SINGAPORE - When ME3 Joseph Brandon Celestine unpacked his luggage after returning from a two-week mission fighting forest fires in Indonesia last October, he was surprised by the acrid smell that clung to his clothing.
"We got so used to operations there that we didn't realise how bad the environment was until we came back. Even after doing laundry the clothes smelled for days, so you can imagine how intense it was," said the 45-year-old Air Force flight engineer.
On Monday, he was one of 109 Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) servicemen presented with Overseas Service Medals (OSM) at a ceremony at the Ministry of Defence.
Among them were 33 recipients from the Republic of Singapore Air Force and Army who participated in the SAF's aerial fire-fighting operations in Indonesia along with a six-man Disaster Assistance and Relief Team from the Singapore Civil Defence Force.
Over the course of two weeks, the team performed 47 water-bombing operations and put out about 35 hot spots in the south Sumatran capital of Palembang, where Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) levels reached over 1,000.
Flying in limited visibility amid the thick haze was one of the biggest challenges, said mission commander Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Vincent Tan, though with careful planning and co-ordination with Indonesian authorities, the job was completed without incident.
Another 76 servicemen received OSMs for their deployment to the Middle East in anti-ISIS coalition efforts. Over the past year, the SAF has supplied intelligence resources and other support to the Combined Joint Task Force.
Speaking at the ceremony, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen spoke about the SAF's role in protecting Singapore from terrorism.
"Our mission, we have sworn, is to protect Singapore and Singaporeans. The SAF must step up to this challenge and it cannot fail in this mission," he said. "This is why the SAF has been involved in multinational counter terrorism operations since 2007. We deployed in Afghanistan for six years against Al Qaeda and over the past year against ISIS.
"Our contributions represent small but niche capabilities that have been operationally useful to the coalition. We join this fight because if we do not triumph over extremist terrorism, the danger and risks to our citizens here will only grow."