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Conscription: it’s all about giving back

We have many great traditions in Bermuda that you can’t find anywhere else: kite flying and hot-cross buns at Easter, Gombeys on New Year’s Day, fish sandwiches served on raisin bread, and a two-day holiday for a cricket match. Still, one has quietly slipped away into obscurity — the annual Bermuda Regiment boot camp.

Gone are the days when crowds gathered outside the Warwick Camp gates to watch the raw recruits get their first taste of army life.

On the first day of recruit camp, you would have ex-soldiers who have done their three years and three months, and some who have done considerably longer than that. They would set up tables, lawn chairs and umbrellas with flasks of coffee — maybe a beer or two hidden out of sight — members of the general public all waiting in anticipation of the start of boot camp, especially waiting on the latecomers (I'll come back to them later).

Many Bermuda males have endured recruit camp, but very few volunteered. Every year The Royal Gazette would publish a list of names of those that had their names selected to do military service — most likely one of the bestselling newspapers of the year. Around the island, you would see a bunch of young men crowded around the edition. No, not to catch up on the latest news from around the world. It was something much more important — it was their name on the dreaded list.

When you heard, “Feck, bye, no, bye, I was flippin’ picked!”, you know he just got drafted.

It wouldn’t be long before you hear the rest of his mates erupt in laughter, “Ya bie going up Camp! No mate, they didn’t get me”, as they learnt they had “escaped” another year.

So you’re in the army now! You’ve picked up your kit, most of it you have no idea what it is used for. If you were lucky, you were given boots that already had a previous owner, as these boots would take less bulling to shine up, and then told to report at 0700 hours on a Sunday morning.

So the big day arrives for some 200-plus men; usually, they come in a car driven by their mother or on the back of their honey’s bike. Across the road, the crowd start to gather in great anticipation, but they don't seem to be showing much interest in you because you are not who they’ve come to see. Look up towards Camp, and see a pole down across the entrance. A few feet behind that there were three or four regimental police very smartly dressed in red caps, razor-sharp pressed shirts and trousers, and an RP armband — all with constipated looks on their faces.

Slowly, more soldiers arrive carrying their suitcases, rucksacks and webbing; there is a weird silence over the Camp and an expression of anticipation and dread on the recruits’ faces.

At precisely 0700, the pole is raised, and then the RPs go in for the kill like a pack of piranha fish in a feeding frenzy. The silence is abruptly broken by the screams of “run, run, move it, move it!” Some of the recruits’ suitcases break open as they dash through, spilling contents everywhere, men trip up on their untied bootlaces, berets fly off, men get tangled up in their webbing. It’s a scene of utter, organised pandemonium!

The best is yet to come. The latecomers! The South Shore crowd break into cheers and laughter as our tardy recruits arrive, completely oblivious to what’s going on or what they will be faced with. Shouts of “Get him, RP” as the RP hones in with arms the size of a forklift and swiftly removes the terrified recruit out of the seat of the car and finds himself swept into Camp without his feet ever touching the ground, as his mother shouts after him, “Sweetheart, you left your bags”. Another RP says to the mother, “that’s OK, ma’am, we will take care of it”. She then replies, “I’m counting on you to make a man out him!”

This is what recruitment camp did best: it took wet-behind-the-ears boys and turned them into men, turned men into leaders, taught you self-discipline, how to do the things you thought you could never do. You relied on others to get you through a task, and they relied on you. You made friends for life, but most importantly, it gave young men respect and self-confidence, a chance to give back to their community, someone the island could depend on in case of civil or natural emergency. Sure, it was tough, long hours, and mentally and physically challenging, but nothing worthwhile comes easy.

Those days have gone; when someone decided to make it a political issue and do away with conscription, it put a death nail into the RBR. Don’t tell me conscription is archaic and no other countries have it. Bull! More than 50 countries rely on conscription. It’s all about giving back.

I know we’ve got tree-huggers. No problem. They don’t want to go into the regiment. OK, so join the volunteer fire service or St John Ambulance. You can give back to the community that way. It was once said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” But it seems today, young men want everything handed to them on a silver platter.

Unfortunately, the future of the Royal Bermuda Regiment looks doubtful.

After the 1977 civil unrest, a report by Major General Gilbert, the highest-ranking Bermudian ever to serve in the British Army, recommended that the battalion should not go below 750 men. To do this, the RBR needed to take in 200-plus men annually to meet the island’s needs. I see this year they took in only 20, a mere 10 per cent of what’s needed.

This model of a volunteer-only army is not working and will become unstable. History shows that the police could not handle the 1977 incident alone. They needed to bring in help paid for by the taxpayer. What the island needed was a well-trained, well-equipped regiment, and that is what the regiment was trained to do.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (quote by George Santayana, Italian philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist). Never truer words spoken.

We need to fix this and fix it soon. If not for the sake of the island's security, then for the sake of turning our young men into invaluable contributors to our society.

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Published March 09, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated March 08, 2023 at 3:25 pm)

Conscription: it’s all about giving back

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