As a third year Army officer cadet at the Australian Defence Force Academy, I spent the blisteringly hot months of February and March 1994 at one of the Army’s most recognised field training hellholes: Singleton in New South Wales.
Whilst the Air Force cadets jetted between air conditioned Officers’ Messes during their Single Service Training, Army SST was spent learning infantry minor tactics, undertaking weapons training and being beasted by cranky sergeants in inhospitable places like Puckapunyal, High Range (near Townsville) and Singleton.
An Army training facility since the first World War, Singleton is renowned for its scorching Summer temperatures, its insalubrious lodgings, and the biggest bloody red ants that I have ever encountered in my life.
Those ants struck fear into our hearts. Woe betide the poor soul who landed on an ant nest during ‘fire and movement’ training. A single bite was enough to cause intense pain and a nasty skin welt, but multiple bites could easily put you into hospital with anaphylactic shock. On occasions, cadets would attempt to even the ledger by dissecting an errant ant with a bayonet, but this only prompted a renewed and more concerted attack – this time on two fronts, with the thorax and abdomen both taking up the fight in spite of their dismemberment.
At Singleton, we were housed in ‘H Block’, a camp consisting of old, asbestos-riddled Vietnam-era huts that seemingly hadn’t received any maintenance work since the last Nashos trained there in the early 1970s.
There was no ventilation in the huts, let alone cooling, and outside there was limited shade. Whilst the evening brought some respite from the heat, it also signalled the beginning of an unrelenting mosquito onslaught. Daubing ourselves from head to toe with the Army issue insect repellant – the kind that melts watch faces and is more than likely carcinogenic – was a necessity. Standard Aerogard just didn’t cut it, regarded as a condiment by the voracious mozzies.
Whilst the mozzies were well fed, we were not. They say that an Army marches on its stomach, but the rations at Singleton were meagre and I remember feeling hungry for much of the time. Portion sizes were controlled by a fat, moustachioed corporal cook who looked like he had been putting aside the best rations for his own consumption. As we filed through the meal point, he would look threateningly at us, poised to strike out at any cadet who dared take more than their fair share. Cadets who cheekily attempted to take more than one type of meat would receive a swift and stern rebuke: ‘One selection, put it back!’.
The most dreaded time of the day in H Block was 0545hrs in the morning – ‘reveille’ or ‘wake up’ time. The still of the night would be broken by shuffling bodies, creaking bed frames and sleeping bag zippers, as a horde of bleary eyed cadets stumbled their way to the latrines. A requirement of Army routine is to be cleanly shaven before first parade, which was physical training at 0600hrs. A cold water shave at that time of morning, often without the use of a mirror, does little for your skin, or your morale.
At 0600hrs sharp we were to be ‘formed up’ in rank and file ready for the Physical Training Instructor’s daily torture session. PTIs are a strange breed and not renowned for being too clever. Indeed, PTIs are euphemistically known as ‘lobsters’, because they have beautiful bodies, but their heads are full of shit.
The standard joke has a PTI dividing his class up into groups whilst striking a gym pose and gesticulating with his sculptured arms: ‘OK, I want half of you over to my right, half of you here in the middle, and the other half to my left’ or ‘OK, I want you to pair up into groups of three – go!’. Much of the time it was hard to determine whether they were taking the piss out of themselves and their profession, or whether they were just plain stupid.
PTIs who were posted to officer training institutions had a unique opportunity that is not afforded to all PTIs. They would take utter delight in physically destroying cadets who would later graduate and outrank them. Relishing their temporary power over us, zealous PTIs would dole out their own signature brand of masochism whilst they had the chance.
The PTI who accompanied us to Singleton was the quintessential ‘lobster’. Clearly a gym junkie, his tight red-and-white PTI singlet showcased a set of seemingly-pneumatic biceps, replete with menacing tattoos and bulbous veins running down their length. He sported the standard military buzzcut, his eyes were too close together, and his head resembled a brick.
On this particular morning, the class had raised his ire, a not uncommon situation. I don’t recall the misdemeanour (most likely a minor one) that got The Lobster riled up, but it was one of the more stinging dressing-downs that I have ever been a party to.
To understand what happened next, it’s important to note that the military is an acronym-rich environment. There are quite a few acronyms that have multiple meanings. Perhaps the best known one is CDF, which can mean ‘Chief of the Defence Force’ㅡthe highest ranking officer in the Defence Forceㅡor ‘Common Dog Fuck’, a derogatory phrase for exercising commonsense.
“Youse people need some CDF’, bellowed The Lobster, in a monosyllabic tone akin to a primary school student learning to read aloud.
He patrolled up and down the assembled ranks of sweaty cadets, surveying his temporary kingdom and revelling in the fleeting power that he enjoyed over us.
‘C-D-F, people! C-D-F! What does that stand for, Officer Cadet S.?’
A bully pure and simple, the sergeant had singled out a diminutive female cadet in the front rank. At that time, females made up only a very small percentage of the overall cadet body, perhaps 10%.
‘Common Dog, sergeant’, she replied immediately in a monotone voice befitting the inane exchange.
‘Common Dog WHAT?’, yelled the sergeant.
The female cadet offered the same response, with more volume this time to match the sergeant’s tone.
‘Common Dog, sergeant’, she bellowed.
Now screaming within an inch of the female cadet’s face, spittle going everywhere, cadets shifting uncomfortably in their running shoes to the left and right.
‘Common Dog WHHHHATTT?’
‘I am NOT going to say it, sergeant’, she screamed.
‘YOU. WILL. SAY. IT’, he screamed back. This was getting out of hand.
A pause, and then in the most vociferous tone that she could muster, and with particular emphasis on the obscenity, she screamed:
‘FUCK, sergeant. Common Dog FUCK, sergeant’
Overcome with distress, her voice faltered and she broke down in tears, the rest of us standing at attention powerless to do a thing – or were we?
The Lobster had achieved his petty little victory and had quashed any hint of dissent, just as the system required him to do. He couldn’t possibly lose face in front of 100+ scum-of-the-earth officer cadets and he felt obligated to finish what he started.
Later I remember many of us being scornful of the female cadet for bringing the heat upon herself. But secretly, some of us were thinking seriously about whether we really wanted to be in the Army.
We never gave that cadet the kudos she deserved for standing up to The Lobster. I guess we were all just intent to stay under the radar and not draw attention to ourselves. In hindsight, I realised it took real fortitude to do what she did. I’m not sure that I would have had the courage to do it.