7 Lessons as an unwilling soldier

Nightfall at a top-secret place doing a top-secret mission

If you are unfamiliar with the island nation of Singapore which is not in China, conscription is central to our national identity.

Today, I have adapted a reflection I wrote back in 2015, when I was still only a year into my military journey, in an attempt to share some lessons on how to settle into a new and partly uncalled-for life.

If you’re interested, you can read a short summary of my military career (2015–2016) at the end of the article.

I’m one year into my national service life, one year to go. It’s been a shit year, but I’ve sieved out some valuable things from the shit that I would not have had if not for gruelling army experiences. Coincidentally it’s the beginning of a new year (2016), so in the retrospective mood of the new year here are some things I’ve learnt, or am still learning, in the whole of 2015 as a soldier.

To my lovely juniors awaiting enlistment, good luck.

  1. Move on
Suck it up.

I couldn’t. Leaving school was a heartbreak; it felt like I was wrenched away from where I belonged. I never quite got over it before being swept up into the whirlwind of this strange new army life.

Nothing was the same.

I no longer wake up every morning to see the same familiar faces in the corridors and lecture halls I’ve come to love and call my own. I no longer can wave at almost anyone I pass by and strike up a happy conversation about something absolutely trivial and inconsequential. Instead, each cold, bleak morning greets me with loud, demanding voices and unwelcome feelings of fear, dread and frustration.

I wanted to go back so bad, I spent every weekend trapped in a state of suspension, like Miyazaki’s Laputa, caught between my reality and my imagination. Those were some of the hardest times.

So move on. Stop thinking about what’s gone once it’s gone, because it won’t ever turn back — suck it up (you’ll need to get used to sucking it up where you’re headed). Understand that army brings an entirely different lifestyle, so convince yourself, however reluctantly, that this isn’t a part-time job — this is your new life. It’s like selling your bungalow and moving into a studio apartment. The quicker you accept it and get used to it, the better off you’ll be. And you can’t buy the bungalow back because the national service allowance is peanuts and feathers.

2. Know your pillars of support

It sounds like a tough ride, and it was for me. What made it more painful was facing it alone.

Or at least, that was what it felt like. Leaving school forced me to confront some fundamental issues in my life so far — I was a social nomad (butterfly, if you would, but more masculine). In school it was fine since I could interact with almost my entire social bubble everyday, but once I couldn’t, I realized that I didn’t know who my best friends, my constants, my pillars of support were. When shit starts hitting the roof in camp, these are the people you’ll need.

Apart from friends, family plays a huge role as well. Keep your family in mind, and treasure the time spent with them. No matter how bad you screw life up, they will stay around. At least, for most of us.

Before it’s too late, identify who you need to keep close, and hold on to them for dear life.

3. Embrace the new people you meet

Like I said, army means an entirely new phase in life. So those you meet in army will be there to stay for quite a while; embrace them, make great friendships, because these are real and valuable relationships that’ll last beyond the military.

Also, it’s much easier to take shit in the face when some of your best buds are suffering with you. Like they always say, do it not for yourself, but for the brothers beside you. Chances are, you’ll come across some really outstanding brothers; don’t take them for granted.

4. Take pride

Time spent miserably is time that’s better off not spent at all.

A lot of people hate having to serve in this conscript. It’s understandable, we’re all forced against our wills.

That being said, your time in the army will be thoroughly miserable if you spent every waking moment reminding yourself of how much you don’t want to be where you are, whether it is facing the floor or crawling through mud.

Time spent miserably is time that’s better off not spent at all. You might not love or excel at what you do, but take pride in your job. I always think back to when I was small, when I used to idolize firemen and soldiers and held that cargo-pants-leather-boots work as the sacred masculine ideal. I believe that reverence is something all men have felt before at some point. Remember that feeling. You’re now that man in uniform: that noble, self-sacrificial protector, so be proud and do your job well. However mundane and unglamorous your real life is, just remember that feeling and live for that ideal.

5. Lose yourself

Dive in headfirst.

The more you observe everything from an external perspective (i.e. do things like counting down to the weekend and reminding yourself that you just. can’t. stand. this. shit.), the slower your torture. If you watch a kettle as it boils, it’ll never ever ever seem to boil.

What I mean is, take your work seriously and give it everything you’ve got. Don’t try to distance yourself from it. That way, time crawls a little faster. I almost started to enjoy some of it.

You gotta lose yourself in the music
The moment
You want it
You gotta never let it go

Even though it may not be your favourite thing in the world, commit to the new life as a soldier. Don’t be the guy who perpetually complains; be the guy who’s always the first to volunteer for shit, first out there in a fire-fight, first to let loose the battle cry (even if the enemies are lame target-boards). Take ownership of that life, and you’ll have a fruitful and fulfilling time.

6. Do the right thing

Because it doesn’t hurt to.

In the organization you do not exist alone. Everything you say and do will have some impact on those around you, so it’s up to you whether to make their lives easier or harder. Eventually, if one screws up, everyone gets slaughtered (or as we call it, 1 x good one).

There are many people who somehow choose to make everyone’s lives harder by doing stupid things that range from peeing in the shower to blatant defiance. Nonetheless, discipline yourself to always do the right thing. It makes living with you a lot more pleasant and keeps everyone out of trouble. There will be some who ridicule the do-gooders as suck-ups, sergeants’ pets. Take no mind. It doesn’t matter if your efforts go unrecognized. As long as you’ve fulfilled your duty as a constructive member of the community, take comfort in that and not in being commended for your good works.

If it should be done, do it. Don’t be selfish.

7. Remember who you are

You need to lose yourself in the work, but remember what you stand for. Don’t discard the mental models you used to live by and the traits that used to make you, you. It’s easy to be yourself in school, when life was more social and less overwhelming, but it gets tough when training burns your limbs off and all you want to do is crash into bed. It’s tough to remember who you are when your platoon shares the same haircut, the same uniform, the exact same life.

There have been many times I almost let fatigue and frustration take over and turn me into a different person, an ugly, monstrous version that I know isn’t who I truly am. So make the extra effort, be the same you. Don’t switch off. Help others. Be warm. Be a great guy. The military shouldn’t detract you from that. Stay in control and hold on to your individualism. At the same time, allow your previous understanding of yourself and your world-view to be shaped by the new experiences.

Instead of forgetting who you are, you should come out the other side the same old — but improved — you.

In the army there’ll be hardship. We’re lucky to be part of a very sheltered and comfortable generation, so there are many things we’ll find difficult or distasteful in training. If it has to be done, do it, and don’t be a pussy. It will pass.

The weak die,
The strong survive,
The strongest thrive.

And if you’re about to enlist, remember that these are two of your golden years of youth. Don’t waste them drifting along being miserable. Go all in, all out, and you’ll reap much more than you can imagine. I’ve changed in so many ways not just as a soldier or officer but also a person, and I’m only but halfway through.

If you enjoyed this, do look forward to some similar writings in the near future.

Simon Tang

Armor Officer (APC/Tank Platoon Comd)

Recruit (Feb-Apr 2015) | Officer Cadet (Apr 2015-Jan 2016) | 2nd Lieutenant (Jan-Aug 2016) | Lieutenant (Aug-Dec 2016)

The concepts, methodology and procedures mentioned in this article are purely assertions of my own personal opinion, and has no bearing whatsoever on the official operations protocol of the Singapore Armed Forces. No sensitive information is presented in this article.