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.

5 comments:

  1. Us Paras have a different mentality than others...but I do have a medal which I received from a good friend,which I will truly treasure

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  2. They sound like a bunch of arseholes to me.

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    1. I went back and re read their comment again, and your great response to it! Fucktards...

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  4. Happy to see this 'new' posting at your blog Mr O'Shea. I hope more recalled FFL experiences will be shared here.

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