72km, 72 hours: Road to the red beretWhat does it take to don the red beret and be called a Commando? For these trainees, it’s about the magical number “72”.
// Story Benita Teo
// Photos Chua Soon Lye, Kenneth Lin, Wayne Wong, Timothy Sim & Robin Ng
What makes a Commando? Some say it's their unbeatable physical strength. Others, their mental fortitude to persevere through difficult times and hostile terrain.
For this batch of about 170 trainees from the 3rd and 4th Companies (3 and 4 Coy) of 1st Commando Battalion (1 Cdo Bn), it will take these qualities and more to complete the gruelling X72 – for the first time, the Commandos' signature 72km route march will span the course of 72 hours.
Held from 28 to 31 Oct, this milestone march sees the trainees enduring little rest while performing combat tasks like rappelling down walls, crossing water obstacles and carrying out weapon drills. They even had to plan and execute a combat mission to take down an enemy key installation.
The X72 aims to bring out different qualities from the participants, said 1 Cdo Bn Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Fabian Pwi, 36.
"To complete X72, they need to demonstrate resilience. Performing the operational tasks to standard also requires high attention to detail. When they are able to successfully overcome (the fatigue and stress) and perform up to that standard, they gain confidence in themselves."
Time: 6pm, 28 Oct
At 6pm sharp, the alarm sounds and the Commando trainees jump into action. The X72 begins.
Meet the soldiers: Corporal (CPL) Abimanyu Ramanthan, 19, machine gun gunner, 3 Coy
"I didn't think that I would make it to this point; my physical attributes weren't that great when I first enlisted. But after going through all those obstacles, this last X72 is something we are all fully determined to complete. I really want to get that red beret."
Time: 6.15pm, 28 Oct
The trainees carry out a timed inspection of their equipment and field packs to ensure that their load (which weighs 25kg on average!) is in proper working order. They must meet extremely strict timings, which instils the sense of urgency and discipline needed in real operations.
Meet the soldiers: CPL Sean Toh, 19, detachment demolition man and boatman, 3 Coy
"I feel a little nervous and apprehensive. But we're all very excited, because for the past 11 months (since enlisting) we've been looking forward to donning the red beret, and now we are just 72hrs away. Sometimes dreams do become a reality."
Meet the soldiers: 3rd Sergeant (3SG) Hemanth Chezhian, 19, detachment sergeant, 3 Coy
“Our detachment is made up of men from different vocations. During missions, we share each other’s loads, because some vocations might be carrying heavier loads. That’s how we sustain ourselves and make it through. Together, my men have grown stronger and are definitely more ready for this exercise.”
Time: 8.38pm, 28 Oct
The earlier downpour does little to dampen the high spirits of the trainees. They begin the first of their route marches, moving from Hendon Camp in Changi to Pasir Ris Camp.
Time: 9.36pm, 28 Oct
Ice Bucket and chill: Arm Immersion Cooling Systems are set up at Pasir Ris Park, where the trainees are taking a rest. They soak their arms in the buckets of iced water to cool down their body temperatures quickly and prevent heat injuries.
Time: 11.20pm, 29 Oct
A trainee practising knot-tying to secure his SAR 21 (Singapore Assault Rifle – 21st Century) during the rappelling exercise, under the watchful eyes of his instructor. Ahead of the activity, they have to undergo just-in-time training and drills to refresh their skills.
Time: 12.46am, 29 Oct
Just don't look down! A trainee begins his descent from the five-storey tower in the Rappelling Training Facility.
Time: 7.15am, 29 Oct
Press on: After a one-hour protected breakfast break, the troopers commence another leg of route marches.
Time: 7.50am, 29 Oct
Trainees from a detachment apprehending an armed "assailant". As part of the march, the troops simulate movement while under attack. They also perform drills such as patrol drills (top photo), casualty evacuation drills, and artillery fire drills (above).
Time: 10.48am, 29 Oct
Friendly competition: The detachments pit their skills against each other in stripping and assembling their weapons.
Time: 9.06pm, 29 Oct
The trainees of 3 Coy receiving the operation order from Officer Commanding Captain Soon Delano. They will then have to work as a team and determine how they will execute the assault mission they've just been given.
Time: 3.05am, 30 Oct
The troops lie in silent wait to take down a 20-strong enemy force. Their goal: to raid the enemy's territory and destroy its key installation. Fatigue from the last 33 hours is setting in, but the trainees continue to put up a strong front against enemy fire, swiftly taking their gunners down.
Time: 3.27am, 30 Oct
The demolition team rigging explosives to take down the enemy key installation.
How did the mission go?
"One thing we can improve on is learning where to take command during the chaos. But we still managed to overrun the targets so I think we did a fairly good job. It's about having alternatives and being adaptable – when we couldn't execute our original plan, we looked for an alternate break-in point into the objective." – 3SG Hemanth
Time: 4.45am, 30 Oct
After the successful raid, the troops beat a hasty retreat out of hostile territory. By the end of this, they would have marched about 50km.
Time: 12.11pm, 30 Oct
The trainees get some respite from the afternoon heat by practising crossing water obstacles while carrying heavy loads.
Pain is temporary
"(I had very painful blisters so) I was lagging behind. As I was walking with our seniors, I told them I really didn't know the reason I was pushing on... They made me realise it's because I want to see me and my fellow brothers graduate tomorrow.
"Standing in front of my family with the red beret is something I've wanted since enlistment day. So I told myself that the pain is temporary, but the red beret is the thing I'm working towards." – CPL Abimanyu
Time: 7.08pm, 30 Oct
The commandos practise three modes of insertion in their missions: by rappelling, through airborne means, and via boat.
Time: 5pm, 31 Oct
Victory lap: The Commando trainees make their final march back into Hendon Camp, where their families and friends eagerly await their arrival at the parade square.
Time: 5.18pm, 31 Oct
"Commando, Commando Commando!" 3SG Hemanth takes the precious red beret from the firm grip of Chief Commando Officer Colonel Kenny Tay. The 19-year-old is finally able to call himself a Commando.
"I'm happy that it's over, but at the same time it brings a new sense of responsibility for us. This red beret is not just for show; it signifies how much we've gone through and how much more we can put in. It's a new challenge ahead, but we're up for it."
Time: 5.39pm, 31 Oct
"I'm very, very relieved that the entire X72 is complete. At the same time, I'm very honoured to be the first batch to go through it… Previously, only the senior batch would come and support, but for this X72, the entire battalion came to go through it with us and teach us various skills. It's something that's brought together the whole battalion." – CPL Abimanyu
Time: 6pm, 31 Oct
"It's been a long 11-month journey. This was the destination we were set to arrive at, and I'm very happy that we did it together… Being a Commando means that we have to stick with each other whenever times get rough. Although the end of X72 is seen as an end, it also marks the start of our journeys as operational Commandos. I feel a great sense of pride and honour because this not something that many Singaporeans would have achieved." – CPL Toh