Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Friday, May 20, 2011

九個班: 9 Squads

Longtian (隆田) is a small town nestled amongst rice fields and mango orchards in rural Tainan, along the main eastern rail line. The town would be wholly unremarkable for one of its size, except for its close proximity to the army bases at Guantian(官田), Danei(大內) , and Shinjhong(新中).

Taiwan has changed a great deal over the past two decades, and the ROC military has been no exception. Far from the old "Reconquer the Mainland"(反攻大陸)martial law days, the armed forces have since been de-politicized and placed under civilian control. The armed forces have also moved into a defensive role, with the army establishing reserve units patterned on the U.S. Army National Guard. Amongst other things, the bases near Longtian are home to several of these army reserve infantry brigades charged with providing basic training for new Army and Air Force recruits.

Longtian Station
As our train pulled into the station in the early afternoon, I stumbled out into the bright southern Taiwan sunshine and heat, along with a few hundred other new Air Force recruits from around the north. Led by our flag wielding civilian handlers, we were hurriedly escorted out of the station into a fleet of waiting busses. Safely inside the air conditioned motorcoaches, the fleet of busses rumbled down broad avenues running through rice fields, while the onboard TVs blared. Outside, the pastoral scenes were broken occasionally by small shops hawking stir-fry (熱炒), karaoke, and agricultural equipment.

"This is the middle of nowhere", one of the Taipei city kids grumbled as others dozed off.

The town of Longtian. Any contact with the town was incidental on the way to and back home from base.

Eventually, the busses pulled up to a gate in a long concrete wall guarded by rifle wielding soldiers. "We're there!", someone shouted, as everyone ripped open the curtains to peek outside as we drove in.

Driving onto base, our busses passed between three story faux-brick facade buildings, each surrounding a basketball court now filled with folding metal stools topped with white drawing boards. Some of the stools were already filled by other luggage carrying kids in civilian clothes. Trees dotted the scene along with somewhat ornate looking lamp posts. Except for the large central parade area and the green camouflage Humvees parked along the roads, we might as well have been looking at dormitories on move-in day from any decently sized university.

Our bus pulled to a stop before one of the buildings. An army officer wearing camouflage fatigues (the military's working clothes of choice) climbed aboard. 45 new recruits braced ourselves for the expected chewing out that you see in the movies...

Instead, the officer pulled out a spray bottle of disinfectant and box of disposable surgical masks, one of which he promptly donned. "Hands out for disinfection!" he said matter-of-factly, as he walked down the aisle distributing the masks. "Put your surgical masks on and do not take them off until ordered. We don't want one of you making everyone else sick."

Eventually, we were shuttled off the bus to the stools lined up in front of one of the buildings, each of which was a barracks housing a single company (連) of new recruits. Underneath the drawing board on each stool was a large brown envelope containing a stack of forms. Remember, I was told by my friends who had been through before, you will spend your first few days filling out mounds of paperwork.

Another soldier walked in front of us wearing a yellow armband bearing the words "Duty Squad Leader" (值星班長). I strained to see the rank insignia on his collar: two thin chevrons atop one thick chevron: a sergeant(中士). What happened next has been blurred in my memory by a month of similar events, but the main gist of it should be familiar to anyone who has been through it.

"Pick up your stools, drawing boards, luggage, and form up into nine squads facing me!" (「在我面前排成九個班!」), he said in a firm, but not especially menacing voice.

Roughly ten dozen new recruits in civvies shuffled around thoroughly confused by what was just said. After a few more moments of confused movement with no end in sight, the sergeant spoke again:

"When I say 'squads', I mean rows. Now form up into 9 squads facing me." he said, this time with a slight edge in his voice.

Ten dozen new recruits started to move.

"Did I tell you to move yet?" he said, the volume of his voice going up.

Ten dozen new recruits froze.

"You do not move until I order you to move!" he said. "Now move!"

In physics, seemingly chaotic motions can lead to the eventual formation of coherent patterns. Somehow in the running, pushing, and shoving, 9 lines started to form.

"Attention!"(「注意!」) the sergeant said.

Everyone looked up.

"When I say 'Attention', you will stop whatever it is you are doing and repeat the word 'Attention'! Now Attention!" he said.

"Attention", came the ragged cry from the confused masses.

Sarge somehow conveyed disgust without changing his overall expression. "Do you think you're at summer camp or something?" he said. "Attention!"

"Attention!" came the reply.

"Attention!" he repeated.

"ATTENTION!" everyone yelled.

"Is forming into 9 squads really that difficult?" he said. "I want the same number of men in each squad, arranged from shortest at the rear to tallest at the front. You have 10 seconds. Now move!"

In the ensuing confusion, I dashed for the front end of one of the squads near the front. After some jockeying and further rearrangement, I found myself randomly positioned as the second member of the third squad.

I didn't know it at the time, but this seemingly random arrangement would end up having a massive impact on my experience in basic training.

Seated in our new positions, we waited to see what would happen next.

The sergeant spoke again: "Now listen carefully. On the second floor, you will be issued your uniforms and accessories. There are tables with sample camouflage fatigue hats, shirts, as well as combat boots of various sizes. You will first determine which size fits you for each of these. You will then report these sizes to the soldier in the room at the end, who will issue you the supplies. You will then return here with the supplies. Perform this action squad by squad. Replace the sample items neatly as you found them. Now move."

Fatigues are work clothes meant for hard physical work. When not dressed in your gym outfit you will be wearing fatigues. The conclusion is left as an exercise for the reader.

Doing as we were told, we dutifully reported our hat, shirt, and shoe sizes to the soldiers standing in the room at the end. We were issued a metal washbasin filled with a steel cup, three new olive drab undershirts (Proudly Made in Taiwan), three white underpants, a green camouflage web belt, a long and short set of dark blue sport pants, and a red white and blue sports jacket. Further piled atop this were two sets of fatigues in tropical camouflage pattern, a camouflage cap with the ROC's white sun and blue sky emblem, a steel canteen and cover, a set of new combat boots wrapped in plastic, and a new pair of white running shoes in a blue shoebox bearing the insignia of the Ministry of National Defense.

All of this was heaped into a large mound in our arms that we struggled (often unsuccessfully), to carry back to our seats downstairs in a single load.

"It took you all long enough", the sergeant said at the end of the process. "We're all running late since you ladies decided to take your time getting here. Inside the barracks, you will find your bunks and lockers arranged by number. There will be four squads in the room on each level. You will carry all your things into your rooms. For now, throw everything on your bed. Change into the gym outfit you were just issued, then report back here in formation. For now, don't bother with the running shoes. You have 5 minutes. Move!"

Following another mess of running, collisions, and accessories flying everywhere, we dashed into our respective rooms. Inside, we found what was to be our home for the next month: two rows of narrow bunk beds, topped with individual mattresses barely a foot and a half wide, and flanked by tall steel lockers. A heavy blanket and mosquito netting were neatly folded onto the pillow of each spot.

Throwing what were now our only worldly possessions on our beds, we hurriedly ripped our gym outfits and olive drab undershirts out of their coverings. Donning our new outfits, there was no time for contemplation as we dashed back outside towards our new lives.


Jimmy said...

I was drafted and served in the US military. In US, the recruits are managed to arrive at the training camp late in the evening. So the recruits would be tired or confused after long rides, to face the barking Drill Sgt. I remember I had to wear the boxer-style underpants issued because if offers better ventilation. By the way, US soldiers don't wear "fatigues" per se, it is called BDU [Battle Dress Uniform]. Hang in there.

Haitien said...

Thanks for the encouragement!

Michael said...

Thanks for the ROC view of being a draftee. I enlisted in the USAF in 1994, left in 1999. I do miss it at times.

Silhouette said...

Interesting account! My boyfriend just got drafted too and I have an inkling feeling he is at the same camp you were. Although I don't think he;d ever be able to related his entire experience in such succinct sentences!