To say I was a student who under performed in high school would be an understatement. It’s not that I wasn’t intelligent; I just wasn’t interested in doing homework or studying. In fact, I don’t remember studying once. When I graduated from high school I was near the bottom of the class.
I never had any aspirations to go to university. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I did actually want to be a police officer, but with my results that was never going to happen.
Ever since I was 10 I had had a few different part time jobs. Answering phones for a small town’s taxi company. I had a paper round. I was a cleaner at Donut King. I was even writing labels at a record store before ending up at Coles Supermarkets as a trolley boy and check out rooster. I think Coles management were considering me for a full time career there but I remember thinking at the time that I don’t want to work in a supermarket for the rest of my life. So I did what a lot of other young men and women do straight out of high school. I enlisted and joined the Australian Regular Army.
So exactly 2 months after finishing high school and aged 17, I took my oath to the Queen of Australia that I would defend my country. That day, I said goodbye to my family and friends who saw me off at the airport and was sent off to Basic Training at Kapooka in New South Wales.
That afternoon, myself and another 10 blokes from Queensland arrived and were shown to our platoon quarters. Our platoon was located in Alpha Company, 4th Platoon. We were instructed by the corporals to prepare the barracks for the arrival of the other recruits from the other states. It was great to be doing something different. There was a sense of excitement. We were boys and we were about to be men.
The following day, the remainder of the recruits arrived. We were kitted out with our greens (fatigues), back packs, boots, PT gear, sneakers, brass, the SLR Rifle, bayonet, shaving kit and a whole heap of other standard issue gear. We were then marched up to the barber and we all lost our hair. It was the first time I had ever had a crew cut. It was weird seeing my hair fall away from the clippers instead of being cut by a female hairdresser. Weird but exciting.
Next we were given a meeting by our instructors. All seemed very nice and funny. The majority of our instructors were corporals with one sergeant and one lieutenant in overall charge. We were taught how to shave (most of the guys there had never shaved before). We were also taught how to iron our clothes using enough starch so they would stand up on their own. We were also shown how to make our beds to a military standard including using hospital corners. We were given the night to get our lockers into military order. There was an air of excitement among the guys. I remember calling my mum at home and telling her how exciting it was. The next phone call home a few weeks later would be vastly different
The first morning, reveille was at 6am sharp. We were informed the night before that when we heard “Hallway 4” called out at any time we were to repeat the call and we were to assemble outside our room, standing at attention immediately. So when the call came at 6am while we were all still sleeping, it was a bit of a shock to the system. We were yelled at and told we had less than 10 minutes to shave, dress and make our beds and of course we had to do this to perfection. Once completed, we were marched down to the mess hall for breakfast. The mess hall was fast filling with hundreds of other recruits all at different stages of training. Each week, a new platoon of recruits would arrive to commence their basic training.
After breakfast we were taken to a parade ground and taught how to march properly. All in unison. Now, marching may sound easy but in reality it isn’t. In theory when a person walks, when the right leg goes forward the left arm swings back and vice versa. There were some dudes whose right arm would swing forward when their right leg goes forward. When marching, it is very important that all recruits march in unison and create a great cadence. This is important as it looks much better and sounds great too. So for hours we were marched around the parade ground. This is January in outback Australia and it is hot. Guys were fainting and we were all dehydrating even though we were being instructed to drink from our canteens at regular intervals. It took a good week or so but eventually we got it.
That first night we were forced to take a shower and then present our naked selves to the instructors where they would check our genitals for god knows what. Actually I think they were checking for hernia, as we had to cough when the grabbed our testicles, but with them not being doctors I don’t think they would recognise the symptoms anyway. I actually think it was part of the process of breaking us down. While the showers were in cubicles there were no shower curtains so showering in front of your mates was the norm. Pretty embarrassing stuff but eventually you get over it.That first afternoon when the 13 week training period began, we were given fitness tests. Fitness was not a problem for me. I was extremely fit and handled the physical side easily. I was the fastest swimmer in the fully clothed test swim. I was mid pack in the running races and in the forward pack over the obstacle courses. I could do the chin ups and other rigorous exercises.
Mentally, it was taking a toll on all of us. We were treated like shit. All bar a few of the blokes in our platoon were no older than 18. Most of us didn’t have a lot of discipline about us and we were taught very quickly that you didn’t question orders and you did as you were bloody well told.
There were no days off. Training was seven days a week from 6am until 10pm. Granted we were in our rooms by about 7pm but our evenings were structured. Sometimes we would have hallway training sessions in how to polish brass or rifle maintenance. At times we were forced to write letters home. No computers and email back in those days so a lot of hand writing went on. I didn’t write a lot but I do remember writing a couple of letters to a girl I was sweet on. I got a couple of letters back from her but eventually the letters from her stopped. Her dad didn’t approve of a guy in the army as she and her twin were from a wealthy family. If I was enlisting as an officer it might have been a different story, but a ‘grunt’ is not of the standard this father had envisioned for his daughter. Being a father now myself, I can’t blame him.
We lost our identity. Gone were our first names. The instructors use to test us by asking our names. They would walk into the room and you would need to stand to attention. Less than an inch to your face, they would ask you your name. The answer was ‘recruit’ and if you answered with your real name you could expect some sort of physical punishment. Be it push ups or sit ups or planks or raising your feet 6 inches off the deck and holding it for what seemed an eternity. We learnt that lesson pretty fast.
It was tough work. Physically and mentally! They had to break us down to our raw selves to rebuild us as soldiers. Stronger, tougher, versatile, disciplined. I understand this now but at the time I didn’t. What 17 year old would? They were also building us into a team. If one of us was letting the platoon down, then we would all be punished. Part of the discipline was having to shave every day, whether you needed to or not. The razors we were supplied with were the old style straight edge razor where you would unwind the top and insert a new, sharp blade. They were extremely sharp. During the first week in training it was not uncommon to see a lot of the kids cut their faces to bits. I remember one morning a few weeks in, this one young recruit was busted shaving by one of the instructors, just after 5am in the morning. We’ll call him George. Prior to joining the army, George had never shaved before. He had no need. So George would wake up early and go to the bathroom and shave in his own time, making sure he didn’t cut himself. Once finished he would quietly go back to bed and then rise again when ‘hallway 4’ was called. Except this one morning when he got busted. We were all punished. We rushed into the hallway and stood to attention. We were read the riot act that we were not acting as a team. One of our team mates was letting us all down. So that morning we were given a wake up call right there in our boxer shorts in the hallway. We were given numerous push ups and other strenuous exercise. Remember we had only been awake for a few minutes and it was very difficult. From that point on, we all tried our best to help our team mates.
The ‘Hallway 4” call provided its own challenges. Sometimes the call would go out at 2 o’clock in the morning and we would dash and stand to attention until relieved by the instructors. Normally this would only last a minute or so and after we had sounded off we would be dismissed and head back to bed.
Sounding off is while standing at attention, the first recruit in line, when instructed, would call out the number 1. The recruit next to him would call out 2 and so on up and down the hallway at fast pace. Hopefully we got the count right and the last recruit in line would call out his number and this should match the amount of recruits in our platoon. If not, someone was in the head (latrines) or AWOL. Luckily it was always the former and never the latter. There was this one time at about 4am when the ‘hallway 4’ call went out and there we were, bleary eyed, standing to attention waiting for the instructor to issue orders. We waited and waited and waited. Nothing! Eventually after about an hour a brave recruit said ‘stuff this’ and went back to bed. One by one we all followed suit. It turned out that one of the recruits had been dreaming and called out ‘hallway 4’ in his sleep. That recruit was treated to a Code Red (yes, just like in the movie, A Few Good Men). While sleeping, the recruits would get a pillow case and put bars of soap or boots in it and come and hit the recruit as a form of punishment. It happened to me once but 20 years on, I don’t actually remember the reason why I got it. It was easily the worst moment of my life. The feeling that your platoon has turned on you is a hard one. It takes time and a lot of effort to redeem yourself. I was lucky that I was able to but it took time.
The first 4 weeks of training was the hardest. We were told when to eat, sleep, shit, shower. We had to walk past a coke vending machine everyday but weren’t allowed a single drop. I remember in week 5 when we were allowed to buy a can of coke, how sweet and cold it was. I can still remember the feeling to this day and I still think it is the best can of coke I have ever had! The daily torture of seeing the machine and not being able to have one, I liken to a crack addict not being able to have the cocaine locked in a see through box right in front of him.
In school I was super fit but running was not really my forte. I was more into team sports and kicking the footy around with one of my best mates after school everyday. The runs we did in the army were harsh. Wearing combat boots and full battle gear including rifles and back packs and doing 12 km hikes and runs were some of the hardest physical conditions I have ever been in. I hated each one of them. Most of our physical activity was done in full fatigues. Whether it was drilling (which I really enjoyed) or obstacle courses or running, we were wearing boots. In fact, the only time we wore sneakers was during our daily 40 minute PT session. I guess that when you go to war you don’t go in your Nikes and gym gear so it made sense to train us in full combat gear. However there was a downside to wearing the boots. In addition to the physical demands, our platoon was based on the top floor of a three story barracks block and with no lifts, we were constantly walking up and down the stairs throughout the day. This is where my current knee problems started and eventually would be the catalyst for my discharge from the army.
Around this time I started calling home to mum a lot. I needed someone to talk to and I remember crying a lot. I feel really bad now that I put my mum through that. Being a single parent is hard and I placed a lot of stress on her. Plus the phone bills mounted up as I was calling home reverse charge. There was no support mechanism there. You are thrust from being a boy to being a man in a few short weeks. Growing up without a father or brothers didn’t prepare me for what I would face and encounter. I couldn’t talk to my platoon mates because then I could expect a Code Red for being weak. I couldn’t talk to my superiors because then I could expect more punishment. My mum was my only conduit to talk to and she helped me through it.
In week 8, we were given 5 days leave and I went home. By this stage I was actually starting to enjoy training. I had done a hell of a lot of growing up and I was keen to share my experiences with the family. The ‘girlfriend’ came around to meet everyone at my mum’s place at a BBQ held for me. I never heard from her again after that! I still blame my family for scaring her away! Ha! Good riddance. I was happy to return to Kapooka for my final 5 week basic training course but I knew that this training would be the hardest of them all. There were immense challenges to come including the 3 day final challenge aptly named the “Challenge”.
I had learnt a lot of skills. First aid and orienteering included. I had done pretty well at orienteering in high school so it was great to put to use something I did learn at school. However the army orienteering course was huge and would take the better part of a whole day to complete. Also, I was one hell of a shot and was one of the top 2 shooters in the platoon which earnt me respect amongst the team – maybe they were worried I was gonna shoot them if they gave me a Code Red again!
The last couple of weeks you could see that we had really gelled as a platoon. We looked great. We marched in perfect unison. We drilled in perfect unison. We were fit and cocky.
Then one morning, tragedy! From our top floor barracks, a few hundred metres away, we could see an object swaying in the wind from the branches on one of the huge gum trees near the parade ground. It was a recruit from one of the other platoons who had killed himself during the night. I didn’t know him. We had heard stories of recruits killing themselves during basic training over the years. In fact, one had killed himself in the barracks directly below us just prior to us arriving. I can still see this poor fella, swaying slightly, silhouetted in the early morning sun. It will stay with me forever. A life wasted.
I wish I could say that this strengthened my resolve but unfortunately it made my stay at Kapooka even harder. I wanted out. I wanted to go home. I eventually approached my lieutenant and requested a discharge but was denied. Well not really denied but talked out of it. So close to graduating, I was assured that the worst was behind me. But if I did want to leave I could, but I would be held in a remand centre on base until basic training was over and my platoon had graduated. Now, I don’t think this was true. I think they could have sent me home right there and then but I assume they had an obligation to ensure I graduated otherwise it would have been tax payers money wasted on training me. So I elected to complete my training, grow up and enjoy my army career. Oh by the way. This was no civilised conversation. I was put into a room with the Sergeant and was told that if it was no longer illegal to strike recruits, he would be turning my face into marshmallows right about now. It was an easy decision to stay!
Week 13 finally arrives. We are all well trained but it is time to do the gruelling “Challenge”. This involved war games with simulated battles waged all day and all night. Each night we found ourselves in a new location and we dug our holes and burrowed in for the night. We never really slept as we were always on guard, looking for the enemy and ready to engage when the need arose. To complete the “Challenge” a demanding 12km hike and rifle range shoot was required. Carrying the mock injured through this final day on mock stretchers while trying to stay alive gave me a real appreciation for what real diggers had done over the years from Gallipoli to the Kakoda Track. Eventually we finished it. I was exhausted and relished the cup of hot chocolate and the dry bickies handed out at the finish line.
For the rest of the week it was all about rehearsing for the march out parade. The march out parade was full ceremonial dress and done in front of our family and friends. My mum and sister, Joanne and best friend, Mark all made the long trip down by driving from Brisbane. I was proud as punch to be graduating but to be doing it in front of those guys added extra meaning to it. I missed out on winning Best Shot in the platoon. I was later told that if I hadn’t have been a sooky lala I would have won it. Bugger. It didn’t matter, for now, I felt like a winner for just graduating.
The next day, we were all shipped off to our specialist training centres across the country. I had been accepted into the Transport Corp and another 13 week training period at Puckapunyal in rural Victoria awaited me.
Basic training takes boys and turns them into men. It isn’t easy. We all lost some of our innocence during those 13 weeks. We saw things that no one should see. We experienced highs and lows. Some of them significant. I look back now and regret it. I don’t regret being there, but how I spent my time there. I should have sucked it up more and enjoyed the ride. If I could go back 20 years to my 17 year old self, I would tell him to shut up and listen. Take the hits but keep on getting back up. Learn from those men how to be a man. Up until that point in my life I hadn’t had that opportunity to learn from a male figure. I had no brothers. My father lived in another state with limited access and my mum never remarried. By the end of the 13 weeks though, I had grown up….a lot! But I had a lot more growing up to do.
But that is a whole other story.
To be continued………..
I was only 17 – Part 2 – Puckapunyal – Click here.