Army in action

Becoming an officer in the Army was something I had always wanted.

I spent a childhood loving all things military. In secondary school, I joined the National Cadet Corps and did well; the four years there left me believing that the real Army would be a good fit for me.

So when the time came to serve the nation, I pushed myself extra hard in BMT, hoping to make my officer dreams a reality. I don’t know why I didn’t just sign on there and then, despite the numerous opportunities for recruitment.

I simply put my head down and worked hard. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it into Officer Cadet School (OCS). Undeterred, I still did my best in Specialist Cadet School (SCS).

It is a known fact that the top performing SCS trainees would be offered a chance to “crossover” – to join OCS from SCS – and that was what I was working towards.

Eventually the day came where our vocational postings were released, pinned onto a cork board. My good friend was given the crossover option ahead of me.

Right after being dismissed by our officers, as other soldiers rushed to book out and celebrate having attained more senang (relaxed) postings, I told my Warrant Officer I needed to talk to him.

He invited me into the Company office, where he sat across the table from me, steely-eyed. I looked the wiry old soldier in the eye and said, “I wanted to crossover for a career. You’ve seen how hard I’ve been working for this. I needed this to happen, Encik.”

He didn’t flinch at my impassioned petition. He was a grizzly, weathered veteran who’d seen many different types of soldiers in his time. All he said was that there wasn’t much he could do, and then he dismissed me.

As the plastic fan spun noisily overhead, I sat in my bunkbed wondering what half a year’s effort had amounted to. I would spend the rest of that night mourning the death of a decade-old dream.

TALKING IN THE DARK

The next day, the Company went out on an exercise in the field. Time passed slowly until it was the early hours of the morning. A disgruntled grunt, I laid prone in my shell scrape, hunched over my firing arc – watching for the enemy.

It had been raining heavily all night. Large raindrops fell onto the ground, making shallow holes in the mud just as we had done earlier. I couldn’t hear much else beyond the loud slicks and little splashes of water occurring in my muddy, earthen bathtub.

But a moment later, I felt the force of large knuckles rapping against my head, causing the lip of the helmet to lurch over my eyes. I looked up, assuming a superior acting as an enemy combatant had taken me by surprise.

It was my Encik. I could tell from the silver-flecked hair strands which stuck out from the edge of his beret, gleaming against the moonlight. “Come,” he said, “Let’s walk.”

Our boots crunched against the wet gravel beneath us as we stepped out from the jungle into a grassy clearing. After a few minutes, he finally broke the silence.

“… I’ve been doing this job for a long time, it’s not easy … A very difficult job.”
“Encik, I know. It’s still what I want.”
“Honestly, you want the rank – or you want the job? This life might not be what you think it is.”

He then spoke some more about his life in the Army. I was standing at attention, but I wasn’t really listening anymore. I just didn’t believe him at the time.

The Army was what I had always wanted. At that point, to me, he was just part of a system that had persistently failed to recognise and reward me. He was holding me back, when I assumed there must have been something he could have done for me.

A few months later, I became a Fitness Specialist/Physical Training Instructor. They sent me to the Air Force, where I spent the rest of my National Service.

WE DON’T ALWAYS NEED WHAT WE WANT

In the years that passed, I came to realise that the Army actually wasn’t a good fit. I know now that it probably wouldn’t have worked out. In my life’s lack of discipline, I saw the regimentation of the Army as a quick-fix.

It was a foolish view of things. I never considered the possibility that such a place could utterly run me into the ground over the long haul. But God knew.

I saw the career as an iron rice-bowl, without actually really considering what such a path would mean on a day-to-day basis – much less on an eternal scale. But God did.

It took me a long time to see that I was merely attracted to the idea of an Army career. I wasn’t interested in serving the country. That was a lie I told myself to hide the truth that all I really wanted was to serve myself.

My aspirations were all about me – God didn’t have a role in the equation or a say at all.

I just wanted my dream. I kept presenting God checklists and proposals, wanting Him to sign off on them. And then I’d get angry whenever He wouldn’t.

He didn’t, because they were all terrible ideas – bad girls, careers, schools. It sounds so cliched, but I really do think He knew better. He knew and He withheld – in love.

I had fought for so long with tightly-clenched fists. I would wring my hands at Him time and time again. I hadn’t understood that we what we most desperately want – often isn’t what we need.

And when our fists are clenched this tightly – how can He put in our hands a new dream? A new vision, opportunity or life?

WITH ARMS WIDE OPEN

Somedays I still feel as if I’m moping in a hole in the ground I dug myself. I imagine God coming along to rap me on the helmet, telling me to go on a walk with Him, where he reveals my selfish ambition.

God does those things. He wakes up my idea, but He is immeasurably gentler with me.

I’ve learnt a few things since that night in the jungle. When I go off the path, or things don’t go my way, now I ask: What are You doing in this instance? If it’s not this path, I’m sorry for having misheard. Where then would You send me?

He guides my path. I trust Him: Whenever I trace back His hand in my life, I see that He was never wrong.

And I know He never will be.

About the author

Gabriel Ong

Gabriel isn't a hipster, but he loves his beard and coffee. In his spare time, he'd rather be on a mountain.