Overcoming the odds to become a Specialist

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12 Nov 2021 | PEOPLE

Overcoming the odds to become a Specialist

// Story by Thrina Tham

// Photos by Lionel Lee & Courtesy of 3SG Koh

Being diagnosed with possible muscle dystrophy did not stop this newly-minted specialist from pursuing his passion to becoming a combat-fit soldier.

Newly-minted specialist 3SG Koh graduated from the 49th Specialist Cadet Graduation Parade on 12 Nov.

He had always been a sporty guy, and even helped clinch the National Taekwondo School Games Championship (B Div Boys Kyorugi category) for his school, NUS High School of Mathematics and Science, in 2018.

So it came as quite a blow for 3rd Sergeant (3SG) Zachary Koh during enlistment, when he was assigned Physical Employment Standards (PES) E due to suspected muscle dystrophy.

"Initially I was quite disheartened… My dad and uncles all shared stories about their time in NS (National Service), so I always wanted to get that (combat) experience."

Despite his disappointment, 3SG Koh was determined to do his best. He served as a Security Trooper for nine months and eventually managed to upgrade his PES status.

On 12 Nov – 16 months after enlisting – the 20-year-old graduated as an Infantry Specialist in a small-scale parade held at Pasir Laba Camp. He was also awarded with the coveted Golden Bayonet.

A total of 903 cadets graduated as Specialists and Military Experts across decentralised parades held at Pasir Laba Camp and various Training Institutes from 12 to 18 Nov.

3SG Koh's parents affixing his chevrons on him in a symbolic graduation photo taken from their home.

Never too late to try

The appointment has been a long time coming for the 3SG Koh.

While in Secondary Three – after taking part in Taekwondo competitions as well as various camps and training – 3SG Koh suffered from severe body cramps and had to be taken to the hospital. There, his condition was diagnosed as possible muscle dystrophy (progressive weakening and wasting of muscles).

He first enlisted at Basic Military Training (BMT) Centre School V in May 2020, while waiting to have his PES status reviewed.

After completing his first BMT last June, he then served as a Security Trooper (Service) at Sembawang Air Base, where he mostly worked in the pass office or behind a desk.

Still, 3SG Koh understood the importance of his role. "During my first BMT, our Officer Commanding said to us ‘If not you, then who?' to let us know the importance of us serving.

"This has stuck with me even till today, that I have to give my best during these two years."

3SG Koh undergoing individual physical proficiency test (IPPT) training at Specialist Cadet School.

For his PES review, 3SG Koh went through numerous check-ups at the National Neuroscience Institute, including an electromyography test (to measure muscle response to nerve stimulation) and a biopsy procedure, as well as long consultations with SAF Medical Officers.

Six months later, he was given the green light to be upgraded to PES B.

As he had not exercised much in over a year, he started training regularly, including running along the tracks around the airbase after his shifts.

His mum was initially worried about her only child ramping up his training, but saw 3SG Koh's passion to be combat fit and gave him her support.

In April, he went to Pulau Tekong to undergo a nine-week combat-fit BMT, and then took on the 22-week Specialist Cadet Course (SCC) this June.

3SG Koh with his parents during his second BMT graduation this May.

Friendly yet firm leader

The SCC was tough, but 3SG Koh embraced his training. He recalled a five-day outfield exercise, where he was the Urban Operations Platoon Sergeant and his platoon had to complete back-to-back missions, including overnight marches and dawn attacks.

On the last night, they thought they had reached the end but were given a "Charlie Mike" (Continue Mission) instruction.

Apart from marching an additional distance, the cadets had to carry an extra load while tired and under stress.

3SG Koh said: "It's one of those things that, while doing it, you don't enjoy it and it feels terrible.

"But looking back, you realise you could do it, not because of yourself but because your platoon mates were there with you, and you managed to complete the mission together."

Chief Master Trainer, Specialist and Warrant Officer Institute, Master Warrant Officer Omar Bin Osman (right) presenting the Golden Bayonet to Specialist Cadet Koh during his specialist cadet graduation ceremony on 12 Nov.

The exercise also helped 3SG Koh learn more about his leadership style.

"As a commander, I sometimes need to make the tough decisions; but I can't just neglect people's feelings and be firm.

"I feel like I need to find the right balance – to be firm but also approachable. So that's something I've been trying to work on and will continue to do so even when I go to my next unit."

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