SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - One man returns to in-camp training hours after his wedding, forgoing prior plans for a honeymoon.
Another fights to be declared medically fit after chemotherapy so that he too can be with his band of brothers.
This is 823 SIR.
The commanding officer's letter to the men went viral last week.
In it he talks about a unit so close that it's like a family, and one where other officers and men request to be transferred to.
The men themselves say it is no exaggeration. They will do anything for their fellows in the unit.
Cancer didn’t stop him from returning to camp
Mr Larry Mok, 36, could have been declared non-combat fit after his bout with cancer, but his bond with his fellow servicemen in the 823 Singapore Infantry Regiment is so strong that he insisted on taking part in their in-camp training (ICT).
He admits with a smile that his wife was apprehensive about his decision, but as far as he was concerned, he belonged with his brothers in the field.
“We’re family,” he tells this reporter proudly.
Last week, an open letter on Facebook by the unit’s commanding officer (CO) was widely shared. In it, LTC (NS) Darren Tan spoke of an extraordinary unit that had men pleading to reject deferments for ICT requested by their employers.
A unit that had people requesting to join them, and one where men reported to serve, not because they had to, but because they wanted to.
Mr Mok, who is a business development manager in civilian life and who holds the NS rank of First Sergeant, echoes his CO’s words.
He explains that there is genuine affection among the men. “Even if something happens, I know that they will take care of me,” he says.
Over the last seven years, this band of brothers has seen each other go through life, starting off as raw soldiers, says Mr Mok.
“We’ve been there for one another all this while, even through life problems such as debt and failed relationships.”
One of them used to be a gangster and always got into trouble, but the unit watched over him and nudged him to a better path. They all watched him change into a better man and eventually become a father, he says.
Similarly, Mr Mok experienced the full strength of the brotherhood when he was down.
In August 2014, the week he turned 35 years old — he received bad news from his doctor: Stage 3 cancer in his nose.
His son was just three years old and his newborn girl, less than two weeks old.
It was a body blow to the man who had been extra fit all his life, often running full marathons.
The next two months were painful. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy meant that he lost hair, appetite and energy.
He was buoyed by the comforting messages left by his army mates.
When he reported for ICT, he saw that heavy loads like boxes had already been lifted so that he would not have to carry them. Their gentle reminders for him to rest ensured that he never over-exerted himself.
“Those gestures meant so much to me,” says Mr Mok.
Looking back on his decision to join up with his unit on the last time they trained together, Mr Mok says wistfully: “I hope that when my kids are older and hear about what daddy did, they will know that I chose the right way instead of the easy way out.”
Honey, our honeymoon can wait
Hours after his wedding ceremony, he was on his way to Pulau Tekong with his battalion, the 823 Singapore Infantry Regiment.
Audio and visual executive Mohammad Azmi Arifin, 30, explains that he was taken by surprise when his in-camp training (ICT) dates were released.
He and his wife, air stewardess Shatinah Mohmad Noor, 24, had planned their ceremony on Nov 1 for months.
Then came the news that Mr Azmi’s battalion would have a crucial evaluation test and the two-week training stint was slated to start from Oct 26.
The corporal could have deferred his ICT but he decided to forgo his honeymoon instead.
He knew that his battalion was short of drivers and he was determined to do everything he could to help out.
“It was an important evaluation for the battalion, and I wouldn’t want to go through this with anyone else,” he explains. “I just felt the need to come back and complete this with them.”
Madam Shatinah admits she was initially exasperated. She had taken a whole week off following the wedding for their honeymoon. “I was really disappointed at first,” she says.
“Eventually, I had to spend that week alone but I knew that he would be very happy to be with his close friends during training so I just let him go.”
Mr Azmi says the men in the battalion asked him to take the Friday before his wedding off and helped him cover his duties.
He adds that even if his family members or wife disagreed, he would still find a way to go for ICT because that is how much he loves his “brothers”.
Commander didn’t expect his letter to go viral
He wanted to write a note to thank his battalion, but he never thought that the letter on Facebook would receive so much attention on social media.
The commanding officer of the 823 Singapore Infantry Regiment battalion, LTC (NS) Darren Tan, 44, tells
The New Paper on Sunday: “I am blessed with a group that is so bonded that I can call them family.”
Netizens were agog when they read about how commanders and men asked for medical upgrades to participate in outfield exercises, men with expectant wives or newborns going for in-camp training (ICT).
In his letter, LTC (NS) Tan said: “In my 26 years wearing the uniform, I’ve not experienced a battalion like 823 SIR.
“When we first came together seven years ago, crafting our mission statement, we put in place the foundations of what 823 SIR would become.
“Our mission statement as it stood then and stands now: One family with unwavering passion to excel in the protection of our home. Our emphasis was on ‘family’.
“If we would become a family, we would serve because we want to, not because we have to.
“This was the philosophy undergirding my leadership thinking throughout the last seven years.
“We had an idea that if we emphasised relationship and care, we can obtain a greater buy-in than what we could achieve by mere military regimentation.
“We suspected that we will achieve something significant together. You have proven this. Again and again.”
The pastor and founder of a training consultancy says: “I never meant for the post to go viral... I was happy because my guys really deserve the credit for their hard work but was a little bit worried because social media can be quite relentless.
“But in the end, I’m glad there were a lot of positive comments.”
He hopes that even after the battalion’s training cycle ends, his men will “continue serving other units with the same values”.
He ended his letter by saying: “You have distinguished yourselves and you can always hold your head up high.
“The story of 823 will be told to your families and generations of soldiers entering NS in the days to come.”
Cancer-stricken mum told him to focus on ICT
His mother was on her sickbed, suffering from advanced breast cancer.
But she knew her son wanted to be with his NS unit.
Mr Muhammad Ridhwan Surian, 30, admits he initially felt conflicted. He told his mum, Madam Iznah Ahmad, then 51, that he would defer the training and spend more time with her.
The school programme executive says: “She told me that I should go and meet them because I don’t get to see them every year.
“She also said that it was my responsibility to go back and serve the country and I shouldn’t defer just for her.”
When he was away, his mother’s condition deteriorated, but she kept telling his elder sister to tell him to focus on his training and stop worrying about her.
The corporal, who is a rifleman, says he remembers how the officers were there for him and how the close-knit unit rallied around him.
“If anything had happened, they would definitely have let me go back to see her,” he says.
He returned from his ICT in time to spend his mother’s last days with her.
She died on June 30, 2013.
“Her last words to me? Live my life to the fullest and with no regrets,” he says.