Factual account of Brunei!
Exercise Lancer is our first overseas exercise, among many firsts that occurred during this enriching trip. Of course, ‘enriching’ would be by no chance be the word of choice to describe my initial feelings when I left for Brunei. 24 days is a long time to be away from anything you hold dear. This could be anything from your bed, your family, girlfriend, or even food. So it is with a heavy heart that I embarked on our flight away from home. But the best thing about the army is that we always have friends around. At the airport, seeing so many of us saying goodbyes to family and friends, all feeling as low and unwilling as me, I felt marginally better knowing I am not alone in this.
The journey to Lakiun camp was excruciatingly long. It’s like as if it was meant to drive deep into us the fact that we are getting further and further away from home and civilization, until finally we reach the metal gates and the familiar sight of a MP in smart 4. The first day was remembered for a few distinct things: A captain taking the effort to shake all of our hands individually without regard for our rank, the burning weather, and the surprisingly good lunch with that first and last ice cream cone. At that point of time, none of us had any idea how much this cookhouse would mean to us in days to come.
I still remember how I felt about Lakiun Camp when I first set in and woke up the next morning. It was military alright, with all the field camp style bunks. But as I stepped out and looked out into the far horizon and all the plain greenery and inhaled the fresh air, I felt that it was probably a good idea to come all the way here for a change of environment and even to get posted here, if not for the life that I have back in Singapore. The next few days in Brunei would eventually introduce us to the erratic and punishing weather, with code black from 8am to 3pm, and a swift and decisive downpour after which.
The guided navex was quite memorable. The guided navex team had 4 of my actual JCC team mates, so we banded together to form a detail. Our instructor from Team Two was warrant Phillip. At first look, all of us were very apprehensive and afraid of him, as he had the sort of aura that told anybody not to mess with him. Well I guess we all guessed right, because it turned out that he’s a commando with some 6 years plus experience in the jungles of Brunei as a cadre. He turned out to be a truly inspirational figure in both his philosophy and methods of teaching. I can still vividly remember him asking us: why do you want to do this in this way? Does it agree with your own thoughts? Whenever we tell him of any rumours we hear of JCC and whatnot, he would counter it by asking us if we really trust the source of the rumour. His advice in the end: Go and experience it yourself, for everybody has different expectations of everything. As we followed him along a reverse Trekker route, he taught us what to do at splitroads, which is to send recce teams for at least 100m. And if there was a turn or bend at 100m, the team will proceed on to determine where it will turn towards. This first foray into the ridgelines of Brunei really opened our eyes, as there were no such obvious ridgelines back in Singapore.
The first river crossing practice was really a gross underestimation of the actual day. The river current was not that bad, so we were able to get across with little difficulty. The main trouble I had as the swimmer was having to haul the waterlogged fieldpack up the river bank, which was twice my height at low tide.
Before we knew it, it was time for Infantry Package. To be honest, I was quite dreading it, mainly for two reasons. I didn’t like the idea of going outfield and risk injuring myself just before JCC, and the extra 3 days of exercise Helang just felt like such a drag. To make matters worse, the force preparation was quite hectic and confusing, because the items packlist was only settled on there and then. Even to the last minute, I was still not quite sure if I had everything I was supposed to bring. I was looking forward to my first helicopter ride. As the super puma came in, I really did not expect the gust of wind to be so strong and I nearly got knocked off my high kneel position. It was also then that I realized the need for the goggles and ear plugs. As we flew towards JV, I took in the scenery of Brunei, and fully understood what they meant by ‘thick foilage’.
As we deplaned from the helicopter and made our way down the small trademark knoll, I took in JV for what it was: a village. Luckily, we only had to set up our harbouring site for that day and do AOP, nothing else.
Our first exercise, Temada, was quite an eye opener as we really experienced the constraints of ridgeline fighting. Personally, ridgeline fighting is just another term for close-quarters fire fight, which basically means a lot of clumping together and confusion as information needs to be pumped down(quite slowly) the line. Bound by bound movement was also considerably harder. As the MG commander for the first mission, I had firsthand difficulty mainly with determining whether to move up ahead of the point man, or stay put and provide covering fire. So it is with these issues that we passed through the first day of fighting in Brunei.
Live firing was another experience altogether, as we could really understand the dangers of this shoot. Even my section mate approached me to ask me to lower my gun once he starts moving, which just shows that we know how dangerous it was going to be. Fortunately, nothing bad happened and all of us went away with more confidence in ourselves.
When the rain came and drove the super pumas away from us, the feeling really sucked. But thinking back, I am actually glad we did the trek out. This way, no one can really say that we did not experience the full infantry package, like as previous batches did.
Exercise Helang started in earnest with a long trek to our first objective up until we reached Batu Apoi. As a swimmer, I was really caught offguard by the strong current. After the water crossing, we continued towards our objective, as commander OCS looked on. The attack itself was a blur to me, as I was part of the breaching force and there was so much happening after the conc wire was breached.
I felt that it was rather unique that we were given the scenario to recapture our harbouring ground. It was like as if telling us that we had to capture the objective or else there would be no where to sleep for the night. So with that, we completed Helang 2 in near darkness, and ended the day knowing that we completed 2 missions back to back. Thankfully, Helang 3 was in SBO, which really helped a lot and our last battle was then quite decently carried out.
Finally, we got back to camp and started recovering and preparing for JCC. The force preparation was a real pain as usual. It was as simple as just making sure we had all the minimum packing stuff, but somehow we will always miss out one or two or find out that we had something extra. For me, I made the bad mistake of not checking my bag thoroughly, for I got a minor for thrash found in my field pack, which was very stupid. The next day, we spammed chocolates and headed off for the start of Exercise Nomad.
For my team, Exercise Nomad had to be the most defining time of our JCC. The first hour was spend floundering around, backtracking twice, wasting one whole hour lost and back at the SP, and who knew-we would go on to be the team that obtained our last and fourth checkpoint at lunchtime on the second day. It really boiled down to our team’s discipline and strong sense of responsibility. We always rested strictly to the time allocated and everyone of us did our jobs as professionally as we could. When tough times came, when other groups just did not care about plotting or pacing because the terrain is too tough, our members will be pressing on, doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. Others plotted every 100m, we plotted every 50m to strive for greater accuracy. The result? We were able to pinpoint our location based on plotting, and there were moments when the plotter would say, 50m ahead we should reach the checkpoint and voila, it really was the case. Along the way, interesting things happened, like how we tried wild durians with red flesh that tasted like papaya. In the end, we reached our end point on the last day at 8am, and basked in the glory of having a comfortable 25 points in our pockets.
Exercise Explorer was actually quite nightmarish. Climbing up Telugong was quite a fun experience due to all the mountain climbing on all fours, but the way down was totally depressing because it seemed that no matter how far we went, we were never out of the mountain. In the end, almost the whole wing had to harbor in the middle of the forest as we were just stuck in it. The next day was a lot better, as we managed to find the next checkpoint and went on to climb Mt Biang, the one we have all been waiting for. Unfortunately, one of my section mates and detail mate sprained his ankle while going up. It really pained me to see him struggling but knowing him, I knew he would endure on, which he did. The climb up Biang was actually easier than expected, and it was truly my best outfield night at the top of Biang, harbouring next to a giant bonfire as it was too cold to sleep anywhere away from the fire. At that point in my time, I thanked everything I could for the unbelievably good weather so far. The climb down Mt Biang was actually very difficult, and as the whole wing moved together, it was extremely frustrating when everybody just bottleneck at one point. In the end, we had to try direct bashing and very fortunately, we managed to get to the link up point.
Exercise Forager was unlike what I thought it would be. All of us were looking forward to it as it seemed very fun to build all those structures. However, I found it hectic and a mad rush to finish everything in time in the end, which kind of marred the experience. Luckily, my hard work paid off and I passed the assessment. During the whole phase, I felt that I really blended in with the jungle, just brushing off any insects casually and even not caring about my permanently muddy hands. Even the quail killing was like going through motion for me.
Upon reaching the common harbouring ground after assessment day, I was shocked to see everyone after 3 days. So many of them changed so much, with all their moustache and cheekbones all showing. Some of them also had no rations left, which I thought was quite scary.
The last stretch, Trekker, was another wing movement navex. It really sucks to be the first initially, but after having to backtrack, become one of the third or second detail. In the end, I think we took a longer way as the other details at the other start points reached Cynthia gate a lot faster than us. But no matter, in the end, after reaching Phoenix landing point, all of us literally ran to Cynthia gate into the open arms of our instructor, ending a memorable and challenging part of our army life.
JCC will be a landmark in my life, a moment to fall back to whenever I feel tired or giving up, as it was during this time that I pushed on through hunger and fatigue, and conquered my innermost fears.