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Back in camp and good to go

As Singapore celebrates 50 years of national service, The Straits Times follows a battalion of motorised infantry soldiers as they go through their fifth cycle of in-camp training

As a large banner celebrating 50 years of national service gleams under the first rays of the morning sun, cars begin to pull up outside the gates of Jurong Camp II, disgorging men in army camouflage uniforms who are booking in for their first day of in-camp training (ICT).

Some arrive in taxis; many turn up in family sedans driven by their parents or wives.

A brief farewell, a hurried unloading of duffel bags and off they go, through the gates and up the hill to their barracks, back to a life of training and regimentation.

For the 700 men of the 746th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (746SIR), this annual gathering is a routine affair.

When they enlisted in the 2nd Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (2SIR) for full-time national service in 2009, they were one of the first units to adopt the concept of motorised infantry in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

Thanks to a fleet of Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles at their command, these men, who in the past would have had to march long distances, can now cover ground in an armoured vehicle boasting remote-control machine guns and a battlefield-management system that shows the location of friendly and enemy forces. It even allows them to communicate with their headquarters and other support units, including attack helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles.

In September 2010, the men completed their NS and the unit became an operationally ready national service battalion, renamed as 746SIR.

In the pre-dawn semi-darkness, combat troops from Bravo Company make their way to a cluster of buildings they have been tasked to attack. Executive photojournalist Alphonsus Chern follows the motorised infantry soldiers of the 746th Battalion, Singap
Alert and ready for combat: In the pre-dawn semi-darkness, combat troops from Bravo Company make their way to a cluster of buildings they have been tasked to attack. Executive photojournalist Alphonsus Chern follows the motorised infantry soldiers of the 746th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (746SIR), going through their fifth cycle of in-camp training as Singapore marks 50 years of national service this year. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Several months before the ICT, every soldier in the battalion receives an official call-up notice known as the SAF100, which invokes the familiar love-hate mix of emotions that most men harbour towards compulsory military service.

"When the SAF100 comes around, there is this feeling of apprehension," says Second Sergeant (NS) Inderpal Singh Dillon, 28, who leads a portable anti-tank missile detachment. "But when we get here, it's like riding a bike - our drills are already ingrained and we are good to go."


Members of Alpha Company unpack and settle in at their bunks on the first day of in-camp training by stringing up a makeshift clothes line for them to hang their uniforms. Clearly, the men expect to have to do a fair amount of laundry in the days ahead. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

That sentiment of apprehension is shared by the unit's commanding officer.

"There will always be this 'book-in' feeling the night before when I know I won't be able to see my boy for the next few days," says Major (NS) Gregory Foo. "I know that my men would also be feeling the same way, but I tell them that the security of our loved ones is one important reason why we serve."


Soldiers browse the running shoes and combat boots in the footwear department of the SAF’s eMart. The eMart is almost a guaranteed pit stop for every NSman during breaks as this is where they can stock up on essential items such as garters and toothpaste, and other nice-to-haves such as soft drinks and snacks. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

The two weeks of ICT are particularly important for the unit as it prepares for the Army Training Evaluation Centre (ATEC) Stage 1 test, a milestone test that evaluates each soldier on his basic drills and weapon proficiency, culminating in an exercise where each company is tested on its ability to attack an objective and capture it.

A route march, weapons live-firing exercise and physical fitness test round up the two-week programme, and then it is time for the men to clean their bunks, cram their gear into their black duffel bags and head home to their families.


Corporal (NS) Leong Qi Shun (right), 26, a platoon medic, has his hair checked by the regimental sergeant major, Second Warrant Officer (NS) Foo Chee Kim, 35, upon booking in to camp for the first time. NSmen whose hair does not meet the standards are sent to the camp barber. According to 2WO (NS) Foo, who works in an American multinational finance company, a soldier’s hair must not touch his ears or eyebrows. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

In February 2018, the men will meet in camp again for their next ICT, and 2SG (NS) Singh Dillon is looking forward to it.

"I love all of my guys," says the Uber driver. "We stayed together, trained together and 'fought' together during our full-time NS; it's a bond that can't be broken by just a few months apart."


On its first day in camp, the battalion goes on a 4km route march, where every soldier wears a load-bearing vest and carries his personal weapon – an SAR-21, a Section Automatic Weapon or a general purpose machine gun – and marches around the camp with his comrades-in-arms. Such physical activities help to strengthen the bond between fellow soldiers and also get them prepared for the training to come. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Since 1967, over one million men have enlisted in the SAF and Home Team for full-time NS.

Many families today have not just one, but two generations of national servicemen, just like2SG (NS) Singh Dillon's family. His younger brother is a combat engineer, his older brother is a medic in the Singapore Civil Defence Force, and his father was a regular in the SAF's armour formation.


In the pre-dawn darkness, combat troops from Bravo Company make their way through thick vegetation towards a cluster of buildings they have been tasked to attack. The soldiers leading the way use night-vision equipment to navigate the route, and taking this photograph was possible only by using a long-exposure method. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Major (NS) Foo, 39, a civil servant, hopes his two-year-old son will follow in his footsteps.

"I want to be a role model for my boy," he adds. "I say to him: 'When you grow up, you will serve in the army, just like your daddy.'"


Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles rumble down a track during the 746SIR’s Army Training Evaluation Centre Stage 1 exercise. Built around an 8x8 wheel chassis, the 24-tonner has various weapon platforms that allow each vehicle to engage different types of targets. 746SIR (formerly 2SIR, during its active phase) was the first motorised infantry unit to use the Terrex as the mainstay of its operations. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
 


At a makeshift counter at Kranji Camp II, the “ammo party” meticulously counts each round of belted machine-gun ammunition after the soldiers return their ammunition following a late-night exercise. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN


With barbed wire “blown apart” by Bangalore Torpedoes, and under protection by a hail of 7.62mm bullets laid down by two general purpose machine guns, the point section of Bravo Company storms the first of several “enemy-held” buildings, kicking down doors and systematically clearing out room after room as they re-occupy the premises. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN


Section commander Third Sergeant (NS) Tan Yongwen, 28, who works as a biomedical engineer, “fireman lifts” Third Sergeant (NS) Alastair Tan, 27, an accounts officer, as part of a casualty evacuation procedure at the end of a company attack mission where “injured” soldiers are taken to a medical station for treatment. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN


Recruits undergoing training at the Singapore Armed Forces Basic Military Training Centre in Pulau Tekong. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN


An enlistee eating his lunch at the cookhouse in the Singapore Armed Forces Basic Military Training Centre in Pulau Tekong. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN


Two NSmen from Alpha Company catch up with each other as they settle into their bunks on the first day of their In-Camp Training, while others set up a makeshift clothes line on which to hang their uniforms. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN


Master Sergeant William Ramesh (far right), 35, an army regular and the Alpha Company assistant platoon trainer, briefs the NS battalion's General Purpose Machine Gun teams before they begin practice stripping and assembling the weapons in preparation for their Infantry Book Of Standards test the next day where they will be graded on their speed and accuracy in handling the 11.79-kilogramme weapon. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN


A mortar team from the Support Company rehearses their drills, which consist of setting up the 120mm mortar tube, aligning it with the target, loading the mortar round, a simulated firing, and extracting it safely should it fail to launch. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN


The Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) is a perennial component of every In-Camp Training (ICT). Here, Company Medic Third Sergeant (NS) Mirza Abdul Halim, 27, strains to complete his final push-ups on the wooden floor of the camp's multi-purpose hall as his buddy counts off the numbers for him. In civilian life, 3SG Mirza works as a Registered Nurse. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN


Pointer in hand, the Officer Commanding Bravo Company, Captain (NS) Poon Chong Lin, 27, briefs his commanders on the mission plan that they will have to execute later that night. A basketball coach in civilian life, Captain (NS) Poon leads nearly 100 men during field exercises such as these. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN


Every soldier remembers the feeling of applying their "make up" before an outfield exercise. From an oily paste which took copious amounts of soap and scrubbing to remove, camouflage paint is now available as a water-soluble paint that is both easy to apply and remove. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN


In the pre-dawn darkness, combat troops from Bravo Company crouch by the side of a track on their way to a cluster of buildings they have been tasked to attack. The leading troops have to use night-vision equipment to navigate, and the presence of these soldiers formed up and ready for action is only revealed by a long exposure in the camera. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN


Section Commander Second Sergeant (NS) Inderpal Singh Dillon, fires his SAR-21 rifle at the Multi-Mission Range Complex during his battalion's live-fire shoot. The indoor range features lighting controls that simulate both day and night conditions, an efficient way of doing away with the need for soldiers to wait for nightfall to commence "night shoots". ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN


The final day of In-Camp Training (ICT) for the NSmen from 746th Battalion as they out-pro from the Infantry Training Institute at Jurong Camp II on Aug 12, 2017.  ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2017, with the headline 'Back in camp and good to go'. Print Edition | Subscribe