"The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership." -- Gen (Ret) Colin Powell
Alpha Company had trekked across the humid Temburong jungles of Brunei, for more than 2 days.
Furthermore, they had already accomplished the arduous task of ascending Mount Biang the day before and managed to reach the peak, lock stock and barrel. However, the bitter cold, coupled with the lashing rain which lasted throughout the long night, had started to take its toil on the officers and men. They broke camp, and started the descent of Mount Biang late at around 0730hrs. By this time, the temperature had risen, and the morning heat was starting to unsettle even the most hardened of the soldiers. As the overhead foliage covered their heads, the oppressing humidity got worse as they trekked their way down the reverse side of the mountain. The undulating terrain also meant that even though they were suppose to descend, they could still be climbing up. For an elite infantry company like Alpha, they were also carrying all their field packs, light and heavy weapons, food and ration with them. Each soldier could be carrying an equipment load of 25 to 30 kg.
“Sir, how far before we reach the river?” the tired front scout asked his young lieutenant. All ears and eyes were now transfixed on their platoon commander. The officer looked at his men and answered, “At this rate, another two hours.”
“LTA Malcolm!” a high pitched voice wailed from the back of the troops like a screaming banshee. “You better push your platoon harder! They are dragging my entire company down!”
Malcolm winced at that whiny voice. That was their officer commanding of Alpha Company, Captain Daniel. He was the most well loved person in the company. Everyone loved to hate him.
“Come on guys, you heard OC, we need to push on. We have to cross Batu Apoi river before 1200hrs today. From there, we still need to cross the 7 knolls to the enemy's objective. That would take another six hours,” Malcolm rallied his platoon. The men gnashed their teeth and cursed loudly, before getting up from their high kneel position.
“Bloody hell, load so light still talk so much,” one soldier muttered, obviously referring to Captain Daniel.
“Get him to carry my machine gun la!” cursed another soldier.
The blatant dislike for their officer commanding was evident from their constant swearing for the next two hours, and it stemmed from his highly authoritative management style. Wrong, make it dictatorial style.
Essentially, he controlled them with an iron first, always making them report back to camp by 1900hrs on Sunday nights and never letting them book out before 1700hrs on Saturdays. All medical cases whether genuine or not, were treated with the highest suspicion and all soldiers had to be screened by him first before the decree to visit the medical centre, was given by him. Even with blistering feet after field camps and long marches, he would get the sergeants and officers to conduct runs with the men, within the hour of returning to base camp. It was also rumored that he had thrown a chair at a soldier in a fit of anger. Of course, by the time this news reached the masses, the chair had become a cupboard.
“Haven't you heard? Captain Daniel threw a cupboard at xxx before le.. Crazy man!”
But there was no doubt that Captain Daniel was a hard man. He was even stricter towards the commanders of his company. Officers would be screamed at and sergeants would get charged with extra duties for the smallest of reasons. In any case, the soldiers of Alpha Company were none the impressed. In fact they were getting pissed.
“Medic!” a voice suddenly shot out in the jungle. “Call the medic!”
Malcolm hastily signalled his platoon to halt. They were very near the river now and such disturbances were dangerous. Any crossing sites would be patrolled heavily by enemy defenders. He turned around and immediately whispered on his aging radio communication set, "Ah Yan, Malcolm here. What happened?" No reply from his fellow platoon commander.
“Ah Yan, Ah Yan. Come in. Come in. What happened?” Malcolm continued.
There was a crackle of static sound and a voice urgently replied ".... Sting!..... Hurt...now!"
It did not take a rocket scientist to comprehend the distorted message. Someone had been hurt by an insect sting. Stings in this tropical environment were never taken lightly. In people who are allergic to bee stings, a sting may trigger a dangerous anaphylactic reaction that is potentially deadly. The victim needed medical help fast. It was obvious that this military training had started to turn horribly wrong.
“Make way! Make way!” The company and various platoon medics shouted as they attempted to push their way from their positions to the injured soldier. The soldier’s face was already swelling and he was experiencing breathing difficulties. The Company Medic looked at Private Ong and immediately instructed the platoon medics to assemble a stretcher for him. Alpha Company was already nearing the foot of Mount Biang and helicopter evacuation was impossible at this stage with the thick foliage towering overhead. Crossing the river was the only way the medics had to evacuate Private Ong, the injured soldier. Once there, they would be able to evacuate Private Ong by land rover or ambulance towards the nearest medical facility in the Temburong District.
“Malcolm!” screamed Captain Daniel as he bulldozed his way to him. “You jolly well protect the medical evacuation team! I still want all round security for them as they cross the bloody river! Make sure the company crosses the river tactically too! Get your security forces to do a proper reconnaissance of the crossing site before the medical team pushed forward without protection! You better make it happen!”
“Yes sir,” Malcolm answered meekly and proceeded to make things happen. Then it happened.
Private Abdul looked at his platoon commander and said, “Sir, I’m feeling giddy. I want to fall out.”
“Me too. My knees are hurting very badly. I can’t continue,” Lance Corporal Heng added.
Malcolm felt a lump rising in his throat. “Fall Out” meant not wishing to proceed with the mission and more importantly, it meant giving up on the platoon. “Guys, can you bear for just a while? Let’s cross the river first?” Malcolm pleaded.
“Cannot. Cannot. We really want to fall out,” Both soldiers replied.
“Erm.. me too. My back is aching and I can’t stand already.” Private Dinesh also added.
“What’s the problem! Why aren’t you guys moving on?!” Captain Daniel screamed.
“Can we move now? Private Ong needs medical help as fast as possible!” The Company Medic shouted.
Malcolm was beginning to lose his cool as the stifling pressure was getting into him. It did not help that the humid heat around the lower region of the mountain was now getting unbearable. He turned to the rest of his platoon, and shouted, “Who else wants to fall out?” He stood there stunned as several more hands shot up.
Captain Daniel stood there and wathced the scene unfold before his very eyes, and shook his head. Just then, Ah Yan and Spencer, platoon commanders of 1st Platoon and 3rd Platoon respectively, came running over and whispered to Captain Daniel. Now it was Captain Daniel’s turn to be stunned. “How.. how many?” he stammered.
“Sir, about fifteen of them from my platoon and about twenty from Spencer’s platoon wants to fall out. They indicated various medical reasons.” Ah Yan replied breathlessly.
This military training in Temburong, Brunei would be Captain Daniel’s last overseas trip as Officer Commanding of Alpha as he would be posting out to another appointment. He had already served more than 1 year with this company and with his experienced background in training soldiers and cadets the past four years, he was extremely confident that his high handed ways would reap benefits. After all, his command philosophy for the company was “Train Hard, Fight Easy.”
Daniel made a quick mental calculation and his face turned as red as a lobster immediately. More than two thirds of his company were falling out like flies. How was he going to capture the enemy objective with just a combined platoon size of about thirty odd men? He was in a fix because the safety of these conscript soldiers were more important than anything else. This was unlike normal training days whereby he could interrogate all of them. He was now in the middle of a training exercise! If he pushed them too hard and something bad happened, his head would be on the chopping board! He already had a Private Ong suffering from an allergic reaction from the insect sting. How was he going to explain to the Commanding Officer of the Battalion and the Commander of the Brigade?
His three young lieutenants looked at him and were very surprised at his visibly shaken look. They had never seen him in such a state.
Daniel waved his hands weakly and with beads of cold sweat dripping from his forehead, he told Malcolm and the rest to proceed as they deem fit. “Whosoever wants to fall out, just let them do it. I’m quite tired.” Then he fell silent.
His command philosophy had backfired, and his soldiers had finally rebelled against him.