Ever since PTE Lee Rui Feng Dominique Sarron passed away in an unfortunate training incident, there has been a flurry of discussions and comments. I watched first with interest, then frustration, and then finally anger. Anger that we’ve trivialized the issue. Anger that we are doubting our own in defending our home. And anger that we perhaps do not appreciate the work and sacrifice our citizen soldiers do.
It is my duty to speak out for them.
I am a Company Commander (OC) of Bravo Company, 14th Mono 4SIR, a sister battalion of 3SIR. Although I do not know the soldier personally, I can understand the loss of a soldier. Because the soldiers we have are the toughest, most motivated and most committed bunch of people I know. The things they’ve done, just like the things countless soldiers have done before, nobody will understand until they’ve been through it.
Just take the smoke grenades. My soldiers don’t just throw one. They don’t throw a few. In an urban break-in fight, they throw a BARRAGE of smoke grenades – all coordinated to create a huge smokescreen to disorientate the enemy and provide some concealment. What for? Because in a real battle, they will be charging in the face of deadly bullets, fired by enemies entrenched behind windows and mouseholes. Without fear, but with courage of a warrior. The smokes give them a fighting chance to survive. We train as we fight. Is this weak?
Our unit just came back from an training stint overseas. Part of it, was a 8-day outfield evaluation. 8 days, 3 missions, all out in the field. 1st mission – 30km tactical walk in one night, up and down undulating terrain, carrying packs up to 15kg. And at the end of it, at daybreak, violently and aggressively assaulting an objective. No rest right after that. Transit to 2nd mission of defence. 2 nights. Little sleep, watchful eyes, valiantly defending what we have captured. And 3rd mission. 20km. Mountain hook. Climbing an altitude of 500m. And then down. And at daybreak, violently fighting, again.
And in a Battalion of 500-odd soldiers, number of soldiers who gave up or fell out due to injuries? ZERO. BIG FAT ZERO. All of them had the look in their eyes. Is this weak?
And these doesn’t happen overnight. In 2 active years, they train hard for this, so that they can walk, they can last, they can fight. And in the 2 years, they do more than just train.
In Homeland Security, for 4 weeks over Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year, Chinese New Year, while the rest of us celebrate, our soldiers stood guard in Jurong Island, Changi Airport and Sembawang Wharves. Live 5.56mm rounds in magazines. Live 7.62mm rounds on MGs, mounted on patrol vehicles. With watchful eyes, they deterred any aggressive action in the economic and strategic centres of our country. And 24/7 our citizen soldiers are always there. Is this weak?
Our soldiers participated in bilateral exercises with our neighbours, promoting friendly relations and peace. They stood shoulder to shoulder with professional armies, and guess what? Our citizen soldiers impressed. Is this weak?
Our soldiers went on standby. In short notice, they will be weapons drawn, ammunition loaded, vehicles out, ready to respond to any call of duty the nation requires. Yes, Mas Selamat and a Tekong robber was probably the highlights in the last decade. But do we want more to happen? Are we glad our soldiers can respond, even to the smallest threat to our nation? And 24/7, citizen soldiers stand by, ready to respond, while the rest of us sleep. Is this weak?
Do not be mistaken. Our training is tough. There are always risks involved in training to fight. To say we can erase the risks is to say lets train a paper tiger, an Army with no aggression, an Army that cannot last, an Army that cannot defend. But what we do is to mitigate and minimize these risks. Have the safety systems in place. Train progressively. Condition the body. And most importantly, take care of our people. But the risks will not disappear. This is the cost our society needs to pay for its own defence and survival. Are we prepared to continuing saying yes, or hide behind our cowardice and pray someone will save us one day?
Are there near-misses, definitely. I was in Officer Cadet School before this, training Officers, training leaders. The training is tough, because we need to ensure these young boys can lead, and these young boys will never give up in adversity. I will always remember G, who collapsed during training despite our watchful eyes. I will never forget the safety rover speeding and swerving through traffic to get him to a doctor. I will never forget his eyes opening and closing, his speech slurring, his body shaking. I will never forget holding his hand, keeping a strong face, and keeping him awake. I will never forget in desperation to get him to respond, I recited the Officer’s Creed. And I will never forget, in his semi-conscious state – he repeated – “I am… an Officer… of the Singapore Armed Forces… My duty… is to lead… to excel… to overcome… I lead my men… by example… I dedicated… my life… to Singapore…”
G commissioned, became a Platoon Commander, and was a great leader of men. Is this weak?
G, yes, Officer Cadet, but he’s not the only one with such determination. Our mono-intake soldiers – yes, some of them will try to fake injuries, malinger their way out of training. But most – I have to watch them closely not because they are faking, but I have to watch them closely, because despite injuries, these soldiers want to push on. The L9 (undeployable in field) soldier asking me whether he can go outfield. The soldier who sprained an ankle during soccer, with his leg in a cast, apologized to me for not able to train. The soldier, who on the eve of flying for overseas training had stomach ulcers and internal bleeding, asked me whether I can force his discharge from hospital so that he can fly. The soldiers, with back, knee, ankle injuries, that I have to force to sit out. There any many more stories. Is this weak?
Of course, we have our Jeremy Kos. Read it here (http://www.jeremyko.com/2012/04/staying-alive-and-injury-free-serving-the-saf/). His logic is impleccable. Why serve so hard, when you may injure yourself? Do the bare minimum, serve the two years. Flawless logic. But let me ask you, when the first shot is fired, who do you want on the frontline? Our Jeremy, who I suspect, in his flawless logic, will save his own skin first, ‘staying alive and injury-free’, or my dear G, who I suspect, with bullets lodged in his thigh, shoulder and a sharpnel to his neck, will continue to fight on. Who do you want defending your country?
That is the nature of National Service. We train hard for something we hope we never have to do. But if the button is pressed, we’d better be ready.
But why are they so silent? Why do they not speak up? Why do they allow themselves to be insulted by the minority? Because they are professional citizen soldiers. They serve, so they do not boast. They do what the nation requires of them. They, our citizen soldiers, go on with their duty, 24/7, most of the time. All they ask for, is that their leaders take care of them, their families and girlfriends a little love, and the nation a little appreciation.
George Orwell says – “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Are my soldiers ready to do violence if need be? I bet my life they are.
What is worrying is that these are not career soldiers, signed on for life. These are citizen soldiers, young 18-year old boys. These are our very own people. When we talk “the Army”, its not regulars like us, it is these NSFs, and NSmen. Our friends, our brothers, our sons, our fathers, our boyfriends. Has our society lost their appreciation for them? Has our society forget what they have done? Has our society – worryingly – lost the will to defend itself?
PTE Lee’s passing is sorrowful. But lets take his passing as an awakening – an awakening to appreciate what our citizen soldiers have done for us for the past 45 years. That there are sacrifices made, be it time, effort, or sometimes – life.
Do share this, to speak out for our citizen soldiers. We all know with social media, the noisiest wins. We can allow the vocal minority to belittle all the sacrifices – including PTE Lee’s life – or we can be united, be loud, and be heard. Write your own story and experience, like he did (https://www.facebook.com/notes/nicholas-anthony-ethan-lim/singaporeans-are-weak-lol/10150737962292299). With NSmen like him, I’m confident our citizen soldiers will continue to defend what we call home.
Most of us will die while doing meaningless stuff. But he died while serving his country. Its not what we lived for, but what we die for.
For PTE Lee Rui Feng Dominique Sarron. Rest in Peace.