionary, wishing you were at home, not traipsing through the jungle on a Sunday, dragging someone’s body up a hill. But that’s just another regular night in the field, another mission to complete before the next one tomorrow .
When between missions, if you get the privilege of sleeping, be prepared to pay with your blood–the mosquitoes are waiting. They seem to enjoy buzzing around your head as you toss and turn, just close enough to be audible, before suddenly flying at your ear in a whining crescendo. I’ve spent 5 hours in a night slapping at them, trying to get some peace from the little demons. After a while, you start to recognise the different types–the smaller, high-pitched Anopheles, the evil-looking, black-and-white striped Aedes, and the long legged, clumsy Culex, which packs a particularly painful bite.
These bastards go straight through camo nets, uniforms, and socks with ease. The military-grade repellent issued to us, toxic enough to melt plastic and instantly erase permanent marker, barely seems to slow them down. They give no quarter, blanketing everyone in maddeningly itchy welts–I counted well over a hundred bites on my platoon mate’s back and hands last week. Damn all mosquitoes, every last one.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, mosquitoes aren’t the only thing that will make you itch. During my first field camp in BMT, a 3 day mud and rain fest, I quickly grew familiar with what’s known as heat rash. After a few days out in the field without showering, the sweat glands on your body clog with dirt, and become blocked. This causes a painful inflammation when sweat tries to leave through the sealed pores. In the early stages, it’s a tingling itch that shoots through the back, making you fidget uncomfortably. At its worst, it’s an excruciating, scalding sensation that explodes with pain whenever the sufferer moves, leaving him a writhing wreck.
I remember lying paralysed in my bunk from the pain the first time I got it, trying not to move, speak, or think, in the fear of triggering another attack. The hopelessness is almost as bad as the pain–there is no instant cure for heat rash, no pill to pop or ointment to apply. In fact, powders and creams clog the pores more and make it even worse. The only true remedy is prevention.
Those are just a few of the reasons outfields suck so much to me. However, I’d be lying if I said they were entirely bad. Small, but significant upsides shine through the suffering.
For one, it’s where the most bonding happens, and the more messed up the mission, the tighter the bonds formed. The stress and pressure forces everyone to work together, dropping any awkwardness or standoffishness they might be able to maintain in regular life.
The shared experience of misery also draws people closer together. I remember vividly how, one night during a defence mission, I walked to my section mate’s shellscrape to take a break. Exhausted, arms worn out from hours of digging, covered in mosquito bites that ants were also biting, and stricken with bad heat rash, we just sat there in the dark, among piles of freshly dug up dirt, commiserating together about how much life sucked. You can’t just be colleagues with someone after making a memory like that together. The field is where your friends become brothers.
Outfield also teaches you to appreciate regular life more, the things we often take for granted. Soft beds, showers every night, hot food, dry feet, 7 hours of sleep, fresh clothes…I could go on, but the list is endless. When I come back after a week in the field, every simple thing I’ve had to go without becomes a luxury. I savor the taste of fresh rice a little longer, linger over the smell of clean laundry a little more, and listen to my favourite songs as if it were for the first time.
When I walk out of camp and see the malls, cars and people again, signs of civilian life that were so mundane before, it’s with fresh, grateful eyes. Even better, I can take a little pride knowing I spent my week playing a tiny part in keeping that civilian life peaceful and free. That by giving up these things for a few days, I allowed others to continue enjoying them.
So, all in all, outfields suck. But they’ve shown me how even the most miserable torment can teach me something new and worthwhile about life.
Except mosquitoes. Damn all of them.
Aaron is resident writer for the Homeschool Alumni. He authors a column, “Tales From Two Years,” about his experiences in National Service, where he has about 270 days left. When he’s not in camp, he enjoys cooking, playing music, and petting cats.