The going gets tougher as the recruits enter their final weeks of training. From experiencing firsthand the practical applications of soldiering skills to going all out in their Battle Inoculation Course (BIC), find out how they cope in part two of the feature on women's Basic Military Training (BMT).
The blazing high noon sun trickled through the leafy foliage of the trees. One might say that it was good shelter from the crazy heat.
But to the recruits who were pounding away on the ground with their entrenching tools, the comforting shade did not make much difference.
Beads of perspiration were dripping off their foreheads to the extent of removing some camouflage paint off their faces. Their green pixelised uniforms were soaked through to a dark, murky olive. The heavy breathing of the recruits filled the silence of the forest as dirt and soil flew all around them.
Like their male counterparts, the female recruits from Pegasus Company had been digging their shellscrapes since 9am, and they were slated to continue till nightfall. They had not had a proper bath for the past two days and were not even half done with their digging.
"This shellscrape digging has got to be the most tiring (task) so far," said Recruit (REC) Deborah Koh, in between laboured breaths.
Even as she spoke, the National University of Singapore (NUS) psychology undergraduate, who deferred her studies for a year to do BMT, never stopped digging. Despite the blisters on her hands, she endured the pain and never gave up.
REC Joelle Cheong, on the other hand, found the shellscrape digging challenging yet therapeutic.
To her, it was a simple matter of doing the same motion repeatedly. "You know what you’re going to end up with, so you just work towards it and don’t think about the pain."
Joked the 19-year-old: "I really think I can become a construction worker!"
Lunchtime came around and the recruits got a pleasant surprise - letters from their families.
As they read their letters, many of the recruits started crying, regardless of gender. It was an emotional moment as they read the encouragement and support from their families.
It was especially touching for REC Samantha Wun, who did not expect them at all.
Although the 26-year-old had nonchalantly told her parents "Aiyah no need to write letters lah!", she had felt disappointed that she was not going to receive one.
"So just now when the sergeants were asking 'Who thinks that you are not going to receive letters?', I raised my hand," said REC Wun.
"But when they called my name, I was so happy that I cried."
But what truly kept the recruits going throughout their four days of field camp were their platoon mates. Apart from the shellscrape digging, the recruits had gone through two days of physically and mentally strenuous activities.
These included an 8km route march in Full Battle Order and plenty of fire movement drills which meant a lot of moving on the ground on all fours. They also had to get used to powder baths and sleeping in bashas, which many found uncomfortable.
"The fact that the people on my left and right are going through the same thing and that I'm not going through it alone is a driving force for me," said REC Shaidatul Nur Ashqin Bte Ghazali.
Added REC Koh: "There's a sense of accomplishment and achievement knowing that we've all gone through this together. We couldn't have done this by ourselves, without our fellow platoon mates supporting us and encouraging us to go on."
Tough as it seemed, dealing with field camp was only the beginning of the second part of BMT, as the recruits soon found out. They were in for more to come, as they began to learn new skills such as live-firing and throwing live grenades.
The recruits were proned, still on the ground, taking aim with their rifles. Suddenly, their targets appeared. The recruits had four seconds to take them down. Inhaling ever so slowly, they took aim and fired.
"It's all about concentrating and being prepared for the next target," said REC Shaidatul.
"I can't afford to think about the target I might have missed. It's all about the next and the next and the next. There's no looking back and thinking 'oh shucks, I missed that one.'"
The recruits were undergoing their live-firing test which included firing at both the 50m and 100m marks. At 50m, they had to shoot in a standing shoulder position. At 100m, they were required to fire in three positions - the foxhole, prone and either kneeling or squatting.
Despite most of the recruits faring well during the practice sessions just two days ago, it was a different story on test day. Both REC Shaidatul and REC Wun felt that the four-second timing caused them great stress, resulting in them missing several practice shots on the day of the test.
REC Wun, who confessed that she was always one of the last few to fire, said: "During practice, it was own time own target. But during the test, the moment you aim, you realise that you only have two seconds left to shoot and all you can think of is 'Crap! I must shoot now.'"
However, once the girls got used to the timing, it was a different story. Both recruits cleared at least 75 percent of their targets during their test, with REC Wun scoring a high 26 out of 32 points.
Night fell and the recruits switched on the red LED lasers of their rifles for the night-firing portion of their test.
The darkness had a calming effect and most of them preferred it.
"Mainly it's because I don't see the commanders looking at me. At night, it's just me and my target," explained REC Shaidatul.
"In the day, so many pairs of eyes are on you. You never know if the best marksman is standing behind you as your assistant, looking at how you shoot. It all adds to the pressure."
Regardless of whether they preferred day or night firing, one thing that the girls agreed on was that it made them feel like a real soldier.
Said REC Koh: "It's reassuring to know that we've been trained (so well)... And to know that some day, if anything happens, we’ll be able to activate these skills.
"And I think it's really cool to tell my female friends outside, 'Hey! I've held a rifle and I've fired live rounds!'"
While firing live rounds was a thrilling experience for the recruits, throwing a live grenade was an entirely different experience.
Safety pin twist. Safety pin pull. Safety pin… throw? Does this remind you of the scene from Ah Boys To Men where REC Ip Man did exactly that during his grenade throw?
Well, this was almost what REC Wun experienced during her hand grenade live throw.
"At first it was all good. But halfway through, my safety pin got stuck, so I couldn't pull it out. Next thing I knew, everything went blank in my mind," she recalled. "That's when my platoon sergeant told me that I turned my safety pin wrongly, so I amended my turn and managed to pull it out."
The recruits' first live throw was both nerve-racking and exciting, and the first thought that went through REC Cheong's mind after she threw the grenade was "Oh my goodness, I'm alive!"
Before the throw, the Raffles Institution alumna was in constant fear of having the grenade close to her body.
"The feeling, knowing the power of the grenade and keeping it in your pocket so near to your heart, is very scary. From the time I drew the grenade to the time I threw it, my heart was beating very fast."
However, her fears slowly subsided after seeing how the sergeants and safety officers took good care of the recruits, such as pushing them down to make sure that they were crouched low enough behind the wall to remain safe.
And her thoughts after the throw? Said REC Cheong: "How many people get to throw a live grenade? It's something that you see in movies. But to throw it yourself and feel the shockwaves when it explodes, it's really exciting."
With Singapore being a metropolitan city, urban operations (ops) training is a must for every recruit. This includes storming rooms, danger crossing and window storming.
As the recruits took turns to play different roles in three-man teams for room storming, they learnt to cover each other's backs while hiding behind walls. The first person threw a grenade into the room before entering it, while the rest took out the enemies.
It was also through this scenario that the recruits learnt that the first person or the In-Charge would always be the first to die if anything went wrong in a real-life situation, and this made a huge impression on REC Chong.
"It's quite amazing that soldiers can be so committed to a mission that the individual does not matter anymore; that they're willing to be the first man in, knowing that they can be killed," she said.
For REC Koh, the urban ops training was exciting as she saw how it brought together elements of what they had learnt in the Standard Obstacle Course, such as the Corridor obstacle, where they had to move in a crouched position below the window grills so that they would not be seen.
As they proceeded further in their training, the recruits could only rely on hand gestures and eye contact for communication lest they alerted the enemies. Amid all this, they also had to watch out for one another constantly.
"There's more communication because you look at each other more and signal to each other to move or not to move," explained REC Koh.
"So this not only builds (a stronger sense of) teamwork, but you actually become more alert and more focused on the mission."
Before the recruits knew it, it was already the seventh week of their nine-week BMT and everything they had learnt was put to practice in a summary exercise called the BIC.
Sirens simulating an enemy raid filled the air, punctuated with the rattling of guns shots from General Purpose Machine Guns from the top of a tower.
Following a signal from their sergeants, the recruits got up from the ditch and started leopard crawling towards a room.
Suddenly, a target popped out from behind a window. Within seconds, the recruits had to react and fire at it.
Once the target was down, they applied what they learnt during urban ops training to storm the room and take out the rest of the enemies. After that, it was leopard crawling again to the next segment.
Despite her initial fear of the live rounds, sirens and not knowing what to expect, REC Shaidatul found the BIC meaningful and enjoyable.
"I realised that when you're in a mission, the main point is to focus on each station and move on - that was the thought going through my mind," said the 25-year-old.
For REC Wun, it was the simulation of pop-up targets which made the course fun.
"When we did urban ops training, the targets were stationary so we knew what we were going to do. But here (in the BIC), the target suddenly appears so it simulates a real-life situation," she noted.
While both recruits found the BIC manageable, they felt that this mission was also proof they had been successfully equipped with basic soldiering skills.
As REC Shaidatul summed it up: "It's about what's waiting for you next and how you are going to overcome that. There's no time to think what I should do next, it's just an application of what we've been taught."
With their BMT graduation parade (also known as Passing Out Parade or POP) just around the corner, it was no surprise that the recruits were already counting down to the number of book-ins they had left.
As the girls mentally prepared themselves for their final 24km route march and concentrated on giving their best in their final Individual Physical Proficiency Test, there was no doubt that BMT would always have a special place in their hearts.
"I'll definitely miss the times we had together. It's definitely something I’ll hold close because it's the first experience," said REC Koh, who will be posted to Military Intelligence as a Military Expert.
Knowing that the recruits would be going their separate ways after BMT also left REC Cheong with a tinge of sadness. "The thought of becoming so close to these people and, the next moment, not seeing them for a long time is quite sad."
"But at the same time, I can't wait to graduate. The feeling of completing one phase, knowing that you are basically proficient and that you are becoming a soldier, it's a great feeling," she added. After her Officer Cadet Course, REC Cheong hopes to go into either Infantry or Armour.
As for REC Shaidatul, the final phase was proof to herself and everyone else that she, together with the rest of her platoon mates, had successfully completed their BMT.
Right from the start, she had never let go of her goal - to "POP in glory knowing that I've gone through every hardship".
And now, she is ready to move on to her next posting as a Logistics Officer. "I will miss BMT, I will miss the nagging commanders. But I want to move forward."