Into the woods

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22May2015_00665
22 May 2015 | OPS & TRAINING
Melayu 华文

Into the woods

STORY // Koh Eng Beng
PHOTO // Chua Soon Lye & Chai Sian Liang

English Melayu

I reported at SAFTI Military Institute in early March with my vintage Skeletal Battle Order (SBO). There were murmurs as I walked towards a group of officer cadets (OCTs) from Alpha Wing.

"This is damn cool," one of them said, referring to my SBO which reflected my status as an Operationally Ready National Serviceman.

I was there for their jungle survival training which prepares them for the Jungle Confidence Course (JCC) overseas. As a specialist, I did not get to attend JCC so I was eager for a sneak preview.

The JCC is a nine-day course in which cadets go through an energy-sapping navigation exercise through the dense jungle. They then have to survive in solitude for three days.

The first day was a show-and-tell session on how to create tools that are needed for survival for a prolonged period of time. These included the A-frame shelter with a fire place, wooden fork and spoon, spear, monitor lizard trap and fishing rod. We also learnt how to forage for food and obtain water through condensation.

There were so many details to remember: The shelter had to be tied to a tree, the roof must be downward sloping, the fireplace had to be layered with soil and leaves The cadets listened intently, conscientiously taking down notes. They will be tested during the JCC. Every point counts. The JCC is not a "sure pass" course.

I couldn't catch up, and turned to my team-mates OCT Benjamin Tang and OCT Ho Kang Hua. "Hey, you guys know what's going on, right? You have to take care of this old man here, okay?"

"Sir, no problem, we can manage," OCT Tang said with a grin. (The cadets insisted on addressing me as "Sir" because "civilians out-rank everyone".)

Home in the wilderness

The next morning, we began a two-day, one-night exercise in a forest near Pasir Laba Camp. We started building the A-frame shelter by tying the wooden poles together to form the skeleton. Each lashing had to be wound ultra-tight. After all, you don't want your shelter to give way when you sleep on it!

I tried out each step to get a bite-sized experience. To avoid taking away the cadets' much-needed practice time - they have to construct a shelter individually during the JCC - I worked on the wooden fork and spoon, and did the grunt work like chopping the trees for wood and leaves.

By noon, the hunger pangs hit, and I was dehydrated from the scorching sun. I had arrived earlier in the morning with an empty stomach and brought only two half-filled water canteens. The three of us were supposed to share one day's worth of combat rations and 21 litres of water.

In JCC, cadets are given just about a day's worth of combat rations, and have to obtain drinking water from river streams.

Since I was not a trainee, the instructors allowed me to get water and food from the training shed. But I felt bad seeing my buddies taking small sips of water.

"I help you guys get syrup water?" I offered. OCT Ho declined, waving his hands frantically: "No, no. It's okay. We have to get used to it. JCC will be worse!"

I was impressed by their integrity.

Uncompromising standard

Throughout the afternoon, we had to tear down our A-frame shelter several times. The instructors pointed out each mistake (loose lashing, wrong positioning of poles, and the angle of the roof) - long after we had done a lot of work. It was demoralising to untie each lashing, dismantle the frame and start all over again.

At one stage, five instructors surrounded us, questioning our slow progress. "Sir, we have been trying out various ways," explained OCT Tang.

"You have the cheek to tell me that you have been doing this by trial and error?" Lieutenant (LTA) Kenji Lim yelled. "Why didn't you guys sit down and think about the resources that you have and what you don't have? Come up with a plan!"

After the instructors left, I asked: "You guys can take it? Not sian (Hokkien for demoralised)?"

"Sir, it's okay, better to make mistakes now than to suffer in JCC," said OCT Tang who remained upbeat throughout the exercise.

Night-mare

As the sky began to darken, we started a fire to cook the raw chicken wings, sweet potatoes and potatoes that were given as reward for our subsequent good progress.

I went near the fire place, blowing constantly to keep the flames alive when something unexpected happened - my vision started to blur!

It turned out that my spectacle lens had "melted" from the heat of the fire. I cursed at my bad luck.

After dinner, we continued to work. My buddies worked on the A-frame shelter, weaving leaves to form the roof, while I crafted the wooden spear. We tried to keep awake by chatting until about 3am, when we took turns to sleep for 15 to 30 minutes at a time.

"Sir, it's 5.30am. Shall we go and do the monitor lizard trap?" OCT Tang tried to wake me up.

"Bro, five more minutes please?" I asked, struggling to open my eyes.

The next time I woke up, they were sleeping by my side! It was almost 7am. We rushed to complete our remaining tasks for the final assessment at noon. I was looking forward to seeing if our monitor lizard trap worked.

OCT Tang threw a wooden stick (a simulated prey) into the "entrance" of the trap. Voila, it was a success!

The trap works by luring prey with a bait, then trapping it with a noose that is tied to a flexible stem called a sapling. The sapling will snap back into upright position, hanging the prey in mid-air.

In the end, we passed all the requirements except for the shelter's roof. The leaves were not woven properly, leaving gaps where rain water could seep through. OCT Ho and OCT Tang had to re-do the roof till it was perfect.

Instructor LTA Nathaniel Ghui explained why they demanded such high training standards: "We are training them to be platoon commanders, they have to not only perform under severe stress, but also learn not to give up."

Before I left, Wing Commander Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Juraimi said: "You've done so much these two days; you need proper closure. Follow us overseas for the rest of the course!"

Well, I don't mind. Maybe I might even complete the entire Officer Cadet Course on a modular basis!

 

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