Duty calls

Compulsory military service can be the best of times and the worst of times.

By Le Diem. Photos: Nhu Y on April 29,2015 08:32 AM

Duty calls

Early in the morning, groups of young men gather together at their communal people’s committee with large backpacks and wave goodbye to their families. Today their life will change, for a year and a half at least, as they become military conscripts.

With two call-ups a year, every Vietnamese male from 18 to 25 is required to join the military for 18 months to complete his national service. Despite being, in theory, compulsory, many young men are excluded or exempted, including those in poor health, sole family breadwinners, those with a sibling already in the military, those living in difficult-to-access regions such as mountainous areas or islands, and those undertaking scientific research or studying at national schools, colleges and universities.

Those who aren’t excluded or exempted are required to serve or will face fines or even a spell behind bars of three months to two years, depending on the circumstances. To new recruits, a new life awaits with many unforgettable memories to come, especially the first three months of basic training.

Innocent recruits

The first thing recruits must become accustomed to is rising at 5am every morning, which can be difficult for those used to staying up late playing computer games or chasing after girls. The rigours of their new days, however, mean it’s quickly a case of ‘early to bed, early to rise’.

Another early lesson is the apparent importance of folding their blankets in just the right way. ‘I remember blanket folding as being quite a significant event, because pretty much all of us ended up missing lunch at some point for not doing it properly,’ said former conscript Ngoc Duong. ‘Those that repeatedly failed were made to clean the communal toilets; the worst punishment imaginable.’

After rising and folding, the soldiers then gather into their squads to sing the national anthem and take their morning exercise. After breakfast, at 7am, they then complete some basic infantry drills, such as hand-to-hand combat, rifle disassembly and assembly, and target practice, with a little political indoctrination thrown in, finishing at 11am. After lunch are more drills, from 1.30pm to 5pm. After washing and dinner at 6pm, they get the luxury of watching the news on TV for an hour before final roll-call and final orders for the day. Bedtime is 9pm on the dot.

‘For the first few days I didn’t have a clue what was going on,’ said another former conscript, Hung Cuong. ‘I was told when to eat, when to sleep, and even how to walk. Like many other former soldiers I’ve got a diary full of notes and poems from those days. After the initial shock, the routine becomes quite familiar, but there’s little time to lounge around thinking.’

Despite the strict routine and severe homesickness, the young soldiers quickly became used to their new life and some even found it interesting. They made new friends and picked up many military and non-military skills.

Professional soldiers

Duty calls

After three months, recruits are then assigned to specific units and begin to receive specialist training.

Duong, for example, was assigned to a Quartermaster unit, whose everyday duties are to protect army bases and arms depots. Guns and bullets became like wives or children, as they have to take care of them every minute.

‘Infantrymen are copper legs and iron shoulders’ and ‘Scouts is a feast, Signals is a holiday’ are sayings that have been passed down from generation to generation of soldiers.

The saying for the Infantry comes about from the long-distance marches they take while carrying 30kg backpacks, infantryman Cuong explained. In the beginning it was 3 km marches, which became longer with every passing week. Eventually they would march 20 km during weekly operations, taking only two hours to do so.

Scouts, meanwhile, are often provided with the best food and facilities, because they comprise some of the army’s most hardened and respected recruits, according to Huu Diep, a Scout conscript. When the Infantry is deployed, Scouts act as the advanced guard, reconnoitring the surrounding area and providing intelligence for the Infantry units that follow.

Members of Information and Communication (Signals) units find their time occupied with learning coded communications. Lessons and practice are largely based indoors, with less emphasis on physical exertion and military exercises.

Whatever the unit, however, most former conscripts share the same unforgettable memory: night manoeuvres, which all units must undertake. When the alarm sounds, they must jump out of bed and get their kit together in just five minutes. Dragging themselves along to wherever the drill sergeant decides to take them, they then have to dig a 60-cm-deep fighting trench in only 30 minutes. ‘Despite the horrible feeling of waking up from a deep sleep, at least the night-time drills broke up the monotony of base life,’ said Diep.

Sometimes the head count taken at the end of a night manoeuvre reveals that one or two soldiers somehow didn’t make it back to camp. Diep’s squad once went through several head counts, coming up one short every time. They searched everywhere, and finally found the missing soldier deep asleep in a trench.

Mature warriors

Besides learning how to fight, raising vegetables and pigs and catching fish are also part of army life. ‘Catching fish was one of the more enjoyable things we did,’ said Cuong. ‘We’d jump into ponds inside our garrison and compete with each other to see who could catch the most fish. The fish would later appear on our table, like a trophy.’

Watering the vegetables or feeding the pigs at noon when others are enjoying lunch was a chore assigned to those who had broken regulations. Sometimes soldiers would ‘escape’ from the army base to meet girls or go drinking, knowing they would be punished upon return. Part of the fun, Duong said, was sneaking around and getting outside of the base.

But their superiors weren’t the only ones they had to answer to if they snuck out to drink or, especially, meet some local girls. Young local men are never impressed by the latter, and fights are not unknown. On one such trip outside, one of Duong’s comrades became separated as they tried to avoid an angry gang of village lads. Their superior officer put together a search party to track him down, and he was finally found hiding up a tree. It was one of the funniest moments of his army life.

Together with permitted and ‘sneaky’ entertainment, meeting and talking with non-military people is always a joy for the young conscripts. Besides sporting activities, there are often small musical events attended by other units and local people every month. ‘Back home we would have considered these things really lame, but since we were so far from home, in the middle of nowhere, we really looked forward to the opportunity to have a bit of fun and chat with local girls,’ Diep smiled.

Sometimes the joy is not enough, though, such as at Tet (Lunar New Year) or other holidays, when the conscripts feel the most homesick. They are not allowed to return home, and must make the best of their time stuck on base.

Many people worry about missing 18 months of their studies or work while in the military and what effect this may have on their career prospects. Some soldiers end up taking manual jobs after finishing their military service, mostly as security guards. However, most conscripts agree that Vietnamese men should at some point do military service. ‘I feel I’m much more mature after being in the army,’ Duong said. ‘I’m tidier and not afraid of going hungry, because I know how to catch fish and plant vegetables.’

There are mixed opinions, though, about readjusting to civilian life. There is no re-socialisation programme, and half of all recruits must wait six months before they can enter a university or vocational training college. ‘I found it hard for the first months after I returned home,’ said Cuong. ‘What I’d learned at high school seemed long distant. But now I’m studying at the National Economics University, and I’m sure I try twice as hard as the other students. My time in the military gave me patience and a work ethic, and I believe that those who have ambition and put in the effort will succeed.’

In a similar sentiment, Huy Trung, an army officer who serves in the Department of Surveying and Mapping, once opined ‘A conscript’s life is hard, but young lads soon mature in a strict military environment.’

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