The first phase of the trees is a learning phase, and although you remain tactical in the Harbor area, you still have to attend lessons. There is never a minute when you can afford to switch off. If the drill sergeants think you fucked up, they’ll send you directly to the ERV—the emergency rendezvous. If the area were to be attacked, you were expected to make rapid time to the ERV and carry out the drill. You needed the ERV’s location details at all times, and they did change. Failure to make the ERV should you be dispatched would probably mean an early bath and a free plane ride back to the U.K. Throughout the whole of selection, the Sword of Damocles is not just over your head, it’s actually held to your neck. You are constantly under extraordinary pressure to succeed.

The schoolhouse was up a hill, which made anything on the hills look like a pimple. This meant that every time you had a lesson, you went up that hill and were hanging out before the lesson even started. Combined with the heat and humidity of the place, you were permanently soaking—whether it was raining or not. The importance of keeping your dry kit dry could not be overstated. You would never get anything dry again if you got it soaking. Probably the best way to learn how to administrate yourself properly. No shortcuts here. Those who tried were pretty much the first to go. A tap on the shoulder and the instruction to get your kit and “fuck off” to the helipad was pretty much all the notice you got if you had done enough to fail.

BOOM! A battery in the burn pit exploded. It was followed by calls to, “Stand to, stand to!” Pet hate for the drill sergeants was batteries being tossed in the rubbish for burning. It was an instant ERV offense. We were halfway through a navigation lesson, learning about how to refer to contours as shapes. Without warning, we were headed for the ERV. Everyone bomb-bursting away from the position trying to get their kit on and and get their compass out to get a bearing for the ERV. It was less than a kilometer away, but in the jungle, that is a fucking awfully long way. No tracks were to be used, so it was cross-graining from the off.

In the jungle, this is the hardest way to cut around. Point to point, no easy way or following to the contours to escape the severity of the hill, and no stopping in this instance. Blokes were everywhere. It was a complete shambles. The point we were to get to was pretty random, too, as it would be. There is no point going to a prominent position, as the chances are the enemy would have that pinged and an ambush ready. It meant your pacing and bearing needed to be spot on. All I could hear was people crashing through the trees and swearing.

At first I slightly overshot the ERV, but realized what I’d done when someone else fell over on some thorns and had a good swear. The drill sergeants must have been watching our first attempt out in the trees on our own, and were no doubt wondering how the fuck they were ever going to turn any of us into troopers. There was no question that they were pugged up somewhere, watching. You knew you were under constant surveillance from all angles. There was never anywhere you were completely safe, which was a good thing because the same rules apply in combat. The enemy were hardly going to let you have a respite if they could help it.

After about 30 minutes in the ERV, melting and wondering if we were in the right place, the drill sergeants showed up. They performed a quick head count, explained why we were there, and sent us all back to the schoolhouse. As we sat down, we could see an array of kit on the drill sergeants’ table behind the lectern. Sure enough, it all belonged to guys on the course: a water bottle, a map case, a couple of notebooks, and, unbelievably, a whole grab sack.

“You know whose it is,” said the drill sergeant. “Come and fucking get it.” The guilty parties lumbered up, heads held low like they were lambs heading to the slaughter. They retrieved their kit and went and sat back down. “I will speak to those cunts later,” said the same drill sergeant. “Next time there will be a helicopter waiting for people who discard their kit.” Warnings don’t come any clearer than that. No need to tell anyone off in public; the walk of shame said it all, and now everyone was fully aware of the consequences. It was the way things are done in the SF world. It’s called big boys’ rules, and there was a perfect demonstration right off the bat and within two days of being in the trees.

We caught up with the lessons we missed while running around the trees in our own time, which meant scoff was not the all-singing all-dancing curry I had planned. We hastily boiled our bags that night and got ready to stand to at last light. As we stood to, the drill sergeants came around, and I heard them tell the guy who had left his whole grab sack in the schoolhouse that he would be on the chopper in the morning. I guess to leave an item is one thing, but to blatantly run off without a major part of your kit is another. The guys who left the other kit had made a lucky escape, but no doubt their cards were marked. They would have to be proper performing from now on to offset the fuck-up.