The Patriot “Business”: Toughing it out at National Guard camp

Take note – story published 5 years and 7 months ago

We continue publishing a selection of the Centenary magazine paid for by the Culture Ministry and made by the magazine. This time it's Aivars Madris' look back at spending 20 days in National Guard camp.

When it’s done, we’re taken back to the battalion and transferred into the caring hands of the first sergeant. We’re photographed for making licenses and informed about what expects us in the further service. We have to provide our contacts for the umpteenth time. In the end the first sergeant hints that it’d be good if we cleaned the guns before handing them in. After shooting blanks, the guns are wretchedly dirty as if filled with tar. As I sway with a feverish temperature, I try to point out that my arm is possibly broken, as it has swollen at least to twice its size within the past 48 hours, and ask whether I could come clean my gun some other day, as I would profit from going to the emergency room. The first sergeant frowns and gives me a careless look. “Is your arm falling off? Is it bleeding? The emergency room is open all night, you won’t miss it…”

As we were cleaning our shooters in the workshop that smelled of oil, we concluded that they simply can’t let us go before the workday has ended, as we’d receive pay for the entire day. We’ve gathered as much in the first three weeks we’ve spent at the camp – it’s impossible to clean such messy guns within four hours.

The National Guard is a patriot thing or “business”, as they say in the army. At least that’s what you’d think (or are supposed to think?) before actually enlisting. But patriotism is, of course, is a difficult-to-define and very pliant concept. There are the hot-blooded, loud patriots who speak as if they were quoting the National Alliance election program. There are the silent patriots who are close to being mute but are quick to do everything they’re told. There are the adventure seekers, and those who have to prove something to themselves and the world. And some who simply want to get fit.

For some, the final impetus to join was the Latvian state centenary. This is their gift to Latvia.

There are some from the Youth Guard, aching to finally shoot combat bullets and, in addition, receive some monies for their daily beer by the Top retail store. There are some who fear the second Donetsk and the invasion of “the little green men”.

Women are scarce, our platoon only has three. One of them is from the Youth Guard. She is preparing for professional service and shoots better than most of the guys. The second is a veterinarian, one of the silent patriots it seems. The third has health problems. It looks like she weighs less than the equipment that everyone carries with them. But they all make it to the end. There are of course many others. Everyone has their own story and their own outlook. But everything gets mixed up as we go along. It overlaps and, of course, changes.

There’s a guy with injured legs. He can’t run, he doesn’t participate in physical training and tells us he could lose his legs. His old man took him here “on principle”. After a week, his parents have pity on him and take their offspring away from the camp.

I’ve no clue to which category I belong. To all of them on some level, I guess. But there really are human beings instead of categories.

There’s a guy in his thirties incessantly declaring that he doesn’t give a damn. He’s tormented by an inherited disease of the gastrointestinal tract. He eats only the stuff he’s taken with him and carefully calculates how much he’ll receive as a compensation for food. Later he finds out that the recompense is twice as small as he thought it’d be and is further dispirited. He screws off before the last week when we should go to the forest. It’s the exceptions that stick with you.

This summer we had a whole lot of bloody luck with the weather. Moving around in your uniform, you realised suddenly there are only two states of matter in this weather: hot and unbearably hot. Later, when we had to walk with full equipment (web gear + full backpack + gun), these were joined by the third: hell. Within twenty days I drank and sweated more than I had within the previous thirty years I spent under this sun. The face paint simply streamed off your face. The unbearable heat prompted some corrective measures. They had pity on us, reducing the physical training and allowing us to remove our service jackets. They made us drink a lot of water and stay in the shade. The doctor’s tent came into vogue, as did the use of painkillers. There was not enough food, and people were swept off their feet from exhaustion and the heat.

The scouts say, “Be prepared!” But not everyone was. Some became dehydrated, and they’re shuttled straight from the camp to the hospital.

It became even hotter each day, and then shooting practice began – in the open air, of course. The feelings at the shooting range can be compared to sunbathing in a fur coat while holding dumbbells. The sweat ran into my eyes to the effect I mostly shot going by my gut. It was all sweaty, oily, sandy and sore. They promised us it’d be easier in the woods. That it’d become cooler. That maybe there’d be rain, fancifully called the “soldiers’ sun”. But you had to get to these bonuses, as you would in a computer game.

I recalled the Pelevin story in which the protagonist became incarnated as the hero of Prince of Persia. As for me, I felt more like one of the Mario brothers.

The 20-day camp of the National Guard can be considered an army simulator with a basic difficulty. In professional service, of course, they fuck them worse. That is what both instructors and the professional soldiers we met during training. As I did my 130 reps I honestly deserved for the ammo I threw around like confetti (though, considering it logically – what’s the difference between a bullet striking the sand fortifications after having vs. not having hit the cardboard target?), one of our supervisors told us he had to do 200 for every bullet he missed during training. It came to thousands of reps a day, day after day, for weeks. We were told that we’re pampered with at the National Guard as it’s important to them to retain every single soul who’d enlisted. Meanwhile they only select the most fit, both morally and physically, for professional service. That’s what we felt in the instructors’ attitude, which was, in general, unexpectedly compassionate with a few exceptions.

But, like in school, the most respect went to the tough guys who could maintain discipline and make themselves be heard. The ones whose faces showed real experience you can gain only “out there”, on missions in Iraq or Afghanistan with real bullets flying at you, real explosives detonating under your feet and comrades at arms bleeding to death, squirting real, warm blood out of their bodies.

Only one of the instructors fell into true disfavour, with some of the strapping young lads of the Youth Guard mocking him openly and Sasha, the undisputed strongman and bigmouth of our platoon, even promised to “fuck him up” after the camp is over.

All of this because the instructor, an athletic corporal of Lithuanian descent, made big demands on us during physical training. True, he did step over the line, as the trainees could not do the exercises and were criticised openly for that. Some were injured and there was an influx of complaints, which was evidently heard by the higher-ups as the instructor later lowered his demands.

The situation is quite bizarre, as concerns punishments. At first, everyone talked all the time that we’ll be doing push-ups until complete exhaustion. But it turned out there’s no corporal punishment at camp. It’s been replaced by intellectual punishment – you have to write an essay for each infraction. To many, it was a formidable challenge. Some bought essays for cash. People begged to have the essays replaced by exercise, and they were heard.

By the second week, we could exercise to our liking. The instructors, too, were much more comfortable with making the perpetrators do push-ups. “If your head doesn’t work, the arms will do the working,” a sergeant, who oversaw us the last week, cheered us on. I was lucky enough to have to write only a single essay, about the sports shoes I didn’t put under my bed as per protocol. I did a drawn-out meditation on the meaning of aesthetics in the military, but I did not discover whether the HQ first sergeant actually read my paper.

Do you recall Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket? It’s a story about a unit of US marines who are sent to Vietnam following an arduous stint in basic training. The unit lumps together all soldier-type clichés you can imagine – jokers, smart-alecks, tough guys, pussies and strangers. Strangely enough, these clichés sometimes manifest themselves in real life, especially if it’s at a place that draws people of different social class, sex, age, education level, marital status, social status, etc. Our platoon was also lucky enough to be a motley crew.

The jokers announced themselves in just a few days. Emīls and Edgars quickly found common ground and set up the “non-reactive unit”, for which the symbol and measure of all things was a strap-on you can buy at a sex shop. They took their calling seriously, even writing up the unit’s manual and ranks, christening themselves Strap-on Generals, the chief military men in the unit. The “non-reactive unit” recruited studiously from the rest of our platoon, as well as planned and carried out different “missions”. The most vivid of them was their walk to the showers while dressed in ponchos and protective goggles. They accompanied themselves with the rather out-dated party hit, Crazy Frog. They repeated this for several evenings, until the corporals from department C had enough and sent them on a special mission, namely, digging up a “pool” next to a pond in the territory of the military base. The next night they had a new special mission – to prepare a pleasant surprise for all the participants of the camp, furnishing the canteen tables with vases of freshly picked meadow flowers. Corporals from department C were full of initiative to improve the quality of life using various innovations.

My favourite was the “Wheel of Fortune” – a self-made wheel to spin for all the smokers caught leaving to have a puff after curfew. The jack-pot was 250, meaning 250 reps for the happy smoker. There was apparently someone who scored two jack-pots in one night!

Meanwhile Dižais (the Great) was the Gomer Pyle of the unit, if we recall the same Kubrick film: the dim-wit who always managed to get into a mess or screw up something. Once he went number one and got tangled into barbed wire. Then he had loud flatulence during a speech by the HQ’s first sergeant. He fell asleep during guard duty as the instructor was looking into his eyes.

Sasha was the cool guy who’s seen it all. He could do anything, did not shy from talking back to his superiors whether it was warranted or not. But during the march he carried two bags and could help the others at the same time. Everything happens like in a film. But maybe the films have it right about real life?

Of course, we had to live with one another and cooperate. That was the unwritten basis of the entire training. Generally speaking, life in the tent was like a field trip. Someone put their socks and undies wherever he wanted to. Someone tried to straighten out the mess. Someone else tried to fart the entire tent full with gas, cheering himself on loudly. Someone else put on the airs of an English aristocrat, or at least tried to until his ears started showing signs of high blood pressure.

Of course, there was continuous bickering – about trivial matters, training tasks, bossing others around and what have you. “Boys will be boys,” the old song goes. But girls, too, didn’t limit themselves to the side-lines when the general disorder was too much. The guys returned the favour, with the insults sometimes going so low you start to think you’ve ended up at a juvenile detention centre.

Conflicts took place on several levels – eye to eye, on the level of fire teams, and then the whole platoon was on the edge. Nevertheless, everyone stayed friends and no one fought for real, despite coming very close to it.

The greatest feeling of community that we had was during the evening walk when formation training was supplemented with the basics of military singing. We picked the song ourselves and started with Div’ dūjiņas (“Two doves”), which the instructors thought was too doleful for keeping up military spirits but nevertheless accepted. We sang it at the top of our lungs, but another song was to become the hit of our platoon – a song that our fire team instructor tipped us about. It’s about a Latvian infantryman and the instructor’s unit had made it up: “Mommy, would you look at that? / After the march, my legs are squashed / There rises the infantry sun / Wet in the flesh but not the spirit, for once / Hail thee, infantryman / My favourite countryman”. We took such a wild liking to it that we shouted the song as our fire team walked in between lessons. After a few days of heartfelt shouting my voice was so worn I couldn’t even whisper. But the emotion was strong; we were sometimes moved to tears when our platoon was able to find perfect harmony in stride, voice and spirit.

My eyes didn’t stay dry during oath-taking ceremony too. That’s what chaplains are tasked to do, and they do their job well, even though their clichéd utterances wouldn’t work half as well were it not for the overall atmosphere.

But as I was standing shoulder to shoulder with the comrades I just met, looking at Mother Latvia with an automatic rifle clinched in my hands, the chaplain’s clichés, filled as they were with flourishing pathos and pathos, suddenly came to life and even materialised. The responsibility and duty he invoked no longer referred to an abstract unity but to us who stood there. Of course, not everyone was as sensitive. After the ceremony, we quickly returned to our baseline humour. But, for a moment at least, the air was pregnant with an unspeakable impulse of spiritual energy.  

I’ve saved the best for last, as is customary. The “woods” actually turned out to be a training site surrounded by lush pines and oak trees. The rain came, as promised, but, of course, just as we were pitching our tents and putting the camp in order, and when we had to do the night rounds. In an instant, all the equipment, the gun and the uniform was covered in wet sand. Sand is the leitmotif for the entire final week. It got everywhere. Under your clothes, in shoes and your hair, and even your digestive tract as the food, too, seemed to have been sprinkled with sand. Comrade Heat returned as well. Meanwhile the workload kept growing. Firing and movement training took place in the forest – this includes the two things I mentioned, namely shooting blanks until your ears are ringing, and running lightning-speed across ditches and mounds towards total victory or – the opposite – a retreat even quicker than lightning. Thankfully, no one broke anything. But it’s not as if we went entirely without trauma.

On the night before the concluding exam we had an emergency drill, which wouldn’t have been anything tragic if I hadn’t bruised my elbow as I rushed through the dark. It started swelling rapidly and pain shot through my body, but there was no time for surrender as there were only 24 hours to go. We went into the woods and set up a patrol base. The fever got to me steadily, but the countdown was already flashing in front of my eyes, just like the red digits running across a display of explosives. Sleeplessness and exhaustion made me paranoid, it was clear that we would be attacked on the final night. We had two people doing guard duty so that everyone has a chance to sleep, but we decided to guard all the positions with a rotation every half an hour. Of course, no one did attack but our sleep was completely botched. The sergeant nevertheless arrived at seven a.m. and took us to an ambush place for the chief part of our exam. We dug deep into the moss and lead an immobile existence until the signal would sound.

A veritable zoetrope ran through my head, while the elbow reminded me of itself with small, insistent pulses of pain, as if a woodpecker were busy with my arm. To cheer myself on, I thought about what the instructor of our fire team had said – that he had marched for 30 kilometres with a broken leg after bandaging it with tape. Shots were rattling and the enemy destroyed successfully. Nevertheless the sergeant had a surprise in store for us. An imaginary grenade wounded the other instructor and we had to take him to the patrol base. “This is it. One last job,” as they say in the movies. Everyone was shouting at one another and the sergeant’s voice rose above all. Surprisingly, we managed to put together the stretched. Surprisingly, we managed to put a pressure bandage on the wound. Surprisingly, we were able to quickly fill up and cover our defensive positions with moss.

Thus began the long-awaited and fabled Golgotha – a march after which the camp would end, and the National Guard who’ve undergone basic training would be handed their berets. But we had to get to there. The road ahead of us wasn’t long, likely a few kilometres in lieu of the traditional twenty. But our “wounded comrade” and his equipment, which we also had to carry, made us feel the theory of relativity of time in practice.

The sergeant, marching ahead of us, made full use of surrounding terrain, and so the march turned into a dynamic mountain hike with elements of an obstacle course. As we arrived to our destination – the evacuation point – I had so little strength left I could not drink.

But the greatest blow was still ahead of us. As we returned to our jokes and relaxed, one of the mid-life guys fainted. Now we had a real injured person; it was no simulation.

Jānis was carried away on the same stretcher on which the corporal, our previous “casualty”, slept cosily earlier. Later we would learn that it turned out well but that he had to stay at the hospital to recover from dehydration. We strolled down the hill for our berets, singing the song about the Latvian infantryman.

Back in the camp, one of the attractive department C corporals was there to greet us.

“So, how was the camp? Ain’t worth shit, innit?” he laughed. Jānis, who had fainted, was still before my eyes. The swollen arm pulsed all the way through my brain. But I managed to form my lips into a smile. I joined the others in saying, “Of course. Zero f***s were given.”

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