With NZ Army numbers dwindling, recent recruit Peter McKenzie looks back on his time in basic training for the Army Reserves.
As I sank into the tussock I slowly gestured downwards with an outstretched palm. Legs splayed, I peered through the scope of my 38-year old assault rifle. A hill lay 400 metres in the distance, covered in gorse and scrub. Two black flickers had caught my eye.
To my left a uniformed figure leopard-crawled towards me. “400 metres, 12 o’clock, 2 halfway up hill”. The sparse sentence structure had been drilled into me for weeks. The figure crawled away, spreading the news to the rest of the section. Upon seeing my hand signal, all ten had gone to ground.
The machine-gun pair crossed over to take up position behind a small shed fifty metres away. The rest of us picked up and moved towards a fold in the landscape. It would provide us with cover until we were close enough to assault the hill.
This is somewhat abnormal for a Wellington city-kid. Nevertheless, exercises such as this had consumed my life for two months.
The year before a billboard had caught my eye: “We Want Your Sense of Adventure”. Joining the Army had never occurred to me, and I trawled through the NZ Army’s website out of curiosity. I was halfway through my first year at university, and wasn’t planning on junking that progress for a full-time Army career. Then a video popped up titled “Escape Your Everyday”, and I started to learn about the Army Reserve.
Each of the three Reserve battalions are responsible for a different region of the country. Almost every month a reservist can do a weekend exercise and a training night to keep their skills in shape.
The Reserve used to be dominated by farmers looking for something on the side. Now reservists are everywhere. University students are extremely common. In Wellington, civil servants make up most of the rest. My basic training had, among others, police officers, dental nurses and lawyers.
They are not transformed into professional soldiers. The two month-long basic training can’t compare to the intensity of the four month Regular Force version. The aim is to provide sufficient training that with another few months of instruction they could deploy and support Regular Force troops. Even that can be difficult. There are all sorts of guesses about the number of Reservists who graduate from basic training and disappear, but it’s easy to see that it’s large.
Four months later the bus pulled up outside the auditorium in Waiouru Military Camp. The (mainly male) passengers started to offload. We were dressed in our smartest clothes – a sea of blue and black suits, the occasional white shirt, and one brave guy from Nelson with a bright red blazer.
The events after that are a blur. Listening to lectures from senior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), distracted by the noisy sparrow’s nest in the auditorium’s roof. Pissing into a plastic cup for a drug test. Being divided into our platoons. Taken outside to start learning drill – how to stand, how to fall in, how to march. Quickly escorted to our barracks – each building named after a distant battlefield. They sounded excitingly exotic until we marched past Gallipoli. Heads shaved.
We were given sand-coloured jumpsuits as a stop-gap measure to remove the sartorial differences between us until we were kitted out with proper uniforms. We moved into our rooms – eight beds, eight sets of drawers, and eight nervous recruits. One last call home and then phones were taken away. We started to introduce ourselves properly. My section was made up of myself, three other university students, a builder’s apprentice, a pharmacist, a chef, a fitness equipment salesperson and an architect. That evening was pretty easy.
Up the next morning at 6am. Mad rush to the showers, mad rush to get dressed, mad rush to form up on the road outside. Late. Marched over to the mess. Late. Marched to our first lessons. Late again.
The pace was unrelenting. Most of the first week was spent learning about our first weapon system – the Individual Weapon Steyr, an Austrian assault rifle. 5.56 calibre and 38 years old. From technical specifications we moved to safety procedures. Safety, check magazine, tilt, cock, tilt, look, 3-point check to ensure there is no chambered round, release, aim in a safe direction, pull trigger. Then to practicing how to load, unload and address stoppages. Then to learning about firing while standing, kneeling and sitting.
The Camp was full. We were sharing space with officer cadets, Regular Force recruits and NCOs who had come back for training courses. Most amusing was the Singaporean Artillery Corps. Unable to train at home due to the small size of their island, the Singaporeans instead come to Waiouru with their biggest guns. For a month each year Waiouru is a perpetual thunderstorm devoid of rain.
Most of the Singaporeans were apathetic conscripts. On their last day they emerged from their barracks with bags full of expensive equipment and emptied them into dumpsters. Hauling them back to Singapore to return them to their quartermaster was too much hassle. Kiwi soldiers were already dumpster-diving as the Singaporeans left.
The second week was Range Week. We had to pass a marksmanship test to graduate. The only firearm I’d ever used previously was an air rifle outside the Orongorongo Valley hut of a friend from primary school. The possum I was aiming at then was frozen. This time it was me who was scared stiff.
The Sunday before Range Week, we were asked if any of us would like to go to church. My grandfather was an Anglican archdeacon, but my church attendance had been sparse. I was so nervous that I figured anything would help. Ten of us piled into one of the all-purpose trucks which the Army purchased from Mercedes, who have never produced vehicles with worse suspension.
Waiouru church-goers didn’t blink an eye as ten sunburnt and nervous recruits piled into the pews. Whether it was the non-denominational service or just the opportunity to sit in relative quiet for half an hour, I returned to camp relaxed.
Others didn’t. To the delight of our instructors who were trying to help him quit, one recruit had run out of cigarettes. The church service could not stop his withdrawal jitters.
We discovered that the recruits who hadn’t gone to church had been allowed to call home. The shivering recruit politely asked an NCO if he could quickly call his wife. The NCO grinned and offered the recruit a choice: a cigarette or his phone. Desperate to rid himself of his jitters before the marksmanship test, the recruit chose the cigarette.
Waiouru’s Old Range lies half a kilometre from the outskirts of Camp. Some virtual practice and a day or two of live-firing was all we had before our marksmanship test. Two thirds of the recruits would wait at the end of the range. The other third was the Butts Party (an unfortunate name which was a never-ending source of amusement) required to huddle under a concrete wall, holding up targets and watching bullets fly overhead.
I was in the second rotation. An hour of watching others doesn’t settle your nerves. Then, as I took up position at the 300 metre line, a herd of Waiouru’s feral Kaimanawa horses meandered onto the hill behind the range.
It was hard not to laugh as one of my section-mates was sent up onto the hill to scare them off, dancing around the stallions and making shooing motions. The nerves had disappeared by the time they galloped away. I was so pleased with the test that when I took my place in the Butt Party I hardly noticed the bullets hitting the gravel bank in front of me.
The Reserves were created in 1909. Thirty thousand men were compulsorily recruited – just under a tenth of men between 20 and 40. They were needed sooner than expected. Those with experience in the Reserves were the backbone of our initial wave of First World War volunteers.
Voluntary military service was introduced in 1930 and reservist numbers plunged to just 3,655. But volunteers flooded in as another war loomed. By 1939 the Reserves had 10,364 soldiers. It formed the core of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, fighting bloody campaigns in Greece, Crete, El Alamein and Monte Cassino.
Compulsory reservist training recommenced in 1948, and provided a steady flow of experienced troops to supplement New Zealand’s post-war Regular Force deployments in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam. Compulsory service was disestablished and reintroduced in various forms until 1972 when the Kirk government scrapped it permanently.
Reservists continued to sporadically supplement overseas deployments. Platoons of reservists deployed for a decade to assist in peacekeeping operations in the Solomon Islands after simmering ethno-political tensions boiled over into outright conflict in 2003. Among our instructors were two veterans of the Solomon Islands deployment.
The days blurred together. We’d spend many mornings at the gym doing push-ups, planks and wall-sits, or running circuits in preparation for our fitness test, subject to the obnoxious enthusiasm and vicious jibes of a physical instructor. We’d sit in sheds on the Camp’s border learning about camouflage or assessing distances, or in musty classrooms learning about the Law of Armed Conflict, resilience, or first aid.
Our breaks were half-hours for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus the inevitable delays involved in Army bureaucracy. We had less eating time if we were late, which was almost always the case. Food from the mess was simple and caused toilet problems.
At one point I rushed through a lunch and then hurried to the bathroom, asking a friend to grab me if I wasn’t back in time. Ten minutes later I emerged to an empty mess – in the constant hurry, my friend had forgotten. Two remaining NCOs burst into laughter. They were about to drive back to barracks. I jumped in with them.
Naively, I had brought two books with me. The first, appropriately, was How Everything Became War, and the Military Became Everything by Rosa Brooks. Without any time to read during the day, I once decided to read a few chapters by torchlight. The next day was intensive physical training – my late night left me woefully unprepared.
The second was Capital by Thomas Piketty. Not so thematically appropriate. In the third week it spilled out of my closet while I grabbed a change of uniform. Upon returning, the builder’s apprentice in my section picked it up and started reading. He didn’t struggle with the physical training, even with less sleep.
Deployments overseas are possible, but mainly for those in logistics. There’s reasonable demand for drivers on the ice in Antarctica, but little for anyone anywhere else.
Domestic emergency response and reconstruction is a reservist’s best chance for experience. Reservists rotated through after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake – digging up liquefaction, enforcing roadblocks around the red zone, and clearing debris from houses. Platoons from across the Lower and Upper North Island contributed to the clean-up operation after the Rena oil spill.
Our first field exercise was a blank-fire occupation of a hill. We set up barbed-wire, dug shell-scrapes – a two-foot deep, six-foot long hole for sleeping – and helped construct gunpits for our machine gun pairs. Each section is divided into pairs so that every recruit has a fire-partner to work alongside. My fire-partner and I had just finished digging our shell-scrapes when we realised we needed to go toilet. Grabbing our shovels and rifles, we scrambled down the hill and took turns watching over the dusky grassland while the other dug a hole and squatted.
During night-sentry two people stood in the gunpit, one hand always on the gun, a new person rotating in every so often. We chatted about all sorts. Someone began an ongoing conversation about which character from ‘The Lion King’ matched up to each of our instructors. Timon and Pumba, Rafiki and Simba, Mufasa and Scar. We couldn’t think of a Zazu. Those tinges of school camp made training for combat all the more surreal.
After a skirmish the next morning with OpFor (reservists who had come from all over the country to troll the recruits) we packed up from our shell-scrapes and began the long march back to camp. An hour into the march my fire-partner began to silently lag behind. Pretty soon she was slowing the section down. I dropped back and started encouraging her. Every hill was the last hill, every corner was the last corner.
It was only when we got back and she took off her shoes that I saw why she’d lagged behind. Her shoes had fitted so poorly that the back of her ankles had been stripped down to flesh.
We had one week off for Christmas. My sister was getting married so I flew down to Christchurch. The spotty number one haircut and the flecks of green camo paint were somewhat incongruous with the well-dressed crowd and idyllic vineyard.
Upon returning we plunged into a whole new range of weapons systems. We were fast approaching our final exercise. Before we knew it we were piling out of trucks into soaked Waiouru tussock. A march of middling-length led us to where we’d set up camp. Shell-scrapes, gunpit, done.
It’s almost impossible to see anything in the pitch-black while on sentry-duty. Two other recruits spent an agonising half-hour staring at what they suspected was an OpFor soldier. One got up the courage to sneak over to it. A swift kick revealed it to be a tree. Even just listening can be fraught. After hours of silence, one sentry nervily informed me that he could hear rustling in the bushes a few dozen metres away. The rustling soon evolved into grunting and hissing. It was a bunch of over-excited possums.
You’re not supposed to talk while on sentry, for obvious reasons, but that sense deprivation makes it hard to resist. My sentry partner and I spent the nights having long conversations about how we grew up. She had been working since primary school, doing odd jobs around the neighborhood and feeding all the money back to a demanding and troubled father. She moved out during high school, making her own way in small town New Zealand. It was a childhood very different to my middle-class upbringing.
An OpFor soldier snuck into camp while we were talking one night. It got us a barracking the next morning, but I wouldn’t have traded those conversations for anything.
The last few decades have seen the steady collapse of vertical institutions – organisations which connect individuals from disparate backgrounds, helping people to engage with ideas and perspectives different to their own. Religious adherence and attendance has plummeted; whereas church attendance was once the norm, now just 23% of the population actively engage with a local religious group. Political party membership dropped from nearly 24% of the population in the 1950s to just 2% in the 1990s, and is presumably even lower now. Even in sports-mad New Zealand, between 1988 and 2014 adult participation in sport reduced by 7.7%. All those figures are even worse among younger demographics.
The greatest benefit of military training is not that it teaches recruits how to use a firearm, apply first-aid, or provide civil defence assistance. The extraordinary value of military training is that it is New Zealand’s most powerful vertical institution. Basic training has people aged 17 to 60, from the far North to the furthest South, Māori, Pākehā and Asian, hot-shot lawyers and brand new apprentices. Recruits have to bond with each other in order to manage the hectic pace of training. And as they bond, they begin to better appreciate the lived experiences of people vastly different to themselves.
As the newest crop of Reserve recruits march into Waiouru Military Camp in the coming weeks, they will be part of an ever-shrinking group. Active Army Reservists now number just 1,330 – a precipitous drop from 1,956 in 2014. Much of that is due to the transfer of inactive personnel to the ‘Standby Reserve’, but it also reflects the aforementioned decline of membership in vertical institutions. That widespread decline is one of the most significant challenges New Zealand’s modern civil society faces.
Morning routine in the field was slightly more relaxed than in camp. You had enough time for a cup of ration-pack coffee if you were quick – and if you were willing to use the water you had just shaved with. We spent days practising assaults though the tussock. During one live-fire assault, I was told repeatedly to increase my aggression. As my fire-partner and I walked back to the ammo point, I wondered out loud what specific points I had to improve on. An NCO glanced over from where he was lying down, enjoying the sun. “You can’t treat it like a university assignment, McKenzie. You’re either more aggressive or you aren’t.”
Our second-to-last day was spent on patrol. A steep hike gave us a good view of the meandering Waiouru landscape. We bush-bashed across the surrounding hills, and plunged into a valley to wade through kilometres of winding river. We came across the black flickers on the hill towards the end.
After another early morning blank fire exercise with OpFor the next morning, we filled in our shellscrapes and returned to camp. The final few days would be spent on the parade-ground practicing for our marching out ceremony. Nobody fainted under the sweltering sun in our practices or on the big day, so that was a success as well.
Our time in Waiouru was over. The rowdy bus trip back was very different to the terrified silence of two months prior. The bus got lost somewhere between Waiouru and Palmerston North, the type of screw-up that we all expected. It added an hour to the trip. We didn’t mind.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.