Saturday, 26 April 2008

Joining up

Australia has a population of around 20 million. How many of those alive today have served in the armed forces? Given that there are only 51,000 in uniform now (with another 19,000 in the reserves), I would estimate that less than half a million have ever put on a uniform. At present, the ADF needs to recruit 6,500 people per year to maintain current manning levels. If we were to assume that resignations/recruiting had stayed at this level for 50 years, then around 300,000 people would have passed through the military.

So let's assume 500,000 out of 20 million. That's 2.5% of the population. So 97.5% of Australians have little or no idea how the military functions, and what it is like to serve.

I joined the Army Reserve (ARES) in 1985 and resigned in 1991. From now on, when I feel like it, I'm going to write about what it was like to serve as a choco in peacetime (choco, as in chocolate soldier - one that melts in the sun). Many people have written about their combat experiences in many wars, but I don't know of anyone that has written about going nowhere and doing nothing. I doubt it would sell too many copies. A blog however is perfect for telling useless stories about non-events that happened a long time ago.

Why did I join?

Fucked if I know really. I didn't really know at the time, and I still don't know. I told the recruiter a few lies, which he accepted, so it never really mattered to me why I did it. The only reason that ever comes close is simple - duty. If that word strikes a chord with you, then you'll understand why I chose to put on a uniform. If you're scratching your armpit and trying to figure out what duty means (it is not cheap grog that you buy on the way back from Bali), then I am not going to waste my keyboard springs in trying to explain it.

Let's just accept duty and move on.

I really should have joined the Naval Reserve, since Dad was a sailor in WWII. However, a mate at Uni was in the Army Reserve, so that's where I went (thanks Paul). He was doing OCTU (officer training), which sounded like an awful lot of hard work, so I joined as a grunt. Silly bloody decision really - officers have a nicer boozer - but if you're not prepared to put the work in, you don't deserve the pips (officers rank is denoted by the pips they wear on their shoulders).

Joining up was a relatively straightforward exercise, but it was daunting enough that very few people do it each year. Since I was at uni, the only suitable regiment for me was the Uni Regiment, WAUR. That was because it was the only unit in WA that didn't hold exercises during the university term - and especially during exam times. It might have been a bit inconvenient to have to ask a lecturer (most of whom were rabid lefties) for an extension on an assignment because I had to go on an exercise with the US Marines or some such thing. So I made a few inquiries and went along to WAUR.

After showing a bit of interest in joining, I was invited to visit the barracks on a Tuesday night to view what happened when the unit paraded. By "parade", I don't mean that everyone spent all night marching around in formation going left turn-right turn-halt etc etc. Everyone would show up by the appointed time, which I think was 7pm, a short assembly would be held (the parade) and then everyone was dismissed to get on with whatever was on their training program for the night. Signallers might practice radio stuff. Medics would kiss plastic dolls. The actual fighting soldiers might sit around scratching their arses until it was knock off time. We probably got shown a few rifles and a spade and that was that. Everyone would be assembled again, dismissed and then it was off to the boozer for a few beers before going home around 11pm to midnight.

It didn't seem that arduous. Kind of like a grown-up version of boy scouts.

At the time, WAUR was located in an old wooden building in the middle of Perth. Parking there was an absolute bastard, and it was crowded, noisy and possibly falling to bits. But it was the home of the regiment, and like military formations everywhere, the boys had done their bit to spruce it up as best as possible.

But it was still a dump. Back then, Labor was in power and defence was not high on the spending priority list. The Air Force and Navy got all the money and the fun kit, whilst the Army got by on scraps. The Regular Army got first dibs at funds and new stuff, then the "active" reserve units got what was left over. WAUR got what was left over from that. We were not just the poor relations. We were the poor relations from the boondocks - the type that marries your first cousin and keeps the farm animals in the lounge room.

But they had rifles - things that go bang. And they had machine guns - things that go bang-bang-bang, and that was enough for me.

The formal part of the process was that after doing a bit of paperwork to establish who I was (laughable by todays standards - it's more difficult to open an account at a video shop than it was to join the Army), I was told to report to Karrakatta Barracks on a Saturday or Sunday morning to go through a bunch of medical and psychological tests.

I have no idea what day it was that I attended. I know it was a weekend, because I got blotto the night before, so it had to be a morning after the night before. I have no idea how I got to the appointed screening depot at 7am, or whenever it was we were supposed to arrive. It was early in the morning, and I was still half cut. I might have had a nap on the lawn out the front, along with several other potential recruits that had also had a big night out. I do know that I was lying on the ground when a car came skidding through the gravel car park and crunched into the coppers log fence not far from us. Another drunk disembarked, staggered over to the trees and vomited copiously. That set off one of my fellow lawn recliners, who also had a chuck.

By the time the medical staff opened the doors to commence examining us, there were possibly 30 young men flaked out on the lawn, with a variety of crappy old cars parked at odd angles throughout the car park. I guess they figured that if we had made it that far, and could put up with sleeping on the dewy ground, then we were fit for service.

I remember having to do the usual strip naked thing in order to be poked by a doctor. What was possibly unusual about my exam is that I threw up in his rubbish bin - stark naked and all that. I spent the rest of the morning carrying that bin around - clutching it to my chest actually - as I continued to vomit up beer, vodka and other hideous drinks, as well as bits of Whopper and chips. I was not the only one.

We had to do a multiple choice psych exam, which was so easy, you'd have to be absolutely mental not to fake it through. A few of the questions were interesting:

- do you wet your bed?

- if you get to the top of a tall building, do you feel like jumping off?

- do you wake up feeling refreshed in the morning?

I distinctly remember the last question because I answered "no" to it. It was the only question out of 100 that I got wrong. The shrink asked me why I gave that answer. He wanted to know as the 13 blokes before me had given the same response.

I pointed to all the drunks currently sprawled over chairs in the waiting area, snoring and farting and occasionally vomiting into a bin. I gave him my best bloodshot eyes look over the rim of the rubbish bin that I was clutching, and explained that I had been to several pubs the night before, then gone to a nightclub, and had left that club at 6.30am to attend this induction. The only sleep I'd had was on some wet grass out the front of his office.

He seemed rather shocked by all that. I thought that since he was in the army, he'd be used to this by now, but it turned out that he was not in the army. He was a civilian quack contracted in to do a bit of weekend work. The army was as foreign to him as it was to us, and by the look he gave us, it was also quite repugnant. I get the feeling that he thought the sooner we were all mown down in some muddy hell hole, the better off the country would be.

No one failed. If we could go out drinking all night, survive on no sleep, navigate to a place we'd never been before (whilst completely pissed), and put up with 6 hours of bullshit, then we were the perfect recruits.

I have no idea what happened next. All that I know is that some time later (a few weeks perhaps?) I was attending a two week recruit camp. Somewhere along the line, I did a bit more paperwork, swore an oath and was given a list of things that I would need for recruit camp.

And there the story ends for now.

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