The author of this article is a former soldier and now a volunteer who has been through hot spots in Serbia, Kosovo, Nigeria, Congo and now Ukraine. This is his life experience, which may be of interest to many!
It’s a beautiful summer day and what a day to get enlisted and to undergo a medical and mental check to determine if I will be drafted. 18 months duty, no one is looking forward to it in peace time let alone in a country that is invaded. In a final conversation with an officer asking where my interests are. Well, definitely not the army and neither am I interested in serving 18 months.
The officer frowned. He offered me to do 12 months instead of 18. Showed a leaflet of beaches and people windsurfing. I had to sign a document to volunteer to go to a war zone. 6 months training and 6 months tour of duty. At the time no clue that this was a life changing decision. But what the heck, 6 months less!
Leaving the building I look around, it’s a huge pre second world war building. Obviously had seen better times. A building that gives one an eerie feeling. Coming out of my thoughts looking out the window.
How different is this in Ukraine? Young man being drafted to undergo training and facing a battle to life and death. No army officer asking what your interests are. No questions asked. Its’s war time. How does that look from a perspective of a 19-year-old? Or a young man who just started his family. A gruesome perspective. And no document to state it’s only 12 months.
Northern Europe wasn’t exposed to war for decades. May 1945 ended the second world war. My grandparents weren’t a rich source on events in the war. It was something they wanted to forget. By then generations had a life in peace. War was far away. And not a discussion. Neither did I realize what a war was. And I was about to find out. The hard way.
The day came to report to base, my new home for the next 6 months. Some form of organized chaos got us our uniforms and a bag of all the stuff a soldier needs, including an uncomfortable pair of boots.
Training! We received some first information on where our tour of duty was located, and what was expected from us. It turned out we got a short version of what these days would be called marines training. It was physically demanding, let`s say very demanding. And soon there was a discharge of volunteers who deed not meet the physical criteria.
The following part of training was weapons. Months of training. Shooting ranges, taking weapons apart blindfolded and return them to working order in a restricted time frame. Failing it and you would be gone. The training became harder and harder. The training went more to a reality on what war means. Combat training, or at least an attempt to get close to reality. Firing blinds. And practice with real hand grenades, firing mortars, and smaller anti-tank weapons.
It is the same Infantry training Ukrainian forces get. And here Ukrainian forces get trained abroad. Special forces training them. Tensions building up when the training nears its end. Friends have been made. Especially when people get close. It’s a heart-breaking scene when trainees and trainer part ways. Phone numbers are exchanged. Where trainers know there is only a slim chance the trainees survive. This is going on in various countries.
Most of us know combat from TV movies. There is a general idea what it means. Until you actually face combat on the front and realize it’s no longer a movie. Here we enter a new arena and a new realm. I will come back to it later. No one is going from a training and being dumped in a combat zone. Russians do, but Russia is by no standard an army by all means. Russia sends bodies. A different concept that by now is a proven fail. At a terrible cost on account of Russian mothers.
There is a routine before a soldier reaches the front. After an intense training the soldier gets a short break to see his family. Able to rest in the comfort of his family. He will be expected to report to his unit after his break. And will meet new faces. In many occasions these new faces had a break also. These new faces are the ones that came from the front and are battle hardened. And training and practicing starts again.
Motivation and the will to fight and form a band of brothers. Each Company and platoon get briefed on their missions. I am sure the new faces turned to new friends, guardians and fathers over their inexperienced friends. They have been through this before. And go to a new tour. Main driver and focus? Bring every one home. And we all know this is not a reality. And so do soldiers.
There are moments of silence where thoughts wander off to loved ones and family. Each individual processes this in a different way. The pressure builds up. To subside in the waiting before all hell breaks loose. My mind is going back to my short leave. My mother`s wish was to participate in a 4 day cycling event so she had time with me before I was sent off. Although she was proud her son volunteered, there was a risk she wouldn’t see me again.
And then it was time to go. It`s sort of human when in the moment of goodbye words fail. What do you say? Before I left, I found the time to visit a florist. And made a hand written card to be attached to the flowers to be delivered 2 days after I left. My sister told me later she was emotional when the flowers arrived. I wrote on the card: “Don’t worry, I’ll make it back”. And I did deliver on that promise. I was lucky.
The moment arrives when soldiers are going on a mission. Trained enough and ready to enter hell`s gate. Even though you’re sitting in an armored vehicle? The moment a mortar hits the ground next to it you’ll hear the impact of fragments on the armor. And if close enough your ears singing. To be followed by exiting your armored vehicle and adrenaline rushing.
First battle, being it clearing trenches, attacking into forest lines, hills, rivers and so on. Where ever the enemy sits. When firing is close enough, you’ll hear bullets passing. When you hear a distinct “plop” sound one of your comrades is hit.
When we see Telegram movies it doesn’t reflect the real noise. Hand grenades used will make different sounds. And if used? We are talking about close combat. There is a word for your first exposure to enemy fire. It`s called your baptism of fire. You will be pooping your pants. Your brain will get used to it and long-term exposure doesn’t make you dive anymore when shot are fired. The moments you’ll go through are intense.
Leaving the war theater when a battle is won, or the fighting seized? Back in your armor and gathered with your comrades, there can be mixed reactions and emotions. Mostly first a silence. When it was successful? There will be cheers. And a first mourn of your comrades that didn’t make it back in one piece.
And so, will the days continue. Until the moment your up for leave. You will be going to your family as a different person. Scared, bruised and battered. It`s not physically demanding, the mind suffers in processing all the motions and emotions you went through. Debriefing is crucial. And the learnings.
Some, the ones like me will take an opportunity to make the enemy suffer. Yes, you want a kill shot. But what if you are in the position to hurt them seriously first and then the kill shot? When you experience the loss of comrades? It starts to get brutal. And you want to make them suffer. Humanity will wear off. War has no winners. The most disciplined will make POW’s. if they can. But wait for the moment they say “Surrender” and shoot or throw a grenade.
Mortar fire is one of the other delights. Own mortar support can be hazardous when asked for mortar support on the front. Radio’s have their awkward behaviors, when co-ordinates are poorly received. You can hear the mortar fire and the shell coming in. Hopefully landing at the co-ordinates and distance. We had one of our own hitting very close by. When there are enemy mortars? Well, after 3 rounds you’ll have a fair idea where the next few will be landing.
Another phenomenon is light tracing bullets. Mostly used longer range by machine gun. Nice to see where it`s going, but it reveals one1s position. Well trained orcs could give you a hell of ride when they know your location. And then - drones. In use for over 40 years. Our gunny had to privilege to shoot one out of the air. It looked like a small version of a Cessna. Infrared camera attached to it. Obviously, a surveillance bird.
The war will end. Like any war does. And the moment you go home... How life changing was the event? Well for me? I went back to a developed society who have little veterans. Try to deal with developed society from one minute to the other coming off the battle field. I struggled. It took me a long time to channel the anger and all the emotions and scars from the war.
These days there is proper guidance. To get you back and find your place in society. You will be definitely different then people who did not have this experience. I had to find my own way back into society and find my place. There was some abuse of substances. By now decades ago.
In later life the experience made it easy to deal with conflicted countries, and there are plenty of them. My profession brings me to these countries and I still enjoy it when circumstances are difficult. I don’t mind when there are shoot outs. Most extreme forms of it are street fights where bullets flying in to an air conditioner or a window in a hotel room. Been there, seen it.
My children know I am a veteran, a tattoo of my unit and my beret is sitting on a glass scull in the living room, these are the reminders. And some bronze in recognition of serving. We have a saying in my country: “You don’t recognize a veteran.” It left me with caring for people`s wellbeing. And I do volunteer for the Red Cross driving trucks into war zones. Not for the thrill, but to help people who suffer the war. Humanitarian aid.
For whom is it that I wrote ? An audience who never experienced war. For those who like me served and found a band of brothers. Time heals all wounds. With the war in Ukraine I am reminded of a past I would like to forget.
“We forget the moments and only remember the days”
Dedicated to the band of brothers fighting at the front and those who are no longer with us
Author: Mad Mango