Updated: Jul 8, 2020
“The spectacle of a doctor, in action among soldiers in equal danger with equal
courage, saving lives where all others are taking them, allaying fear where all others are causing it, is one which must always seem glorious, whether to God or men.” Winston Churchill
Fiona* grew weary of working in the village hospital. Nothing worked, machines were broken down, people were lethargic and time felt interminable with nothing much to do. So, after two years of service to the general public she decided to leave. She applied for two jobs, for the sake of it. There was no thought put into why she applied for any of those jobs and no research into what the work entailed. She simply cast her net wide and caught — The Military.
No one in her family understood her decision; least of all her dad. She was his last born. A child with a gentle spirit who he had nurtured into a beautiful, God-fearing lady. Why would she want to waste her life away in the military? In a bid to win him over, she told him they would give her the opportunity to pursue her masters in whatever field she desired — a statement he rejected.
“If it’s a matter of school, I can sell my three cows and pay the fees.” He offered. But she politely declined. What was the big deal about the military anyway? She would soon find out.
When she was called in for the interview at the Barracks, she arrived clad in a short skirt suit in order to put her best foot forward. When she got there, she was met by beautifully dressed officers. Nothing appeals to the senses more than a man/woman in uniform. She wanted to look like them.
“Have a seat miss,” one uniformed gentleman told her.
She looked around. There were no seats. His eyes pointed downwards. Surely he did not mean the grass! It was early in the morning and still wet with dew. She hesitated. Yet there was something in his eyes that didn’t allow for hesitation and everyone else seemed to heed. So she sat; on the hard, cold ground. ‘This was no way to treat guests,’ she thought. After brief preliminaries they were told the interviews would be in three phases — a physical, medical and finally oral.
The gentleman came back. “Ok. For the first part all you need to do is run 4 laps around that field. Whatever you do, dont walk.”
It seemed people knew what to expect because several people got up and began to change into tracks. She felt wet behind the ears as she tried to figure out what to do. No one seemed bothered so she joined the multitude, took off her shoes and took to her heels. The race began and to her surprise she ended up fourth!! From last. Next were the medicals. You would be shocked at some of the things they looked for. Apparently you can’t join the military if you are color blind, have a tattoo, are prone to keloids or have hemorrhoids amongst other things. She didn’t understand why at that point. Hindsight is 20–20.
The interviews lasted the whole day. Everyone was sandpapered by then. When the final list was called out, she had made the cut to her surprise. She was sure her weight might have disqualified her because she was as thin as a straw and she barely made the height.
“I believe the military chose me and not the other way round. I had no idea what I had signed up for,” she says.
The following day she went back to take her documents and the first thing they did was take her civilian ID. She was issued a military ID and without full insight she had signed her life away.
They were given two weeks to put their affairs in order and report for the training that was to last six months. D day was a warm, sunny day. She went into town, bought some hair products and relaxed her hair. She wanted to look the part. She only needed the combat uniform to complete the look. That day, she had on another skirt suit, heels and all her belongings in a suitcase. Clearly, she had not learnt. When they arrived, they were each given a hearty welcome and asked to surrender their documents for safekeeping. After handing them over, the demeanor of the welcoming committee suddenly changed.
“Sit down!” one of them barked. His eyes looked dead like those of a fish on ice.
What was it with the people in the military offering seats with no seats.
“Where?” she asked as she looked around.
“What is your name miss?” He balked.
“Excuse me? What!”
She immediately wanted to reel the words back in and swallow them down. It was the last time she asked a question during the whole period of training.
“Here you will be referred to as Cadet number _ _ _ _”
He yelled out what would be her 6 digit identifier. A chill washed over her, it started at the back of her neck and creeped down her body like an invisible hand. ‘What was this place? A prison?’ She wondered.
From then on orders were barked and your body followed. If not, you were punished. The seats — the ones they were being offered — were singular, deep puddles of water. And they sat, one after another. The idea was to stay there until they were soaking wet. She looked on at the entrance thinking twice about what brought her here when she saw a smartly dressed Reverend with a collar get dropped by his wife and kids. Surely they wouldn’t subject him to this. Soon enough he was in his own paddle his face arranged in undisguised shock. Next each of them was asked to carry their belongings — on their heads; while shouting left — right — left.
“I was slapped by a wave of disbelief. Surely they had to be kidding.” But they weren’t. That was her debut into training; fully soaked, balancing a large suitcase on her head while walking on her toes.
She struggled to describe in detail what she went through in those six months. I had to pry it out of her. It felt like gutting a goat. There is no day that passed that she didn’t think of running away. But she couldn’t. Because the sheer energy it would take to devise a runaway plan could be put to better use in that place. So many of her dreams vanished in a blink. The first thing to go was her beautiful hair. It was of no use there. Until then, she had never seen the shape of her head. It was hideous. Next was their uniform. A blue oversized short, Pink t — shirt, a green belt and a green sweater. She looked and felt unappealing. Like a small malnourished boy.
Then the stretching began. She soon realised her looks were the least of her worries. They were stretched until they broke and even after they broke, they were trampled upon in ways she could not articulate.
“The military tears you apart, then rebuilds you piece by piece until you feel like you have been born again. As a former medical superintendent, I had grown accustomed to giving orders and issuing directives. I had to unlearn my old ways.” In the first two months there were no days of rest. As a result, they became disoriented in time, place and person. Worse still, they could not communicate with the outside world. Looking back it was better for their sake because she would have wailed in agony if she heard anyone’s voice on the phone.
“How did you wake up each morning knowing what awaited you each day?” I ask her.
“I didn’t. The first few days I was too shocked to sleep. When the shock wears off you are only allowed 2 hours of sleep. From midnight to 2am.”
“How do you function?”
“You don’t.” She responds with masked neutrality. “I lost sense of myself and just somehow survived.”
Rest times were definitely not at night. Most people spent the nights preparing their uniforms which had to be folded into a pulp and aligned on their beds such that if an officer crouched to the level of their beds at one end of the room, he could see the uniforms in a perfectly straight line on all the beds. “Imagine how much time it took to accomplish that.” The other thing was the fluff on their blankets. They had to be smoothed flat, all facing in one direction. They did this using soap and water. The effort used was so much they preferred to sleep on the floor than disturb the order that had taken hours to create. In the beginning, she cried. Until her tear ducts ran out of tears. Crying needed energy. She didn’t have any to spare. At one point they were asked to clean the eyelets in their shoes until they glittered like diamond — with steel wool. After all that work some preferred to walk barefoot than go through the process of wearing the shoe to clean it again.
“Walking barefoot was still punishable. But we learnt soon how to choose our battles.”
Each morning, they were woken up by what felt like a blast of lightning — with banging of doors and cold water if you resisted. That’s if you were lucky to have slept. They were then assigned different chores and given 30 minutes for all of them to shower and groom. If they got late — which they always did- they were punished. The chores were something else; like cleaning grass with brooms.
“Whoever knew grass could be cleaned? Or we would be ordered to clean our living quarters with toothbrushes. Those activities looked and felt impossible at first but they later became the chores to love; because it meant you were resting.”
When they were finally allowed to attend church, it resembled a peaceful resort. They slept through and through. Classes were another chance to rest. Imagine having to sit through a lecture to listen to someone ramble about rifles.
“The trainers voice would sound like a far off dream. And if you ever got caught closing your eyes, the repercussions would wake us all up. We all got punished but at least we had slept!” The worst week which still haunts her was one they dubbed, “satanic nights.” It was a week of no sleep. None. And you were expected to be busy doing something that had been assigned to you.
“I am pretty sure I looked as unhinged as I felt. I desired sickness. I prayed for it. God did not answer.”
Punishments were as common as cornbread; and there was nowhere to hide. The officers would just appear when you did something ‘wrong’— they were omnipresent. In the first week, she could barely finish her food. It was too much. But when the hellish training began, she did more than clear her plate. She would hide all sorts of things in her pockets. Rice, beans, bread, anything. Once she had sneaked out boiled eggs to eat later and forgot to empty out her pockets. While doing push ups, the eggs rolled out of her pockets. That was the first time she got to taste what the shells of an egg taste like. She was punished and ordered to eat them all — with their shells intact. As she ate, the rest continued with the pushups when one of them— who was a bit on the heavier side — released a loud fart while struggling to keep up. Everyone held their breath wondering what they would do to him.
The officer shouted, “ What are you people waiting for? Keep going. That is his civilian nature coming out.”
One time a fellow cadet got confused during a range exercise and saluted with his left hand. A gross taboo in the military. He seemed so exhausted that they asked him to sit on the ground at a certain spot.
“I couldn’t get over how lucky he was to have escaped punishment. These guys were human after all.” Until he started squirming uncontrollably and making high pitched sounds. They had made him sit on an anthill.
Fiona’s time as a cadet passed in slender strips of time. No two days were the same. She got used to having no hair, caterpillar thick eyebrows and even her menses went on strike. She lost her period. Her scrawny boyish look had been augmented by muscle and tone. While most lost weight, she gained 4kg of muscle. She had changed to the point she could barely recognise herself. Her jaw had definition and there were hollows above her collarbone.
Opinions do not have soil to grow in the army. She realised that she was not the only one who had the correct answers in life and that there was no one way to do things. All things are possible to the mind that believes. Her mind had been transformed. At the end of the training, they all graduated.
“Did anyone fail?” I ask her.
“No one was allowed to fail. If a cadet failed, then everyone had failed. And that doesn’t happen in the military.”
She looks back with mixed feelings yet with eyes of understanding. She understood why you couldn’t be colour blind because you needed to identify your enemy and it would be disastrous if you killed the wrong person because you couldn’t identify them. For sure anyone with haemorrhoids would not have survived the training — for obvious reasons. The pressure was too much. No pun intended. The training was to condition them for war and until you went through it and came out the other side, you would hate yourself for willingly torturing your body; in the name of allegiance to your country.
“Would you do it again?”
“Not if you paid me a million dollars.”
“Surely you must have a happy ending.” I push
“I am a stronger person mentally. I am not easily shaken. I feel like as medics we are the human face of the military and a much needed break to our fellow soldiers. I am a doctor to the wounded in spirit and the wounded in flesh and I love it still.”
This is dedicated to the men and women in the Kenyan Defence Force
Narrated to me by *Fiona who wishes to remain anonymous — in case they send her back for training!
*Eyelets are holes on a shoe that are meant for threading laces.
Fiona had something called secondary amenorrhea ( absent menses that occur after normal menstruation has been established)
Some reasons include:
Eating disorders e.g. anorexia nervosa, excessive exercise and stress.
Weight loss below a certain target level (10% below ideal body weight) are associated with amenorrhea (absent menses).