Thursday, September 15

Abandon Ship

This week of downtime following my return from the mountains has been terribly quiet. Too quiet. Dead, even. So dead, in fact, that I feel like some torn and tattered feather floating on a sticky, incontinent breeze. Through a working week of purgatorial penance, dwelling and mulling over the awaiting bus, blowing me a hair's width from the simmering asphalt through towns filled with joy and laughter, far beyond and all the way to the gates of Hell. For Castelnaudary must surely be considered in such hyperbolic terms. Anything less by way of fear-inducing imagery just wouldn't do. Eight torturing weeks of near-intolerable nonsense awaits; daily two-hour runs, innumerable push-ups, countless uniform inspections, hours spent parading around while churning out a plethora of legion songs, sleep deprivation, shitty food,  the list goes on. Anyone who followed my driving exploits a short while ago can appreciate just how "upped" the ante shall be from a two-week licence to a two-month rank-increasing gauntlet. One would almost be tempted to desert……… but not quite. It'd take something far more daunting (God forbid such a thing exists in the Legion!) than the aul' Stage Caporal to have me skidaddling with my tail between my legs.

Regrettably, not all Legionnaires maintain such a resistance.

In the week-and-a-half that I was sweating buckets and dermatologically destroying my tootsies up in the Alps, a whopping tally of twenty two (yep, that's 22!) Legionnaires deserted from my regiment. Twenty-fucking-two. You don't need me to tell you that such an enormous figure over such a diminutive timeline is verging on the unprecedented. Desertions were always expected over the Summer period, three-to-four weeks of holidays with family and friends providing more than a few painfully weighted journeys back to base on that final Sunday night. My own plummet from anglophone liberty was someway buffered by a long-weekend in Paris, my friends in that fine city acting as a fireman's sheet, catching me as I leaped from the ledge of happiness and down to the unforgiving, hierarchal concrete slab below. But for others, the sheet decided to split, or ripped, or disintegrated completely as they splatted like a bottle of ketchup under the tracks of a tank. I guess my more apathetically voyeuristic side enjoys the announcement of desertions. Who was he? Did I know him? Oh, that guy? Oh well. Forget him. Move on. It really is that simple.


The Bulgarian APC driver, the guy with whom I spent six months in Afghanistan, toiling over broken gearboxes and burst tyres, listening to dance music on his iPhone with the volume turned down so as not to drown out the radio when stationed on some random hill in the Tagab Valley for hours on end, my "friend" with whom I shared a bunk-bed, a cramped cabin in that tedious succession of armored personnel carriers throughout our own anti-climactic war-on-terror has deserted. He was a corporal, sporty, never in trouble, well-liked by our superiors, and yet it all became too much for him. Not a word uttered, not a discreet beer shared before the departure. He was there in the evening. In the morning, he was not. He reached his final straw, his own personal breaking point. And so have I.

Fear not, however, as I have absolutely no plans on skipping out before the credits roll. Rather I've reached the end of my tether regarding that perplexingly preposterous paradox that is "friendship" in the Legion. A 24-carat paradox because we endure the harshest of climes and conditions, the most bizarre and challenging situations, all together, all as one. Yet apart from those resident on my Facebook page's "Friends" list, I know not their real names. I have no inkling of their families on the outside, what they've done, what they've tried to do, what they hope to do once back again on the other side of those gates. And YET, I allow myself be tricked in to believing that we share some sort of profound bond as brothers-in-arms. One can't deny that there is undoubtedly a connection between us. We live side-by-side, party side-by-side, train and fight side-by-side. Some men consider that enough. Proximity alone breeds feelings of togetherness, fraternity, family. I guess that, for some, that suffices. But not me.

I'm like that annoying twat who exits a screening of "The A-Team", belittling its plausibility and demanding recognition of the glaring holes in the plot and so-called stunts. Others might look on, somewhat bemused at my failure to simply switch my brain off at the door and enjoy it for what it is. But what exactly is it? A charade? A smoke-and-mirrors parade of superficial handshakes and back slaps? A magic elixir traveling from town to dusty town, conning simple folk in to believing that one sip can right their wrongs, win them the friends and family that civilian life failed to deliver. The same friends and family that then desert with clinical silence and swollen bank accounts after six months spent side-by-side in the most dangerous country on earth. Side-by-side, like two strangers on the metro, two drunken idiots queuing one behind the other for drinks in a tacky, garish nightclub. Aye, side-by-side. Nothing more.

Fool me once, and all that jazz.

It seems that the Legion has become an institution of extremes. It's ranks are filled with either those who realise all too quickly that it's not what they had expected and the only option is a sharp u-turn through the gates that welcomed them not so long ago, or alternatively those who are here for the long haul, a career (if you could call it that), a life of unwavering servitude for a wage triple that available at home and for a pitiful excuse of a day's work. My kind are a dying kind. Here for the five, boss. Here for the five. Criminalised from the outset at refusing to sign on beyond the five years, that judge-and-jury hierarchy seems to have overlooked the fact that just staying the five years in itself is becoming an increasingly rarer phenomenon. Guys in their final eighteen months resemble men who've worked their entire lives in the same job. Sixty four and crossing off the days on a calendar with a big red pen, the coal mines left behind but always with the soot trapped under the fingernails, for the rest of their days. Personally, I've given up scrubbing. Here for the five, boss, and not a single day more.

But never a single day less.

Sunday, September 4

The Hills Are Alive

The only thing you can be sure of in the Legion is that you can be sure of nothing. Arriving back from a four-week break last Sunday evening saw me mentally prepared for three weeks spent at regiment, calmly and methodically maintaining and gradually improving my physical condition before a two-month promotion course back at the infamous Castel. Cue Monday morning and the sobering news bulletin that I was in fact being sent off up the Alps for a week-and-a-half for the company's annual mountaineering course. Oh joy! 

The Brevet D'Alpiniste Militaire (or the "BAM" to those in the know, ya know?) is a three-week mountaineering course undertaken in the Summer months along France's Alpine borders. Comprising of a host of mountain disciplines such as rock-climbing, abseiling, glacier navigation, etc, it is the sister course to the French Army's winter counterpart - the Brevet De Skieur Militaire (BSM).

Not that the course isn't one of the more interesting, challenging and (at the very minimum) physically rewarding on offer within the Legion itself. Rather my surprise and unease at being included on its roll-call stemmed from its chronological proximity to the afore-mentioned Corporal course. Let's not forget that this time last year I was also scheduled to kick off my two-month promotion course, before a terrifically disgusting ankle injury put paid to thoughts of climbing up the ranks. I had received assurances from my lieutenant that the mountaineering course would have to do without my grace of presence this time round, thus avoiding a large threat to my physical well-being so close to the trip to Castel.

But with said lieutenant now (rather timely) departed, I find myself high up in France's (rather spectacular) Savoie region, gulping down lungfuls of fresh alpine air as the skin covering my heels and toes slowly disappears into an obscure and murky maroon swamp of congealed cotton deep inside my steaming boots. Vive la Legion indeed.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Indisputably, this past week of intensive marching, hiking, rock climbing and mountain trail-running has proved just the tonic after a month-long hedonistic binge back home. The thigh, calf and ass muscles may be burning excruciatingly but the cause is just and that self-servingly utopian feeling of getting in to proper shape is slowly flooding over all us Legionnaires. The unavoidable crash courses in blister-treatment also serve as a bonus pre-cursor to the two months of punishment awaiting me in Castel two weeks from now. Fitness incentives aside though, the Legion's chalet here in Valloire is one of the few genuinely enjoyable refuges from regimental life. While most off-base locations encompass sub-standard plumbing, dodgy beds and timetables horribly incompatible with human sleep patterns, here at Valloire we can rely on shiny new installations with ample food and even sleep.

The reason?

As the old saying goes "The mountains don't joke around". If expected to scramble up to summits ranging from 2,500m to 3,750m, even our occasionally sadistic superiors recognise the need for decent grub and a good night's kip. Combine said altitudes and gradients (a standard climb would see us cover between 900m to 1,750m in under three hours) with a backpack stuffed with the essentials such as helmets, rope, ice axes, crampons, carabiners, helmets, several litres of water, the whole kit 'n caboodle basically, and you've an idea of just how much of a sweat can be worked up on a daily basis up here. In fact, the ascent is undoubtedly the "easy" part. Sure, the thighs are ready to explode and the back burns white-hot by the time we reach the top, but that's nothing compared to the descent. Knee shocks, ankle jerks, uneven surfaces and dislodged rocks during the return down to base camp (undertaken at a frightening speed decided by some rookie lieutenant out to prove something, although only God knows what) leave leg nerves shattered with some twitches continuing well in to the night.

Fortunately I'm only here for a half of the three-week duration, being allowed a week or so to recuperate before embarking on the next major milestone in my Legion career - Stage Caporal! The horror stories emanating from Castel surpass legendary at this point, but alas it is an obstacle that must be conquered in order to continue on my (sometimes rocky) road towards that day in August 2013, that mythical fin de contrat. I should be able to publish at least one more blog post before I dive in to the dauntingly deep blue. But first, I have to make it back to my regiment in one piece.

What? There's a storm brewing? Maybe we should stay inside today Sarge? What? No? Oh, okay……….