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We set off out of the camp gate in Brunei in three ranks at a fairly brisk pace, marching along a dusty track. It was early, so it wasn’t unbearably hot and damp yet. Still, we weren’t in the trees proper yet, and it was already humid. I could hear the waves crashing on the beach, but I couldn’t see the water yet. Suddenly without warning, the pace picked up on the march with such ferocity that, in an instant, those at the back were a huge distance from the frontrunners. Unfortunately for me, I was amongst those looking forward at the disappearing pack, now down to just the lone drill sergeant and a couple of blokes who must have been right on his shoulder.
He was quite literally running a steady pace faster than I could sprint at my fastest. From my starting position at the rear, I had no chance. I set my pace as fast as I could and just followed the footsteps in the deep sand. My calves felt like they were going to explode, each step pumping them up a little more. I was not the only one so far back; there were at least 20 of us severely behind. There were drill sergeants around us, but we didn’t get a word from them. Back in the Green Army, people would have been yelling at you to keep up. Here, no one said a word. I could see the squad forming up in the distance and slowing down a little.
I tried to increase my pace to get there. As I got there, the drill sergeants were beginning to get people lined up and ready for some exercises. Sure enough, we went straight into a session of sprints and carries, push-ups and sit-ups. The sand was sticking to my sweating body and every crack I had was filling up. My training shoes were full of sand and I could feel it through my socks and between my toes. We were formed up in three ranks again, and as before, the drill sergeant took off like a gazelle with three lions up its arse.
All I could do was run for dear life. I was actually running like I was being chased by a wild animal. As I reached the edge of the beach, it was like I suddenly found traction, feet hitting the dusty track. I was still a ways away from the front, but I kept going as fast as I could. I could see that not even all the drill sergeants were keeping pace, but they didn’t have to. They could bring up the rear; there was no pressure on them. I would be all right so long as I never wrapped my tits in and gave up. Back at camp, people were already swigging down water as I came in with my group of stragglers. The drill sergeants had gone back to their basha, and the instruction was to be by the trucks with belt kit, rifle, and sun cream on in 30 minutes.
I wasn’t long in the showers as I had to get washed, try to grab some breakfast, and get myself with my kit down to the four-tonne lorries in less than 25 minutes. I could smell breakfast and I was starving hungry. I splashed my body with enough water to say I had at least been in the shower. I dragged an orange BIC razor over my chin and brushed my teeth with salt.
The whole washing process took less than three minutes. You wouldn’t find a Marine capable of a feat like that, I thought to myself. Marines do love a bit of self-pruning. Not this call sign. I needed at least one breakfast. Breakfast was a mixture of compo (field rations ) and fresh. There was a great stack of bread, some fried eggs, sausages, and baked beans. I made a sandwich the size of my head and got straight into it. I washed the whole lot down and it took less than two minutes. So within five minutes I’d washed, gotten dressed, and eaten. This left time for an executive-style dump before collecting my stuff and heading down to the lorries. Nothing worse than trying to rush a shit. All that pushing and straining will have your piles out. This was also a good time for a cigarette, if only to quell the stink from the open sewer.
I actually felt quite good on the way down to the lorry. It’s amazing how a good turnout can make you feel (20 kilos lighter). My kit was packed and my rifle was clean. I was looking forward to the day. We were doing dry contact drills in an open clearing just on the edge of the jungle. There was an air of shared excitement, as this was what we had come for.
This was soldiering. The Four Khan contact drill was a cornerstone of SF soldiering. As with everything in selection, this would be a “monkey see, monkey do” exercise. When we got to the chosen site, the drill sergeants were already formed up and ready to give a demonstration on how things should be done. Blokes jostled for the best position to see the staff perform.
One of the drill sergeants stood behind a small lectern made from cane. Behind him, a four-man team formed up as a linear four-man patrol. They had full kit on with their weapons held up in typical spec-ops style. To us mere soldiering mortals, they looked like gods. We all waited like kids waiting to see Father Christmas. There was almost a glow of excitement surrounding us as we stood there in the blazing heat in our new desert gear. This was it: the world of special forces was about to unfold in front of us. It would be up to me now whether or not I could carry out all the instruction being given and become one of these warriors.
Boom. The first flashbang went off and the four-man team went straight into the drill. It was a routine they must have performed in front of hundreds of students. Their reaction was instantaneous, and before you could zone in properly, they were wheeling away in pairs—one firing, one moving—until they broke contact and then went silent for a while before peeling off to safety. A quick head check and mag change, and it was all over. This was not going to be repeated a thousand times for our benefit. Get it in your head and get it in quick. We broke into our patrols and off we went to practice. It was steaming hot out in the open with the sun on our backs, and we spent all day perfecting the drill in the open before we’d attempt it in the close jungle, under pressure, with live rounds.
The next few days were spent ironing out any issues with kit and making sure everyone was happy before there choppered us deep into the Borneo. It’s a lot of expense, time, and effort getting the whole of selection into the trees. It needs to be right before you go to give you the best chance of passing. I was now desperate to get on with it: The beach runs were murder, I’d now packed and unpacked my kit more times than I could remember, and I was excited. I just wanted to get on the helo and head for the hills. I was ready in my own mind, even if others weren’t.
On the final beach run, I fell so far behind I couldn’t even see the leaders. I just kept going as fast as I could. I wasn’t the only one that far back. In fact, there were only about three people who could keep that pace up. Big difference with the green monkey on your back, I thought. I’d like to see ’em run like that with their gear on. The time was drawing near now to get in the jungle and do some proper soldiering. Boots, belt kit, and a rifle would be my companions for the next phase of selection. Soldiering at its simplest in the perfect environment. Special forces don’t do anything out of the ordinary; they soldier, but they soldier well. The basics are the foundation of everything, and there is no more basic an environment than under the canopy.
On the last night, we had scoff, and I remember not wanting to overeat because the last thing I wanted was to be needing a fucking great dump all day the next day when I didn’t know when I would get the chance to have one. There was not going to be breakfast the next day; we were going to be leaving at the crack of a sparrow’s fart. The helicopters (donated by the sultan of Brunei) would be taking us in two teams at a time. There would be no time to fuck about. My kit was ready, so I decided to leave it alone and try to get some sleep. Others were messing about with their stuff all night. It’s personal preference, and I would sooner trust myself enough to get some sleep when I don’t know how long it will be until I get another chance. I crawled under my mozzy net and lay on my bed. I drifted off to the sound of people doing clips up and tearing Velcro apart.
I didn’t need an alarm. The noise of the Huey helicopters was enough to wake the dead. They were early to take some of the drill sergeants in who weren’t on the advance party. We weren’t going to be travelling with them, but from now on, whether on your own or with the drill sergeants, the hills have eyes—you never know who is watching you. The rules of the jungle for selection candidates are simple. Your weapon, webbing, and belt kit are never out of arm’s reach, your gollock is worn on your body, you go everywhere in pairs outside of the harbour area, no batteries in the fire pit, and do as you’re told. It’s monkey see, monkey do, and if monkey cannot do, he goes to the helipad and fucks off on the next flight. Over the next few weeks, I would see all of these rules broken. Some would get caught, some would get away with it, but they usually got caught out elsewhere. You cannot hide in the trees, and if you are not up to task, you will be found out.
I picked my kit up and made my way toward the helipad with my team. You had full scales with you and a para bag per person, with one per patrol that had gone ahead and would already be there. That one had stuff for the harbour area to make life slightly more comfortable when not out on patrol. It also had stationary for the dreaded patrol reports, which would have to be handed in as if you had completed them in a classroom back in Hereford. My patrol was quite a way down the list, and we had quite a wait on our hands. We watched as each patrol was loaded onto the chopper, and then they would lurch off into the distance. This was the point of no return, I thought. I don’t want to see this place again until the end.
Before I knew it, we were being called forward by the loadmaster. I stood up and it took all my strength to get my bergan onto one shoulder. I lumbered over to the waiting outstretched arm that struggled to pull my kit onto the airframe. He then grabbed me, turned me around, and sat me down, feet out of the door on the skid. He handed me a harness, which went around me and my kit, and watched as I did it up. He then made sure I was clipped on. Once the whole team was on board, we waited a small while as the other chopper was loaded too. Then, as we all sat there like lambs awaiting the slaughter, the engines increased in tempo and the chopper began to pull itself into the sky, away from the now-small camp on the edge of the unknown. The whole frame shook as we cleared the billets. As we rose higher, I got my first glimpse of the vastness of the jungle.
Featured image courtesy of remotelands.com
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