Saturday, August 24

Overstaying Welcomes

I’d never been so happy to enter a French Foreign Legion base. Typical emotions encountered upon crossing the metal gates of any one of the Legion regiments can range from dread to disillusionment and no further. Joy? Now that was a new one. The contrast between this, my final week in the Legion, and my first traversing of the security barrier of the headquarters of La Légion Étrangère was incalculable. Then, hand trembling, watching my passport being torn from my humid grip, not knowing what would happen next. Now, strolling out past the security gate with a casual nod to the corporal chef on duty, not……..knowing what would happen next either, actually.

It’s been exactly two weeks since I left the Legion, and only now have I plucked up the courage to write this, my final blog. The medals have been packed away, the parting photos held briefly on the iPhone for a few nostalgic glances before being committed to the annals of hard-drive history. Here I sit in my new house in Dublin, anxious beyond words to advance to the next chapter of my life but incapable of doing so, until this one has been properly, officially closed.

That last week at Aubagne, the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion, was one of the most surreal of the past five years. And that’s saying something. I had arrived with a Moldovan colleague, with whom I’d begun my adventure in Aubagne back in 2008. Once back at HQ, we encountered two more friends from basic training who had each embarked on different journeys over the course of their contracts. Four, in total. Four, from an original forty-six. Granted, three guys had left through the front gates a week earlier, which brought the total number of 5-and-out to seven. Seven who completed our contracts and moved on. About eight or so raised their hands to leave before the end of basic training. Following on from that, and by our own more-or-less accurate calculations, another twelve or so had deserted over the course of the five years. That leaves more than half of our co-trainees having signed on to continue their careers.

The atmosphere amongst the departing was one of calm and light-heartedness, with a grand total of eighteen soldiers wrapping up careers of varying lengths, the youngest of course being ourselves, clocking out at five, the oldest being an Adjudant Chef who managed to rack up a staggering 35 years of service. Respect was maintained among the ranks but with a far less formal air. Handshakes were heartier, jokes more honestly laughed at, everyone buzzing with excitement at closing the book on their legion stories. The week was spent sauntering from office to office, confirming our decisions, our personal details, our future plans, our addresses abroad to forward mail to, and so on.

I’m sorry, but fuck this!

All these banal details, bland, lifeless descriptions, this isn’t how it was when I first started this blog. There was more life to my writing, more self-indulgence in the images and pictures painted by my oftentimes-convoluted words and phrases. And to be honest, I miss that. I miss being submerged in the Legion, not knowing day from night, forward from back, down from up. Paddling uncertainly through a murky abyss, a crushing yet strangely comforting pressure enveloping me from all sides. It was peaceful down there, in its own chaotic way. The sharks would bump but never bite, the electric eels slither slimily through legs and around necks, toying and teasing without ever delivering that fatal shock. It was a weird sort of rush, to delude oneself into thinking it was dangerous for the sole purpose of excitement and adrenaline, only to unwaveringly recognize the security it provided, those deep, dark murky waters of the abyss, where every rock peppering the ocean floor was painted a brilliant white, all bundled together to spell “Honneur et Fidelité”.

Two weeks ago, I broke the surface and crawled through white-crest waves crashing down around me, relentlessly calling me back in to the ocean, sweeping my hands out from under me, rolling backwards and pulling desperately at me. I made it to dry land, peeled off my wetsuit hoping for a long-overdue chance to stretch and breathe. Instead I was met with a rush of cold, a goose-pimpling chill to replace the envelope of cosy deep-sea pressure. Joining the French Foreign Legion was the hardest thing I had ever done, until it came time to leave.

Not that I was ever tempted to stay. Five is five, no more no less, that’s what I said because that’s what I meant. That certainty, however, doesn’t cushion the blow as that cold rush of air hits your bare skin and you realize “I’m out!”. I’m out, on the outside, the gates clanked shut behind me, resonating in defiance at another soul lost, another man down, another Képi shoved unceremoniously into the back of a dusty wardrobe in some rented flat in some far-away city, far from the Legion, far from the sea.

Make no mistake: these past five years have been the most incredible, illuminating, heart-soaring and soul crushing, intensely beautiful, boring and bone-shuddering of my entire life. Every second, every minute, every hour, day, month and year of my service morphed into one single entity the moment I crossed those iron gates for the very last time. I have loved every second, minute, hour, day, month and year, because I have loved my time as a legionnaire so profoundly, so completely, and with more pride than one can imagine. I’ve met some of the most remarkable people this planet has to offer, not only because of what they did before joining the Legion, but because of having served therein. It is a unique and exclusive brotherhood, and in spite of my differences with many of them, brothers they shall forever remain.

This blog has been an amazing adventure, and through it I’ve grown immensely as a human being, as a soldier, a writer and a general GC (Kiwis, take note). I’ve thoroughly enjoyed corresponding with the numerous messages and comments directed my way. Never seen as a crutch in which to embellish my oftentimes mundane exploits, I’ve found writing this blog to have been more like a strong cupped hand beneath the sole of my boot, pushing me upward to a superior vantage point, my sole responsibility to holler down to you, the reader, calling out everything I see from across the great high wall that encircles this magnificent institution. I hope I have served you all as well as I have the nation of France, her people, and of course my fellow brothers-in-arms.

The next chapter of my life lies as yet unwritten, as shall this blog from this point onwards and forever more. I would like to thank every single person who has laid eyes on my words from the very bottom of my heart. It has been quite a ride.

Bon courage, et rappelez-vous tous:

Légionnaire un jour, Légionnaire toujours.


Monday, August 12

Come Clean

Being in the Legion, being a Legionnaire, does not make you a certified commando by default. The Legion is not an “elite” fighting force in the traditional sense of the word. Our tactics are those of the French Army, our equipment equally so. We begin military life at an immediate disadvantage due to our linguistic incompetence. We suffer collectively for the ineptitude of one, even more so than in any “normal” army. Here, the group punishments take on an altogether nastier disguise, encouraging cohesion not in the name of dragging our flailing comrade through the mire with us, but rather in the hope that the mass turns on the one and forces him back out through the gate he came in. Some call it natural selection but, in the context of what the Legion stands for, it’s more a contradiction of the fabled camaraderie rumoured to permeate the hallowed halls of this mysterious institution.

Our strength isn’t found in being the fittest soldiers or fiercest fighters, because we are not. It comes from being the most mentally rustic and resistant of any armed force, anywhere. Every man has his breaking point. Push him too far and he’ll either snap or just collapse in a heap, refusing to go any further. A soldier’s limit is undoubtedly much, much higher than a normal person, but it exists nonetheless. A legionnaire’s limit, however? Word has it the search continues, but so far to no avail. That’s not to say we accomplish every task we set out to do, but we certainly wouldn’t dream of giving up until the order comes in to cease fire, down tools and regroup.

A resource readily available to most legionnaires to help them through the tougher times in the Legion is the “mafia”. This is a fairly unremarkable phenomenon in any environment that hosts large multinational groups of young men whereby legionnaires sharing the same nationality (or, at the very least, the same language) gravitate towards one another at mealtimes during the working day and for socializing after working hours. The largest mafias at 2REG were the Chinese, Malagasy, “Russian” (ie. any Russian-speaking Eastern European country), Romanian and Nepalese (believe it or not). The historical Mafia Anglaise was conspicuous in its absence at 2REG, hidden as it was up in the mountains and a long way from its spiritual home on Corsica where the Legion paratroopers proudly flew the English-speaking flag. Chez moi, there was but a mere handful of English-speaking legionnaires and, due to the contingent spanning various ranks and alcohol-tolerance levels, solidarity was at a premium. Oh, and naturally I was the only Irishman there. Time, it seemed, to mingle indiscriminately.

Cut to Djibouti, November 2009. It was my first overseas tour with the Legion. I had little more than a year’s service and was excited beyond imagining. Arriving at the Legion regiment there, the 13ème DBLE, we found ourselves sharing the base with a company from 2REP. Amidst their ranks were no less than four fellow Irishmen, the first I’d encountered in almost a year and a half in the Legion. I was dying to chat with a few lads from home, lapse back into my old Dublin lilt and have a bit of craic in the bar kicking back and talking shite. Imagine my surprise when the famous Repmen turned out to be less than welcoming, looking me up and down in the same way a pride of hungry male lions would eye a new cub, half in derision half in a chest-puffing display of dominance and territory marking. I was expecting a warm handshake and a bit of a chin-wag, but the fact that I came from a lowly engineering regiment seemed already enough of an excuse to exile me. I thought nothing of it, having my close friends from my section to hang out with. I’d gotten by without a mafia of any sort for this long, after all.

Among the various activities planned for our four-month stay was the fabled CECAP (Centre d’Entrainement au Combat à Arta Plage). This 3-week intensive training course took place in a remote area of Djibouti bordering the ocean, combining elements of tactical training and firing exercises with a host of physical challenges including an aquatic obstacle course and the infamous “Voie de l’Inonscience”, a grueling obstacle course for which the focal point was a gigantic drainpipe one had to climb up. I had spent the first two months in Djibouti trying desperately to improve my upper body strength for this challenge. You see, I was never the strongest in the arm department. Running like a thoroughbred has its advantages in the Legion, but is essentially not worth a thing if you’re left flailing half way up a rope or hanging from a pull-up bar. I had serious progress to make if I was going to climb this thing, and so I set to work.

When the day of judgment arrived, I was more than a little nervous and sure enough, when it came to the giant drainpipe I was hopeless. On top of my failure was the indignity of having torn the flesh off the backs of my hands in my vain attempts to wrap my hands desperately around this pipe and drag myself up. I was bloodied, beaten, bowed and defeated. Not bad enough that the vast majority of lads made it up and received their medal at the end, but now relations with the Irish guys had deteriorated to the point where a handshake upon crossing them during the day was now unthinkable. Four months after returning from Djibouti I created this blog. A few posts in, just before deploying to Afghanistan, I received a delightful comment from the boys thatyou can see here. I probably would’ve become militantly anti-REP if it wasn’t for the fact that a close mate from basic training was there and thus was on hand to continuously offer small insights into the mentality over there.

At the end of the course, after the ceremony to pin the badges of completion on the successful legionnaires, my platoon sergeant came over to me. “What happened out there?” he enquired calmly? “Je ne sais pas quoi dire, Chef….” I responded meekly. He chuckled, seeing my utter dejection at having not climbed up a drainpipe in the middle of the desert. He put his hand on my shoulder and told me that he’d seen me busting my balls the past few months in preparation for this course. He then took his own medal out of his pocket and put it in my hand, telling me that – although I couldn’t wear it on my uniform – I’d earned it. Then, as he got up to walk off he mused, “In any case, there aren’t any giant fucking drainpipes in Afghanistan”.

That medal has been one of my most prized possessions over the years, if only because of the person who handed it to me, with his other hand on my shoulder. A hand on my shoulder that I had naively hoped for from my more senior, higher ranked Irish compatriots. If anything it made me more proud and determined to interact with all my Legion colleagues regardless of race, creed, nationality. Fuck the mafias.

Legio Patria Nostra.

Tuesday, August 6

Tearless, Fearless, so why so Strange?

If I’m honest, I might have expected more emotion. Not that leaving behind my home of 5 years, my regiment in the isolated alpine foothills with scorching summers and apocalyptic winters wasn’t an emotionally charged experience, but rather how I was surprised the experience manifested itself less as a sustained sensation and more in short bursts of euphoric highs followed by gaping nothings. Every parting handshake spread across the past month or so sent a brief message to my brain, telling it “This is the last time you’ll ever shake this hand, see this face, hear this voice”, a message momentarily heeded and cherished, before being unceremoniously discarded, seeing itself wiped directly off the hard-drive, not even lingering in the recycle bin, if only for a while, for old times ‘sake.

Navigating the final few weeks of my contract here in the French Foreign Legion was a rather surreal affair. Surreal and extremely monotonous. I was left to my own devices to an obscene level, the plethora of time-tabled activities no longer concerning me as preparation for another 4-month mission in French Guiana erupted, exploded and cascaded all around me, trapping young recruits and seasoned, wearied veterans in its eerie, stubbornly incessant flow. Apart from morning sport, I was required for nothing save the occasional consultation of my leaving dossier, whereby they’d request a photocopy of some document before liberating back into the custody of my room and laptop. Freedom appeared more of a prison than the daily routine of the guys trucking onwards with their contracts. A seed of doubt for some, a cunning trick worth recognizing as such for others. I didn’t waiver, couldn’t so close to the end. My guns had been stuck to this far, not long to go now.

In spite of my differences with my platoon commander, when the time came for my “official” leaving party, and I was called upon to step forward and receive my parting gift, he spoke rather eloquently and without malice. Irrespective of the presence of the company captain and other lieutenants, I found his words to carry a sincerity all the same, as if – this close to the end – it was mere water under the bridge. I graciously accepted my gift (an ornate knife with my rank and name engraved in the blade), shook his hand firmly, and attempted to slip back into the crowd. Alas, a speech was demanded, and I accepted the challenge willingly (surprise surprise!!!). To paraphrase the main gist, I stated my firm belief that, whether leaving or staying beyond the five years, to each their own so long as you’re sure of your choice. I thanked everyone present for having contributed to my time at the 3rd company of 2REG, and wished them all the best for the future. Nice, neat, diplomatic. I may just run for office one day!

That, of course, was the “official” party where we, the soon-to-be-departed invite all the big wigs and superiors to bid us farewell. The ACTUAL leaving party was held the night before and how the young legionnaires (naturally charged with the mission of cleaning up after the corporals’ messy arses) managed to render it presentable the next morning is a wonder. Knee-deep blankets of broken bottles enveloped the tiled floor as the music and beer flowed to almighty levels, the Corporal Chef overseeing the “safety” of the event being quickly exiled to the corridor as we locked the door to crank proceedings up a notch. Watching some of the videos the next day extracted more than a few sheepish expressions, but no doubt further down the line those expressions will turn from sheepish to sheer pride and nostalgia.

In the present, when the Friday arrived I climbed on to the bus for the last time, pulled out through the gates of my regiment for the last time, and instead of sleeping the entire journey to the train station my eyes stayed wide and searching, across the mountainous countryside, winding down through the various picturesque towns and villages. I listened more keenly than ever to the almost unfathomably wide range of languages and accents colouring the journey, soaking it all up, taking it all in.

I might have been slightly perplexed at the lack of poignancy. Give it time…..