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Monday, May 5, 2014

OCS Stress

People have asked me if OCS is tough, stressful.... I can only tell them of my own experience. Each generation go through different aspects of the SAF (it's always evolving in both approach and practice; recruits also differ in background and generational gap) and mine was rather unusual in retrospect. I had a platoon commander and platoon sergeant who ran things rather differently. 

But in general I would say OCS training was tough. Tough on limbs, tough on sleep, tough on schedule. There were just too many things to learn and later, to practice over. There's also the physical aspect: officers are expected to be fitter than the men they eventually command. I am, of course, referring to the infantry officer and his foot soldiers.

With so much happening within that nine months of OCS training, things sure got pretty interesting and challenging. Fortunately for us, our PC and PS did not add more stress with their unreasonable demands, you know, demands such as late-night turnouts and other such "buggerations" (popular Army term for 'inconveniences'). For many in OCS then, that was a way of life especially so during the early part of Senior Term. Being turned out at 3 am in the morning in full battle order (FBO) and be taken out for a run up Penkang Hill or to the Water Pump Station (places that were just outside the Pasir Laba SAFTI camp) was rather frequent (I think one platoon in Charlie Company - ran by a PC Martin after my batch - got it worse).

My platoon mates and I could count ourselves lucky to be spared that mostly. The end result was that we did not get laid-up unnecessarily and hence, got more sleep. Our PC also kept his word to let us manage ourselves as long as we did not make him lose face. It was that simple. Rather cina but effective! ("Cina" = old fashioned Chinese)

As a result we remained very self-motivated and never made him "malu". And the beauty of it all was that we did eventually outperform the other two so-called superior "white horse" platoons in our cadet company - sweeping up all the OCS graduation prizes on offer, even the coveted Sword of Honour. (Note: "White horse" to mean the princeling sons of ministers and other VVIPs in the government).

I think no cadet during our time wanted special VIP treatment (most were self-conscious about it anyways), but try telling that to his platoon commander. Do these officers want their careers to be "hentak-kakied" (Malay, for marking spot) if something happened to their special charges? I think not. Not even in fair-thinking Singapore. 


In my own cadet company, there was a platoon of government scholars. And over at same-batch Foxtrot Company (down the road) was Philip, the son of thorn-in-the-PAP-backside opposition politician JB Jeyaratnam. A buddy told me that Phil was a nice guy and stayed under the radar most of the time when he was at OCS. It helped that he looked like a harmless teddy bear in real life.

During my time, the officer cadet training was still under the Tactics Team instructor system. We graduated and became OCS' first new mentors. The Mentor instructor system certainly changed the dynamics of training in OCS. But was it for the better?

Maybe.

My fellow would-be instructors and I discussed this at length during our OCS Instructor Preparatory Course (IPC), which started in January right after our POP in December. The Mentor system was, after all, a major change to SAF pedagogy and life in OCS.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the IPC midway to join a conversion course at Gillman Camp in order to be able to teach Demolition later in OCS. For three months after, a buddy and I were actually taught a compressed Combat Engineering course. At the end of it all, we did not get to wear the blue beret of the Combat Engineers but retained our own green infantry ones. I was relieved. I still wanted to be an infantry officer despite learning all those additional vocational skills (which I felt was a bonus, especially the in-depth training in handling booby traps, operating those Caterpillar earthmovers and various other plants such as backhoes and bulldozers, and also picking up skills in bridge building (a fave was the old wooden ones!)

Maybe because our generation was better read or brought up differently, I just knew the new Mentors would do a better job than those TT instructors who were more like barkers than teachers out to give back 20% more lousy treatment than they themselves got during their own cadet time.

But fitness aside, the pressure one felt as a cadet in OCS came primarily from three main sources: 1) Appointment Time; 2) Major Exercises; 3) Topography, or Topo.

1) Appointment Time
- A chance for a cadet to shine

We cadets all took turns with on some kind of Admin or Field appointment. Admin appointments had to do with those that ran barrack life. The ranks given were similar to those from the field, namely OC, CSM, PC, PS, SC and Armskoteman. 

Field appointments on the other hand were to test combat leadership or deployment skills under battleground conditions. Field appointments were mostly at PC, PS and SC levels. Come company-level exercise time, our cadet company career PCs (like our own Platoon 10 PC Capt Ang) would rotate to take on the OC role. The rest of us cadet PC appointment holders would then role-play as his exercise platoon commanders as per "estab" (term for army hierarchy). 

Needless to say everybody wanted to do well with either appointment types.... more so during field exercises. After all, we were in OCS to be trained as field unit platoon commanders rather than the admin one. But graduating cadets who were deemed good in organisation were often kept back as instructors and then appointed as barrack TCOs or training coordinating officers. My own platoon mate Danny Lee was one such case. 

TCOs were assigned to a cadet company to help coordinate training matters as well as act as the company's OC PA. He's often the "go to" guy to get things done: stores, equipment, training locations, etc. In many ways, he was more 2-IC than the actual 2-IC of a cadet company which was officially held on by one of the company's three career PCs.

2) Major Exercises 
- These test field leadership and deployment skills

My own field test was rather straightforward. I led my cadet platoon on a patrol that got waylaid along the way. An enemy section shot at us from a hilltop. I had to react and neutralise that threat. So, as per normal, I sent a section of men to do a flanking movement to set up a fire support base. The rest then carefully edged up frontal to engage the enemy. As the enemy force was small, the firefight was soon over. Too quick, I thought, so did my PC Capt Ang. And he also wondered why I was taking it all so easy. He gave me that "can-you-be-more-serious" look. 

My problem had always been that these tests were mostly simulations. And given that a training area was often so overused, it was indeed hard to pretend to be truly alarmed and innovative when executing a maneuver. You see a familiar spot and you almost always expect something is going to happen. (Another way was to judge how much time had passed into the exercise) Anyway, these test scenarios were not very sophisticated to begin with. Flank, provide suppression fire, frontal forces advance, that's it. It was child's play mostly.

Also, the grounds for such tests would always be in a rubber plantation with a well-worn dirt track or something of that sort. That was how it always seemed to me after umpteenth times crisscrossing the same patch of pretend real estate.

Local army training without being in a rubber plantation is like swim training without a pool. It had always been that way, and still is.

Because of my rather casual approach to the first field exercise, I was given a second tougher one. It couldn't get any worse than leading a night assault crossing both land and sea. It ended with a FIBUA attack inland that had nothing to do with pretty damsels in distress. That's how we psyched ourselves after making the initial landing in knee-deep mud (who planned the damn thing for low-tide?!). Yeah, not much fun leading an attack as if your feet were leaden with midgets clinging on to them. Midgets that smelt of kampung latrines even.

Actually the hard part was the sea topo under partial moonlight. But after I landed the platoon at the right spot, I relaxed and enjoyed the next bit: the attack. Which brings me to the next point.

3) Topo
- Learning to use map and compass

Topo, short for topography, was one exercise we cadets dreaded. A chief requirement of an officer has always been the ability to lead his men accurately from Point A to Point B. If you cannot even do that, then it is better to lead a typewriter (or photocopier) in an office.

Often, a topo would start from an assembly area to the forward rendezvous or RV point. Then onwards to the forward form-up area or FUP. 

In our day, there was no GPS equipment as standard SOP. We were "old school" and managed with a map and compass. These days, with GPS so prevalent, I wonder if cadets suffer from MOD or map orientation disorder. I think the compass is the one thing that will outlive us all - even iPhone version 1001!

You know, I would really hate it if I became too dependent on GPS. And it is only good if there's no cloud cover. These days we get over that problem by triangulating with telco towers. I don't think army issued GPS direction-finders have a SIM card in them.

One of our very first OCS topo exercise involved finding out our "natural drift tendency" or NDT. Did you know that we don't all walk in a straight line when our eyes are closed? We tend to drift left or right, or in circles (as demonstrated hilariously in one episode of Myth Busters).

By knowing your NDT you can compensate when travelling through real terrain from point A to point B. (Notice how we sometimes take shortcuts with a left or right preference? If we go clockwise, we would always choose that direction even on the return path. That's directional bias for you! And that is why most people get lost in the woods.)

So, NDT can seriously impair your direction going anywhere or cause you to miscount your steps. If you add steep inclines or slopes to the equation, then your bias would become even more amplified.

Most topo sessions in the army happen at night. The reason is to use the cover of darkness to conceal movement. As such, our topo sessions/exercises almost always ended around the wee hours of the morning. By the time debriefing was over, it would be near 8 o'clock and after a shower and some hurried breakfast, it would be lesson time again at 9 or 10 am! That is why OCS can be tough: not getting enough sleep!

Topo sessions for us had many memorable moments. We laughed, joked, and worried about getting lost or bumping into instructors determined to catch us for not being discreet. Or find fault with us for using unauthorized routes and shortcuts such as the highway in Taiwan, which was very often emphasized as a major "no go" zone).

On my own, I could move pretty fast and could find my way without any problem. But with a platoon of men, the task then become slower. I had to adjust my own natural cadence to suit my men. For me, that was a huge concession. It's akin to asking me to think or speak slower.

My way of dealing with that was to set landmarks and milestones. Fortunately, I'd always gotten both my men and mission on target. Fellow cadets would even ask me to topo when I played the secondary role of a section commander. Anyway, the topo task would usually fall on the lead-section head of the platoon. The PC would just check his map from time to time to make sure all was going well.


Topo skill was thus a "You scratch my back I scratch yours" kind of goodwill barter during Appointment Time.

Oh yes, topo had to be the one OCS exercise that we cadets argued over the most. Which way to go, did we get the coordinates right, landmarks, tracks, intersections, streams, etc. In the end, it is often the guy with the best track record that wins. And of course, there are ways to check if a topo journey is going well or not.

Besides drama, our topo journeys always ended with a prayer that nothing got lost along the way. If that happened, we could kiss going back to camp on time. Everybody then had to pitch in to go search for that darn missing item!

Drama:


- Bashing. As a cadet, I remember vividly leading my platoon to an ambush position through the Mandai jungle. We ended up at the top of an embankment overlooking a service road. Topoing through the jungles of Mandai is never pleasant. The place is hilly and often blocked by plant life such as trees, shrubs and ferns. It is also full of those whippy, prickly Nipa palm shrubs that are evil reincarnate. Its stem is full of needle-sharp spines. We nicknamed them "wait-awhiles" because those sinister spines would always hook onto our uniforms as we brushed past. We'd have no choice but to stop and pause.

Then there were the penthouse ant nests hiding unsuspectingly above in the creepers and trees. Bash your way through carelessly and you could be showered with a mess of angry red biters. 

In our platoon, it happened a few times to a guy named Willie. He's a nice chap but rather gruff; and often too eager in his tasks (Commando-type, if you know what I mean). In a jungle like Mandai, you really have to watch your front and not bash nilly-willy as if clearing a corn field.

It became especially hazardous at night. But at night, for the sake of quietness, we were naturally more careful. Thus the dangers from hive insects were much less.

The other nuisance were ferns. Because of their shrub height and abundance, they carried much dew and made our uniforms super wet (not to mention the rifle, SBO webbing, etc., getting damn as well). Ferns were also known to us as "nature's pickpockets". They would 'steal' attached personal things such as bayonets, toggle ropes, maps and stuff in our pant side pockets.

We also had to make very sure that our pants were pulled over boots properly so that fern spores and leaves would not find their way inside.

- Snakes. In all my months of army training, I had never come across one in the forest nor jungle. Thank goodness for that! (Perhaps they were all trampled to death or scared away by a previous cohort of trainees, haha.) After a few thousand footfalls each year, any self-respecting creature would set up home far away from 'Orchard Road'! This brings be to the next point:

- Overworked training areas. A case in point were the shellscrapes (a shallow ditch) we had to dig as a precaution against artillery shelling. After the umpteenth exercise, the ground couldn't yield anymore fresh spots to dig at. It was both very frustrating and infuriating; disgusting even, when new spots turned out to be full of white-tape and assorted rubbish or even latrine smells! 

- Losing things. Yup, folks would always lose things while topo-ing. So check your personal items or barang-barang after going some distance or after bashing through an area thick with ferns and brambles. Chances are, some of your personal stuff will be caught and hung up somewhere like a Christmas ornament. As a precaution, we would "blackstring" and "blacktape" everything before setting out so that every loose object was tethered to our SBO or uniform (to the button eyeholes no less). We also rubberbanded down everything else neat and tight!

The important stuff we tried not to lose, stuff like bayonets, maps and prismatic compasses. These items were classed as a security risk. Besides, a brass prismatic compass alone cost USD$300+ upwards. Who would want to sign 1206 for that?

Thinking about my NS topo adventures reminded me of a funny incident. It happened during reservist on Pulau Tekong. I was hitching a ride with some doctors travelling in a few field ambulances and they were supposed to head to a certain location. However, after travelling for some time, the whole group got hopelessly lost. That the doctors had a GPS gadget on them (given on trial) did not help. We later found out why: those doctors did not even know how to orientate their maps to its cardinal points. They handed their maps like tourists and got hopelessly lost. All the time I was sitting behind looking bemused and thinking how qualified doctors could be so dumb. A good thing then that we were not travelling on foot or else we would be going around in circles!

- Best topo. I think the best topo must be the ones conducted in Taiwan - a place I found to be very scenic and nice. Sure, their mountains are big and tall and far apart, but the compensation of great views, cool air, fresh fruit availability plus the occasional village shop instant noodle serving... makes up for all the sweat and blunder.

And topo-ing as a group is always fun if not eventful. During one topo exercise, we cadets actually ganged up to move together. We ended up having a delightful fruit party under a pomelo tree that was Amy Yip abundant. That story is here.

So, yes, the short answer is that OCS training is tough. However, just remember that the people before you probably had it tougher. Before my cadet time, recruits and cadets were treated as nobodies and subjected to the whims and fancies of instructors and platoon commanders - the same folks who took cues from their own tough training. You must remember: in those old days, physical abuse was rife and punishment dished out nilly-willy. Suicide in unit camps was not all that uncommon (which was why my batch benefited).

In the end, all arduous training is just mental. My own drive to succeed in OCS was witnessing this asshole of an officer during BMT. If that scumbag could be an officer, I told myself I could be an even better one with greater virtues and man-management skills. Above all else, officers cannot be sadists and meanies. What kind of example are they setting to the lower ranks? You can be tough, but you have to be fair.

In war, you win some and you lose some. And it is always good to live to fight another day. Your men put their lives in your hands. They are not just attrition stats. Teach and train them to fight well as a soldier, as a group, as a unit. Remember, the stress you get at OCS is unreal compared to real-time firefight scenarios. More likely, folks will hunker down and refuse to budge once the bullets start zinging everywhere. How are you and your men going to manage then?

I know, some commanders think the stress you feel at OCS is supposed to make you capable. But all I get from it is "jump when you are told". I don't find it remotely useful to real-time battle conditions other then "don't give up." They should have taught the more strategic "How to take down your enemy in 101 Ways". Fight like a tiger, live like a rat, was the Vietcong's success formula. One wonders how they trained their officers and what stress they put them through at their OCS back then. Or even now!

Also understand the military tradition and why it is there and improve it some more. That has always been my motto. And OCS is a great place to start!

Afternote: Notice that I did not put physical fitness as a stress factor. I was already fit going into BMT (I had been a school badminton player since P2) but because of a mad dog PC during those three BMT months (see another post), me and my mates became super fit. What OCS dished out to us during Junior Term was "no spiak" to us from Echo Company Platon 17 (ITD Sembawang Camp). We cruised through it without sweat! 

Playing competitive badminton most of my life (and also practising martial arts) certainly conditioned my body and mind well for NS. It does pay to have good core stamina and strength. For everything else, a good sense of humour and comradeship are just as important. Friends you make during OCS can easily be your best buddies in later life.

Bon voyage and enjoy your 'extended' adventure camp! At the end of it all, learn something. And know that all pain is but temporary. As is that stinky field camp uniform! ;-)

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