A view of the motherland’s DNA from military service (1)
Unfortunately, not a day passes in Turkey that we don’t hear about security issues, or upsetting news regarding the military. For example, just recently some soldiers were food poisoned and when I read this, I remembered the things I experienced in the past and felt empathy for them. Therefore, this week, I wanted to share some memories of my 8 month military service, which I completed from the end of 2000 to July 2001.
Firstly, I’d like to advise that I will not be sharing confidential information here. All of us completed our service with the good and bad. I had times when I felt really bored; I also had good experiences especially because I got to know more about my country. In one sense, I became the foundation for the country’s DNA.
As you know, I am at the same time honorary consulate for Costa Rica. In other words, I am the official representative for a county that doesn’t have a huge army. If only the world didn’t require such armies like Costa Rica, instead of funding armies, they could fund education. In this respect, they have a reading and writing level of 97%. Almost all of the new generation speaks a foreign language. They have been able to form a well conscious community. If only the ideal models that Costa Rica have adopted could be applied to our region. When you look at it, the time we are living in, our heavenly country is located in the most problematic area. That’s why we have to have full ownership of our army. Personally, I can say for myself, without any doubt, I did my military service for 8 months (which was the shortest you could do at the time). For this reason, I have a clear conscious.
Let’s come to the story of how I went to the Army…
After studying at McGill University for 4 years and graduating, I worked at the Italian Insurance Company’s General office in America. I wrote about this transition period in my previous blog titled ‘My 15 years in business and notes on the future’- http://serhansuzer.com/en/my-15-years-in-business-and-notes-on-the-future
While I was working at the General, I made a direct decision to go to the army. After I completed my time, I returned to Turkey. After returning, a month later, I went to military service.
From high school memories to military in Denizli
My twin also did his military service at the same time. We lived through the same process as everyone else. Because Baran is luckier with things like this, he was appointed as a seaman; he went to Izmir to complete his military training. And I got the role of 11 Infantry Brigade in Denizli. In the military, the seaman, aviator and army officers had different dynamics and souls. Amongst these, the most comfortable ones were the seaman, and the ones who suffered the most were the army officers. That’s why the General Chief of Staff is always an army officer. The fact that I got Denizli was an interesting coincidence.
When I was at high school, from my perspective, I had a great holiday in Pamukkale and had so much fun with my school friends. I had many memoires which were instilled in my mind. When it was obvious that I was again going to Denizli, thinking of that past, made me smile about this.
However, I realized how much of a different world the army was once I got into it. Because its not important where you did it. The character of your chief was most important. For example, you can do your military service near your home in Istanbul, but if your chief gives you hell, then you'll experience a bad military service. But at the same time, you can do your service in the province of Hakkari, in the mountains but if you have a good commander you get along with and have good friends, you can experience a really good time during your service.
It was the same situation in Denizli. Although Pamukkale was near the brigade, we spent all our time at the military site. And the interesting thing about doing my military in Denizli was the fact that the pilot area and the military training were in the same place. Once I had done my military training in Denizli, I was actually going to continue in Denizli, or I was going to do it in Soke, which is a province in Denizli. This way, that period was a trial for me. It was good for me in my view. It was a place I knew and was familiar with; I stayed in Denizli with all my friends I knew.
First feelings and impressions
After being farewelled by my family, I remember my first entry into the military base. The Gendarme made his controls and checks and asked ‘do you have a mobile phone’. When I said, ‘yes’, he took it off me and said ‘you’ll get it back when you leave’.
Afterwards, when I was wearing the military clothes for the first time, I remember the different feelings I was feeling. We weren’t going to war but I put myself in place of my Korean War Veteran grandfather and smiled when I thought about him and how proud I felt of him.
This is a photo of my grandfather, the Korean War Veteran, my mother and my twin. I am in my grandfathers arms. We unfortunately lost my grandfather from a heart attack at 49. May he rest in peace.
During the time that I did my military training I didn’t have any problems with the other soldiers. They were all university graduates with good educational backgrounds so they all were short-term soldiers. The conversations everyone was having at military were the same ones we were having. For example, there is the classic ‘daybreak’ conversation. Everyone will ask each other ‘how much more for daybreak?’. This is the classic meaning for how many more days left until their military service ends. For every passing 24 hours, we count a day less for the ‘daybreak’. It’s also important for the daybreak digits to form the number plate of the city you live in. For example, if you are from Trabzon, its 61, and when you hit this, (it means you have 61 days left for you to finish), a celebration was made.
The fellow countryman matter
I was faced with this fellow countryman matter a lot in the army. Everyone I met asked me ‘where are you from?’. From having these conversations constantly, I was able to find the ideal answer. I would ask the same question to the person who’d ask me. Because my father’s side is from Gaziantep and my mother’s side is from Trabzon and being born and raised in Istanbul, almost everyone was from where I was from.
With the people I met in our brigade, 60% were from the East, 20% were from the Black sea region, 10% were from the Aegean and Marmara region, 10% from Central Anatolia and Mediterranean region. For example, if the person who asked me was from Sanliurfa, I’d say ‘my father’s from Gaziantep’. Immediately the ‘oooh were fellow countrymen’ conversation would come up. If the person who asked me this question was from Samsun, I'd say 'my mother's from Trabzon' and it would go back to the same conversation. If they were from the Istanbul or Marmara region, then id tell them I also was born and raised in Istanbul. For this reason, 90% of the soldiers were my fellow countrymen. Sometimes I’d get stuck though. For example, if I said ‘my father’s from Gaziantep’ to a friend from Bingol, then they’d say ‘but you don’t speak like you’re from the East, you talk differently’; to that I'd then say I was born and raised in Istanbul.
Jokes aside, I don’t believe in micro-nationalism. For me, there are good and bad people in all regions. For this reason, no matter how much I didn’t enjoy these fellow countrymen conversations, I did get entertained by them. I did give some people a chance, but never at the cost of my merit. Whoever is good, will work well. I don’t care about where they come from, what they look like, or which belief they have. If they do their job well, are honest and have morals, I’d like to work with that person. It’s that simple.
Ward get up!
Another thing that would annoy me at military training was the way we were woken up. I was already an early morning person. In other words, waking up at 6am wasn’t difficult for me. The only thing about this was the fact that two soldiers would literally fly into the wards and scream till their hearts content in between the bunk beds and yell ‘ward wake up up up up up (they’d say ‘up’ at least 20 times back to back like a machine gun). You’d think a war broke out and bombs were flying onto us! After being patient for two days, I asked the soldiers who were doing this, why they were doing it like this. When I got the ‘its tradition’ response, I said ‘everyone here are university graduates, wake them up like humans, trust me you’ll get them up quicker’. When my other friends also complained about this, on the rest of the days, they were waking us up in a more civil way. Most of the time, I was waking up before they’d wake me anyway.
This kind of unnecessary roughness and rudeness was all over the military to be honest. From my perspective, the best thing about doing military was the fact that I got to know people of my country. Previously I heard this many times. I met a very few amount of people who learnt everything in the army, hadn’t gone to school or had gone for a short-term. The stories of legend that were being told were real and I’d seriously be amazed.
Give me one with Kasar cheese man!
I met a lot of people, ones who didn’t know how to read and write, especially the ones in long-term service, ones who couldn’t speak Turkish (and I don’t mean with an accent, I genuinely mean they couldn’t speak Turkish), some didn’t know how to hold a knife or fork, being far from rules of manners and ones who had a violent tendency.
Some had serious problems with being kind, polite and being treated like a human. You might have a question about how I dealt with people like this during my military training. I’ll answer that here. We had mutual spaces like the canteen. I remember the first time I asked for a toast in the canteen. I asked the guy working in the canteen ‘could I have a kasar cheese toast?’, he didn’t even look at my face. I repeated it. Again, he didn’t look at me. Someone came from behind me and said ‘give me a kasar cheese toast man!’ and the guy reacted immediately, and replied ‘ok brother, preparing it now’.
When I saw this, I said to myself ‘Serhan, you will starve if you don’t let go of this politeness’. Then I forced myself to change my manners of request. I said ‘give me one with kasar cheese’. The guy working in the canteen looked at me from the corner of his eye but again didn’t react. In my mind I was thinking ‘I couldn’t do it again!’, I needed to be more rough and rude. Then for the third time, I screamed out ‘I’m talking to you, give me a kasar cheese’. Thank God on the third occasion I got one without having to say ‘man’, so he said ‘ok I'm getting it ready’ and gave me one. I was trying to get used to this environment. In actual fact, it should have been the opposite, which made me think how sad it was that I had to do that.
When soldiers get carried away…
The canteen and its surroundings were especially interesting. It was a place where some of the soldiers shared their confidential information along with some pleasurable conversations. At that point, something really weird caught my eye. Some soldiers were sitting in line like they were at the theatre, in a parallel way, leaning towards the television and saying ‘wow look at these beauties, such babes’. When I looked over to the television, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a morning program, where once upon a time a girl that my twin Baran dated was on, having conversation with the presenter. Both the ladies were wearing miniskirts. I then understood why the 3 soldiers were lying down parallel in front of the TV. It was classic teenage behavior; they were trying to look under the women’s skirts. They couldn’t even think that as it was television, there was going to be no way that they’d see anything further and that watching from underneath wasn’t going to change anything. Additionally, the things they were saying were equally rude. Due to the respect I have for all women, I called out ‘shhh guys, get a grip!’. They then all moved away.
The situation of the dining hall
Besides the canteen, the dining hall was also another story. Before every meal, there was a eating prayer. Two soldiers, sergeant, sergeant officer and from time to time other officers and sergeants would come and stand there while the soldiers all got in line and together recited a prayer.
-thanks to our God
-thanks to our people
(Then a solider would scream at his loudest ‘Attention!’)
-enjoy your meal
-and altogether they’d yell out ‘Thank You’ and move to the dining hall
The food in the dining hall wasn’t bad. Most of the time, they’d give us ‘Kara Simsek’. It was jargon for lentils. It didn’t form a problem for us. By the way, another legend at military is the ‘smack’, which I’d like to bring out to the open. There was no such thing as a smack in the dining hall.
Toilets in the army
One day the brigade commander visited our dining hall. He ate with us. They setup a special table for our brigade general. They chose up to 5 soldiers to sit with him. I was one of them. I sat right across to the Brigade Commander. He made good conversation with us. Towards the end of the meal when he asked ‘does anyone have a question?’, I raised my hand and said:
‘There are alla-turca styled toilets everywhere, can we at least change some of these to the European style?’, which is when everyone at the table including the Brigade Commander started to laugh. Once everyone stopped laughing, the Brigade General went on to explain that in order to maintain hygiene, we are using the alla-turca style, as it’s more difficult to do this with the European style. To this I said ‘Commander if you get it done, we’ll maintain the hygiene’. He then asked the sergeant next to him to ‘please take not of this’.
In actual fact, the commander had a point. Because there were many soldiers who had no idea how to use the toilet. In order for you to understand the severity, I’ll give you an example. Some of the alla-turca toilets were full of rocks. We had issues especially with the soldiers who were serving for long-term. One day during conversation, I asked why this was like this. One of my friends replied: ‘some use rocks instead of toilet paper’
When I first heard this, I thought he was joking. When I realised he was being serious, I had another shock and said to myself ‘what will shock me next?’.
And of course I also have to advise you of this, soldiers are not to make any problem of the toilets, conditions or question any of these. No matter what the conditions are, he is responsible for fulfilling his tasks.
Sometimes he will fulfil his tasks for months on end in the mountains in seriously difficult conditions. However at that point, beyond physical strength (which at that time I was quite well physically), I thought I could be of mental input. That’s why I was always at a PC in the army. That’s why bringing up things like the toilet issue didn’t seem like a problem to me.
Amongst the soldiers, there were some university graduates who still managed to surprise me at times. They seriously struggled during sport related training. And there were some who were distorting the marches as they had no arm to leg coordination. Because of them, we’d have to constantly repeat a really basic March. I remember from time to time, the sergeant would scream out to these soldiers ‘how are you a university graduate, when you have no arm to leg coordination!’
Two incidents at Military Training
During all the assemblies and training, there were incidents on my behalf I didn’t mean to do. For two weeks, I was able to hide my identity. There was no way I wanted special consideration. So I was always acting in a way to disguise it. However, one day a solider came up to me and asked ‘are you Serhan Suzer?’. I said ‘yes, that’s me’. ‘They are calling you from the intelligence office’. And I said ‘why what’s up?’ to which he replied ‘I don’t know, the commander from the intelligence office has called for you, it would be a good idea for you to go there immediately’. So I quickly went through the military training brigade level after quite a walk and got to the intelligence office. They asked me questions about who I was. In the end, they asked ‘why didn’t you advise us of who you were’. I then replied with my thoughts ‘I want to do my military service and complete my time here like normal. I didn’t feel the need to advise who I was. After almost an hour of talking, I excused myself and left the office.
I ran towards the training grounds as I was running late. When I arrived, I could hear sounds like ‘where the hell is Serhan Suzer man? Quickly go and find him and bring him here!’. I was late for the assembly. Everyone was asking about me. While I was running to the training ground, I heard the highly rated soldier who was conducting the training screaming out in this way, and without losing any further time, I replied ‘commander, I’m here’.
-why were you late?
-they called me from the intelligence office, the conversation went on
-I don’t care about that intelligence office stuff. You are not to be late to assembly, to which he screamed out ‘count, keep counting, 4,5,6,10,20,50’
Once I got to 50, I raised my head and asked ‘is that enough?’ And in a really annoyed manner he screamed out ‘continueeeeee’. I continued ’51,52,53,60,70’.
When I got to 70, he again screamed out ‘ok enough, get up and take your position’
I got up embarrassed at the situation, I went next to my friends. The commander who gave me this punishment turned away and started screaming at some one else. At that point, my friends turned around to me and in a quiet tone said ‘wow look at you! You just did 70 push-ups. We didn’t realise we had a Rambo amongst us; you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at you’ in a funny joking tone. After this much joking around, I was able to feel less anxious. Laughing back I said ‘if I had to, I would have gone to 100’.
Truly, my final years at university and some years after were my fittest and strongest times. I was doing sport constantly and lifting weights more than the volume of my body.
I experienced another situation like this with a friend who was physically more bulky, and before training, he was showing off to us about how strong he was. He could lift the soldiers here. And to provoke him, I’d say things like ‘you can lift others but the real question is can you lift someone your own size and weight?’. I showed him the practical method that Baran and I came up with in high school, by lifting your own weight and being parallel to the ground, everyone said ‘wow look at that’ in which the bulky friend tried it but just couldn’t do it, and then I started joking about it ‘see you’re not as a strong as you think’. Everyone asked me to show them the skill again, to which I replied ‘of course’ and showed them again. Right at that point, I heard a noise from behind me ‘son, what are you doing? Are you a showman? Quickly get down from there. Don’t disturb the training session!’
The other sergeant that also did the training came. When I put my feet on the ground, he said ‘come on showman, today you’ll be carrying the flag. Let’s see what your performance is like when you run with the flag’.
That day we did some serious training. Almost everyday we were singing the song ‘Yaylalar’ that was literally drilled into our head. And I was in blood shed and deeply sweating while running with the flag.
Personally, the Yaylalar anthem that I really love has been drilled into my head so much, I experienced an interesting event years later: I lived in Nisantasi for 10 years and only moved out with much sadness just 2 months ago. Where I lived in Nisantasi was really central. One day when I was sleeping, I heard at about 5am, three guys leaving a cheap club, who over did it with the scotch, chanting out the anthem ‘Yaylalar yaylalar’. Their voices were echoing in my house, to hear this while I was sleeping, you had to see how I suddenly jumped out of bed thinking ‘what’s happening, am I still in the army’. Then I peaked through the curtain. When I saw those guys, first I laughed at the situation but I also grumbled on about it.
Jealousy syndrome towards those nearing the end
We had come to the end of the first month of military training. I heard alot of the ‘who will leave first, who will leave last, when’s the daybreak?’ kind of conversations constantly. Infact the long-term soldiers generally felt a kind of resentment towards the short-term soldiers. One day I overheard a long-term soldier say about a short-term soldier ‘he came in 4 months after me and is going to leave 6 months before me’ (at our time, long-term was 18 months). They were annoyed with the short-term soldiers. Actually, they had all the right to be. We experienced the same thing when we one day had a paying soldier come in, our short-term soldiers started saying things like ‘ooh Mehmet Bey is here’. For those doing the army long-term were referred to as ‘Mehmetcik’, short-term was referred to as ‘Mehmet’ and the paid soldiers were titled ‘Mehmet Bey’. With much sarcasm that this Mehmet Bey title carried, one friend of mine said ‘what, is he going to finish his army service in 3 days now is he? We still have 7 months’. One other jokingly added ‘should we take them amongst us and farewell them with a good beating?’. On the other side when I look at the paying soldiers, you can see a different yet interesting outlook on it all. Amongst themselves they were explaining in an exexaggerated way the things they have done for the army, they were saying these kind of things:
-“did you see how I said hello to the commander?”
-“you’ve become a soldier like a bullet”
-“will they give us a infantry gun before we leave?”
When I heard these comments, I said to myself ‘what is this, it would have been better if these guys didn’t come here at all, it’s a waste of space’.
As you can see everyone’s situation changes depending on where they are found.
Oath taking ceremony
After all the training, the oath taking ceremony came knocking. My family was going to come to visit in its biggest form. All the soldiers were excited. For those who know, although Denizli is in the Aegean, as its more inland, it has a dark climate. So in Summer it’s hot, but cold in the winter. The day of the ceremony, it was the first winters day of snowfall. We were brought to the venue two hours before the oath ceremony, during that time all final preparations were completed. The ceremony started, and I saw my family from the corner of my eye. On the inside I was getting excited. First in a loud scream we made an oath near the guns. Then we moved onto the March.
While walking in the ceremony grounds. I will give the person who finds me in this photo a special prize :)
Another snap of the ceremony
While we were marching, I was following my family with the corner of my eye. My fathers driver, Mr Turan (God bless him, we lost him in the last couple of years, may he rest in peace), looked out for me many times. I was laughing in the inside thinking amongst all the green dressed soldiers, how will he find me?. When I walked past them (I was lucky to be walking on that side),Mr Turan noticed me. He turned to the family and said ‘his here, his here!’. Then my family were pointing at me saying ‘his there, his there!’ whilst getting excited. And I sneakily winked at them while walking past and not making it obvious. This event of taking our official steps as soldiers took 4.5 hours. It was snowy outside so when it finished, I felt it when I went inside. Later on all the soldiers came together with their families. My grandfather, grandmother, mother, father, sister Nazli and other relatives were there. I quickly went over to them, we fulfilled our longing for each other.
A photo we took with my other and sister at the ceremony.
After this ceremony, I took my 20 days of leave, I went out of the barracks and met with my family. After having a great dinner together, we all returned to Istanbul.
From left to right: my army friend Eyup, Mr Turan and me. The first night we went out for dinner together in Denizli
A photo of our family dinner taken the first night I returned to Istanbul. Standing up from left to right: Aunt Gulten, Aunt Cemile (grandmothers sister), my grandmother, my father and Aunt Cennet.
I had completed one of the important stepping stones of the army, however I had another 7 months more to go. In my next article, I will write about the ‘mastery’ attained in the remaining time of the army.
Take care…Tag: anı