Unjoining the army

Among the usual deluge of junkmail and bills in my mailbox one day in May, there was a beige envelope with a little plastic covered window on it. In the top left corner, the national coat of arms with the familiar lion clutching an axe told this particular letter meant serious business.

Serious to me anyway. Sort of.

Through the window, my name was visible in laser printer typeface, and by then I had come to realise that this was no ordinary letter from the powers that be. Usually when I get the beige looking envelopes, they’re mass printed and mass mailed to lots of guys like me, ordering us to meet up at such-and-such place at such-and-such time. In the opaque window, my name used to be written in all uppercase, line-printer style. Inside you’d find the tear-off part which you’d sign and return to acknowledge your summoning.

Shortly thereafter - usually a few weeks - you’d suit up in your standard issue fatigues, some not so standard issue gear and go away for some hairy military training.

The letter in my hand simply told me that all this had happened for the very last time. It didn’t really say exactly that, but when you’re given a date and time which you’re supposed to show up at a military camp to hand over all your goverment issue stuff, you know it’s over. That’s how it works. So I’m told.

I am 37 and no longer a bodyguard/escort trooper with the Home Defense Escort Platoon. They’re relieving me from front line duty and placing me in the reserves after 11 years. No more four hour alerts, no more notifying the local lieutenant when leaving the country, no more two week male bonding in some deserted camp far away, and last but not least, no more governmentally sanctioned driving-like-an-asshole on forest roads, negotiating checkpoints in a spray of blanks or hunting down pretend snipers in the middle of the night.

I’m gonna miss the guys in my unit. We’ve been more or less the same handful of men doing this for the last eight or ten years, although we don’t hang out outside of the exercises. It’s not the kind of thing you make friends by doing. I don’t really know why it came to be that way, but no officer or NCO ever hid anything from us when trying to prepare us for what we were supposed to maybe do one day. I guess it’s not the kind of thing you sit in each other’s houses and talk about. None of us were of the “gun nut” type either; subscribing to Soldier of Fortune, owning rifles ourselves or spending weekends in the wilderness on “survival”. Those types were all weeded out early on, insofar as there was any selection process at all. I don’t know that either. One day I just got one of the beige envelopes and found myself as a bodyguard. After all, my military record is what it is. Or, was what it was.

You think that sounds strange? Well, I could tell you a lot about how the military used to be organised in this country, but the lowdown is simply that if you were able bodied and old enough, you became a soldier. It was mandatory. The conscript service dates back to right after Norway stopped being inhabitated by Vikings. Everybody did some sort of service, and nobody complained. It was what you did when you turned 19. Nobody was sent off to die anywhere (excluding to some rather unpleasant and incessant meetings with the Swedes), so nobody gave it much thought.

In 1987 I left for basic training, sitting around in a very cold hangar for the better part of a day before being allocated a bunk in a room with eleven others, carrying things which were mostly unknown to me.

They taught me a lot of useful things and a lot of things that in retrospect were pretty useless. After all, the Russian armoured columns never flooded the northern border posts, decimating everything in their way. But hey, I can still take care of my feet before, during and after a 30 km frisk (military style frisk, anyway) walk, and when I’m in the progress of freezing my butt off somewhere, I know a couple of tricks that will make me a little warmer.

I never found much comfort in knowing how three kilos of TNT feels like when it goes off ten meters from you though, but they spent a whole day teaching me that many years ago. You can think of that the next time you toil away in a warm classroom and decide that maths or biology are useless things to know. I can’t think of anything being more useless in anyone’s daily routine than TNT.

In an old-style photo album there’s a picture of me on a makeshift bed, stretched out with bare feet and some kind of smile. It’s taken in November 1988 after I returned from my first ambush patrol in South Lebanon. For reasons that are starting to fade, I volunteered for UNIFIL’s Norwegian battalion. It rained the whole evening and it rained the whole night since it was the onset of the Mediterranean winter. It rained the entire next day too. I have never been so cold, uncomfortable and covered in red, sticky mud before or since. This went on for the duration of the winter, only broken up by long hours at some deserted road junction checkpoint or perched in a white observation tower behind a ridiculously large set of German binoculars.

It beat being stationed at the smallest air base in the world though, because that’s where I was when I volunteered. The arrival of a plane - any plane - turned out the entire base. Rides in the ops car and aircraft guard duty was raffled out like they were luxurious goods or a couple of leave days. It was a different kind of boring.

After coming back from Lebanon, they took my completely worn out government stuff, gave me some money and told me to have a nice life. A few months later they sent me a beige envelope containing - in bureaucratic parlance - a welcome back, including directions to where I could go and get myself some government issue gear. Again.

The most useful things the military taught me during those 18 years, was how to hang in there while being incredibly bored and how you smell after one week without any personal hygiene. I’m not kidding. The other things a soldier needs to know, like how to hit something with a weapon, talk coherently on a radio set or that without your mates you’re nothing, they all became embedded in my spine. Those things are like taking a piss. Once you put the thing back into place and zip up, you don’t think much about it. You just go back to whatever you were doing before the tingly feeling in your bladder. But it’s all pretty useless now.

On June 7, 2005, I became a reservist. But really, I’m dismissed because of old age. You have no idea how that feels.

Now I’m just another guy with some war stories and a couple more weeks I have to make plans for every year.

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