Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Monday, October 24, 2011

取水壺! Retrieve canteens!

"God, why do they keep giving us lukewarm seawater to drink?"

"Well, the drill sergeants add hydration salts to all our drinking water, and you remember the captain's little speech about only drinking warm water to keep us from catching colds..."

"Yeah? Well its 30 degrees Celsius out right now. And if he's so worried, why the vending machines?"

"Well, if you want to risk getting cold water from the talking drinking fountain next to the company office that vocally thanks you for perusing cold water, then be my guest."

The dozen or so of us in the mess squad sat beneath the trees lining the outdoors company dishwashing area for a much needed break. The mountain of pots, pans, and trays from breakfast finally scrubbed, organized, and hauled back to their storage areas, and the bins of food waste and hogwash hauled off to the garbage dumpsters. On the other side of the building, the rest of our training company was assembling for our first real day of basic training after their half hour post-breakfast break.

Although we would soon join the rest of the company, our squad leaders had allowed us a short breather. Most of my squad mates took the opportunity to smoke cigarettes, or buy cold beverages from the two vending machines. Taiwanese kids are fond of soft drinks, a passion that turns to a full blown addiction when exposed to the rigid control, long contraband list, and high stress of basic training. Not to mention the only other beverage option being the warm, salty drinking water in our canteens. The vending machines were replenished every couple of days, but were almost always sold out within a few hours of being resupplied. The vending machines and the drinks they sold, however humble, were a rare connection to the outside world that we happily availed ourselves to whenever possible. Consequently, vending machine use was also one of the privileges our superiors repeatedly threatened to take away in the event of bad behavior.

Our brief respite (all rest times are too short as far as the troops are concerned) over, we hurriedly donned our BDUs, helmets, and utility belts (with canteen hooked on). Folding stools in hand, we hastily rejoined the rest of the company outside already standing in formation, with the captain commanding our company standing in front, ready to address the troops.

After the requisite pre-assembly pleasantries from the squad leaders ("DID I AUTHORIZE YOU TO SCRATCH YOUR EARS? I SAID STAND AT ATTENTION!"), we formed up into three platoons, each consisting of three companies. Megaphone in hand, the captain spoke and those of us positioned at the flanks of the formation strained to hear what he had to say.

"Today we begin your first real day of training. We will begin with basic drill commands teaching you how march in formation without looking like a mob of delinquents. Platoon 1 will proceed to... Platoon 2 will proceed to the front of the building for ... Platoon 3 will..."

"What did he just say?"

"Uh, I can't make out what he's saying. Where are we supposed to-"

"... any questions? Now move to your assigned positions!"

"What? Where are we supposed to go?"

"Did you hear?"

"No, I-"

"QUIT TALKING AND START MOVING!", one of the squad leaders yelled.

"Where are we supposed to-"


And thus came our first exposure to what would become a common occurrence throughout basic training - communications failures. The ad hoc solution to this boils down to: "Follow the guy next to you. (And hope that he knows what he's doing)"

Each day in basic training is broken down into class periods, punctuated by short 5 minute breaks, as well as lunch around 1130, followed by a nap till 1300, more classes till dinner time at 1730, then evening classes till around 2100. The day ends with evening roll call, then a brief period of shower/free time until lights out at 2200.

Basic drill (基本教練) consists of the basic commands for assembling, marching in formation, and saluting. Classes in basic drill are a continuous occurrence throughout basic training, and are typically noted for being long, and rather dull repetitions of marching, about face, left / right face, followed by more marching. Actions considered deviant or otherwise unsatisfactory typically result in further repetition.

As far as the Army is concerned, obsessive compulsive disorder is a plus in these matters, and I've long since lost track of the number of times everyone in our platoon was ordered to redo our last move because a single individual didn't have their fingers lined up with their pant seams while at attention / rotated in the wrong direction / moved the wrong foot.


After an hour of this under the hot tropical sun and steamy humidity of southern Taiwan wearing our steel helmets and long sleeved heavy cotton/polyester BDUs, you can understand why the threat of more basic drill practice is often employed as a punishment in basic training and beyond.

After performing yet another formation march around the company parade grounds, one of the drill sergeants blew his whistle for the platoon to assemble. Facing us, he produced a small folded card that would accompany us during our entire time in basic training.

"This is the Hydration Card (飲水記錄卡) that you have each been issued. You will always carry this card with you, and will record the amount of water that you will be ordered to drink from your canteens at specified times throughout the day. On my command you will repeat and execute the following orders to drink 300 c.c.s of water."

We stared at each other in resigned silence: Great, another SOP to memorize.

"Retrieve canteens!" (「取水壺!」)

"Retrieve canteens!", we repeated.

"LOUDER! And hold the canteens in front of your faces with both hands!"

"Retrieve canteens!", we repeated again, holding our canteens before our faces as if we were making an offering of our salty metallic tasting canteen water to the gods.

"Open lids!"(「打開瓶蓋!」)

"Open lids!", we shouted, unscrewing the lids with our right hands.

"Post drill hydration..." (「操課後飲水...」) He paused, "Say the amount!"

"300 c.c.s!", we yelled, as if our lives depended on it.


As he watched us chugging down the contents of our canteens, the drill sergeant pointed again to our Hydration Cards - a fairly new development prompted by too many past cases of new recruits passing out from heat stroke.

"After hydrating, you will record the prescribed amount of water on your card at the matching time slot. The first member of your squad will collect your hydration cards every night before lights out, and turn them in to your squad leaders for review. Anyone who fails to do so will be severely punished. (This would be the cause of many a last minute pre-lights out scramble) I do not care if you actually drink that amount, but you will record it on your card. At the top slot for each day you will record your weight and body temperature. Since there are close to 150 of you, you will record whatever you feel is correct, if you actually feel like you have a fever, then notify me and we'll deal with it then."

The latter order was later amended to "Any value between 36 - 37.5 degrees Celsius" after some genius put down a body temperature of 28 degrees Celsius.

"Finally, at the end of the day, you will draw a circle at the top of your card if you made a successful bowl movement, or an X if you did not. If you go for 3 days without passing stool, tell your squad leader. I have a nice little pill here guaranteed to cure what ails you."

This happened more often than you might think. Between the hectic daily schedule and constant pressure, its easy to go for an extended period of time without clearing your bowels.


JJ said...

Thanks so much for sharing all this!

I'm also thinking of moving back to TW and I'm considering if I want to join the Army so that I don't have to do the 4-month thing.

My only concern is that I can't really read Chinese that well (about 50% but I'm still learning). I can speak it fluently though, so hopefully that's not an issue.

Haitien said...

Thanks for the comment. I actually do know of a few people in your situation who served. There was actually a guy in my battalion in basic from Malaysia who couldn't read Chinese, and could barely speak the language. He still managed to eke through, although his squad leaders had to read any paperwork to him.

Although the term of service is much shorter than it used to be, its still a big transition going from civilian to military - the general loss of freedom, the rigid top down command structure, all take some getting used to.

From personal experience though, basic training is actually is easy part - when you're finally deployed out to your final unit things get considerably more complex. Its learn as you go for a lot of things. Not to mention the inevitable personality conflicts that arise when you factor in being stuck with the same people, executing orders that seem nonsensical at times, plus the unofficial seniority system that permeates everything, especially in the combat units.

Don't get me wrong, I'm still glad that I did it. The ultimate mission is worthwhile and I've learned a great deal, while testing my own limits. But just remember that it will be tough, especially during your first 6 months or so.

JJ said...

Yeah, reading about your personal journey makes the experience seem less frightening (of course all the horror stories that I've heard were all back in the day when they had to join for 2-3 years :)

And like you said, I also feel I might be able to learn a lot from it as well.

I'll be making my decision next year (maybe see how the 2012 US elections turn out, ha!) but thanks again for writing this blog!