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Welcome to my next chapter in the story about my time in the Australian Regular Army. Click here to read Part 1 – Basic Training.
The bus trip to Puckapunyal from Kapooka took around 5 hours. The journey was one of reflection, looking back at the last 13 weeks of basic training including the highs and the awful lows. However there was an air of expectation on the bus. We were no longer known as ‘recruit’ as we now had our ranks. Amongst us were Sappers, Troopers, Signalmen and my rank of Privates.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I had been accepted into the Royal Australian Transport Corp and was on my way to Puckapunyal to complete the 13 week Basic Drivers Course. Immediately upon arrival I noticed that the strictness of Kapooka had been replaced with a somewhat relaxed feel but this was still a military base after all and there was still a requirement to be disciplined.
One of the main points of difference was that we were in training with soldiers from bases from all around Australia. I formed a friendship with a corporal by the name of Robert Grant. Rob was a great guy who was very easy going and became a great mentor to me. He was married and lived in NSW and half way through the Basic Drivers Course we would go for a road trip to his home to meet his wife. This road trip enabled me to drive long distances for the first time ever.
Before joining the army I did not know how to drive. I didn’t have my licence, however I did have my learners permit. My best mate, Mark’s mum, had given me a couple of lessons and other than one disastrous attempt driving my drunk mates home from our school formal graduation party, I didn’t really know how to drive very well. This was one of the main reasons I requested to join the Transport Corp as I sensed an opportunity to learn how to drive and avoid getting my head shot off on the front lines if we ever went to war. Smart thinking, huh? You betcha!
So the training started. First off we were taught how to drive the Army Land Rovers. They were all manuals – that’s stick shift for my American friends. We were taught how to double clutch and drive straight and safely. My first attempts at driving resembled a rabbit on speed! Bunny hopping up and down the training track. I kept apologising to my instructor but he said it was all good. He was a corporal and explained that they actually preferred the 17 year olds to train as that meant they didn’t have to untrain bad habits previously acquired.
Before long I became adept at driving the Land Rovers. No probs and I became quite proficient. Well I suppose it shouldn’t take that long to learn when that is our full time job, driving all day, every day. The next challenge was driving the Army trucks called Unimogs.
As you can see these are a bit bigger than a standard Land Rover. 16 gears, 8 forward, 8 reverse. The double clutch technique we were taught for the Land Rovers was actually in preparation for use in the Unimogs. They actually were quite easy to drive. The only thing extra I recall having to remember was to make sure when turning to make sure you went a little wider than normal to avoid hitting the kerb with the rear wheels which I failed to do once driving the troops into a McDonalds!
One part of the actual training that has stayed with me for life, other than the actual skill of driving, was a video presentation we received before our very first driving lesson. We were shown a video of car crash accidents with the dead bodies still in the smashed cars. We were also shown video of a crash accident victim’s autopsy. For all of us, this was our first experience seeing dead bodies. While it was only on film, the impact has stayed with me since then. I can still see the horrible and tragic images of those poor people who died so suddenly and in such a horrific way. On a side note, I would go as far as saying that this video should be shown as a compulsory requirement of driver training for all people, not only those in the military. I am sure it would help reduce the road toll.
There was only one incident though which almost cost myself, my instructor and the 20 odd troops in the back of the carrier our lives. Towards the end of the training course, we were on a week long tour of Victoria. It was my turn at the wheel and we were driving through some hilly terrain. Going downhill I tried to change into a lower gear but couldn’t get the truck into gear. We were gaining speed and I was beginning to panic as there was a deep decline off to the side of the road and I didn’t want to be responsible for the death of 20 odd people including myself. The truck just would not go into gear and the exhaust brakes did not seem to be responding too well. Faster and faster we went until finally with the assistance of the instructor, I was able to get the truck back into a low gear and we continued on to our destination without further incident. I was a little worried though as running through my head was a statement which I had been told early in the training course – “Always give the guys in the back a good ride or they may pull you out of the cabin when you’ve stopped and give you a hiding”. So this was going through my head as we were pulling into camp. I got out of the cabin and went around the back to lower the back tail gate with a fair bit of trepidation. The guys got out and thanked me for the ride. Phew! I avoided an ass kicking.
I was restricted in what I could actually do physically during this training at Puckapunyal. As I mentioned in my previous post, during basic training I started to get a lot of knee pain in both knees. The army doctors diagnosed that my symptoms were brought on by running in boots as they were not very shock absorbent and going up and down the 3 flights of stairs numerous times a day. The impact of my knees was quite hard and as a result I had constant grinding in them. The doctors put me on restrictions until further notice. The restrictions known as a CHIT prevented me from doing any physical activities. This included marching, drill, PT and any other physical activity other than walking.
Then one day I was caught playing racquet ball with Corporal Robert Grant and was hauled in front of my commanding officer where I was given one hell of a reprimand. I was disobeying orders by playing sport. When you disobey orders you can be arrested by the MP’s and put into the stockade. I had heard about the Aussie version of military prison. Essentially the military prison on base was an exercise yard with bunks built on the sides. In the middle of the exercise yard were two different coloured lines approx 5 metres apart. Let’s say they were blue and green. At any one time one of the MP’s would call out one of the line colours and you would need to rush to it and stand to attention. After an amount of time the MP would call out the other line colour and you would need to run to it as quickly as possible and again, stand to attention. The amount of time you would need to stand to attention on one of the lines would vary. It could be 10 seconds or it could be an hour. This form of punishment might take hours to complete or it might take minutes. It could happen at 2am or in the heat of the day at midday. I’m glad I never found out. I was so scared shitless to be sent to jail for doing something like playing racquet ball. I was 17 and while it may have been a bluff from my superiors, I wasn’t about to take the risk.
So from that day on during my Basic Drivers course, I didn’t disobey any orders. I completed the training but found myself very unhappy and a lot of this unhappiness was due to my inability to be active. I was so fit when I joined the army. I was 17 and 76kg. I worked out that I would exercise for at least 2 hours a day when I was in school. This was achieved by riding my bike to and from school (30mins), playing touch footy at lunch time (30 mins) and spending at least an hour day at the park across the road from home kicking the footy with my mate, Denis or at football training. I was always on the go. Now for the first time in my life, I was inactive and hating it. My mates in the training course were supportive to a degree but I felt ostracized when they were able to PT and drill daily and therefore I did not feel part of the team. This is also the very beginning of my weight problems which regular readers will know have plagued me ever since.
I also had a very bad case of tonsillitis during training and spent 4 days in hospital which was miserable. So the high I found myself on when I arrived for this second stage of training was fast evaporating and I found myself again, wishing I was at home and out of this nightmare.
As the training was drawing to an end, we were asked to nominate where we would like to be posted to on a full time basis. Of course I requested Enoggera in Brisbane, close to home. I was informed this was unlikely and the only reason for soldiers being sent home was if they had their own family there. A family which included a wife and kids. I had neither and soon found myself heading to Sydney and the Holsworthy Army Base and my new life as a fully trained soldier.
The final and darkest chapter of my army life occurred in Sydney and it would go on to shape the man I would become.
I was only 17 – The Final Chapter…..Click here.
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