Interview: Life in The Bermuda Regiment

The following was published in the Mid Ocean News this past friday

THE Bermuda Regiment has come under fire in recent weeks, with broadsides being launched from both the home front and overseas. A group of rebel recruits are currently fighting the call to arms after forming Bermudians Against the Draft. The pressure group claims that compulsory enlistment
contravenes their human rights and is essentially a form of 21st century slavery. And earlier this month British Parliamentarian Andrew MacKinlay told the House of Commons that the military unit was "in a parlous state".

The Labour Party MP said the force’s equipment was obsolete and its officers lacked basic leadership skills. Has the Regiment become nothing more than an irrelevant relic of the last century, or does it still have a role to play in modern Bermuda? Are recruits poorly treated or simply guided with a firm
hand? And is the Regiment the character-building exercise that advocates claim, or does it simply bully inexperienced young men into bowing to authority? Fresh recruit Denis Pitcher, 25, a computer software writer who spent two weeks at Boot Camp at the start of the year, has always been
willing to serve his country, although he does question the fairness of the conscription ‘lottery’ and sees no need for Bermuda to have an army. He spoke to Mid-Ocean News reporter GARETH FINIGHAN about his experiences in the front line.

Q: How did you feel when you found out you had been conscripted? Do you think you were given enough time to prepare?
A: I was disappointed and annoyed, although not surprised. A few years back my brother’s name appeared in the paper. He was off island at the time and so I appeared before the Defense Department on his behalf. What I didn’t realize was that the newspaper listing was a call to register, not the draft itself. When I appeared before the Defense Department to answer on my brother’s behalf, they realized that I was not on their records and subsequently I was required to register along with him. It wasn’t much of a surprise when both of our names appeared in the list of those drafted.  I hadn’t understood the distinction between being called to register and being drafted. I was not even aware that I was required to register.

Since they did not have my name on file, if I had never turned up to sign that registry paper would they ever have known? It annoys me to consider that the system might be flawed and that this may happen often. It also bothers me to hear claims of people who never turned up to sign that piece of paper and never got called or pursued. Some have even suggested  that the ‘lottery’ may not really exist and that only those who show up to register are ever pursued. It may be that those who do the right thing are punished while those who do not are rewarded.

Q: How did you find Boot Camp? Was it physically difficult, boring, exciting, or a mix?
A: I had an idea of what I could expect because at university, I had joined the varsity American football team which exposed me to a similar Boot Camp where we were pushed you to your physical and mental limits. I didn’t expect the Regiment to be as grueling.

The Regiment allows you to push yourself if you’re up to the challenge, but football camp was a lot tougher. There truly were times when I hated being part of the American football team because it was very tough to make it through the two-week camp. I could make similar claims of the Regiment but the difference is that I’d go back and do football again. I chose to be there and made the commitment. With the Regiment, attendance was not optional.

A saying of a fellow recruit is a good description of the camp mentality. ‘Don’t be talking when you should be eating. You can make friends while polishing your boots.’ It is surprising how true this comment was for we were to shovel down our food as fast as possible and had little free time
during the 18-hour-plus days.

Q: Explain a typical day. Was there such a thing as a typical day?
A: Camp broke into a predictable routine quite quickly. We’d be woken just before 5.30 a.m. with barely enough time to run to the bathroom prior to starting our morning physical training, which would last about 30 minutes.

Following PT we would have a limited window of time to shower – usually cold – before rushing to eat, which was also one of those occasions where, if you didn’t fight to be first, it was likely you wouldn’t have enough time to eat everything.

Our corporal wouldn’t hear of us skipping meals but it didn’t stop some from sneaking off to skip breakfast in order to feel at least somewhat clean. Having only two sets of clothes, we were often wearing the same ones for days on end which didn’t help. It was suggested that there was only one
washing machine at camp, so few if any bothered to make use of it.

After breakfast would come what many saw as the most grueling part of the day – morning muster. We would be marched onto the square and required to stand "at attention" for an indeterminate length of time while being subjected to kit inspection. We would be examined on how well we’d ironed our clothes, polished our shoes and our cap badges. Almost every day we were chastised at length about the poor state of our kit, and if you didn’t remain perfectly still during this time or your kit wasn’t up to scratch, you were sometimes required to perform extra duties which made it harder to be prepared the next day.

Following muster was a lesson – field or rifle knowledge – and drills, which focused on marching. We would then have a short time for lunch, a brief muster and an afternoon of more lessons and another drill.

The evenings would start with dinner, typically followed up by a short break and then a lesson in the mess hall. We were required to sit cross legged on the floor which was reminiscent of being a pre-schooler and a bit degrading.

We were considered mature enough to handle a rifle but not mature enough to have a chair. I don’t know if this was an intentional part of the ‘tearing you down’ mentality of Regiment or a by-product of the small mess hall and limited chairs.

The evening ended with us being released to our barracks where we were expected to spend the remaining hours of the night working on improving our kit. Often the hours before lights out at 11 p.m. weren’t enough to reach the expected standard and some opted to continue working in what dim light was available. After just a few hours of sleep, we would begin the routine again the next day.

Q: Do you think you learnt anything practical during your training? Can you detail any tasks that seemed either pointless or beneficial?

A: There were lessons to be learned in a lot of what we did. As for how useful each of those lessons will be in the course of a lifetime is questionable. One of the things I enjoyed most was learning about methods of camouflage and concealment.  However, considering our rapidly diminishing green space on the island and the incredibly small likelihood that we’ll ever make use of those skills it did feel pointless at times.

Learning army tactics when you live on a tiny remote island when we’ll likely never face a foreign assault from an opposing army, let alone any military force simply didn’t make a lot of sense.  On one occasion a fellow recruit said it felt like we were ‘playing soldier’. Although the comment was quickly condemned by our superiors, it was a good description of what we were doing.

Marching around the square in unison may seem pointless, but there were some valuable lessons to learn from the experience. It requires patience, teamwork and concentration. In order to be successful you had to be willing to put your own pains aside to work alongside the team. Marching also taught a somewhat hidden lesson of confident body language, showcasing how you should walk tall, holding your head up high and swinging your arms with confidence.

Endlessly polishing our boots was another exercise potentially deemed pointless for some though may hold some merit. One evening one of the Sergeant Majors stopped by our barracks and we asked if he would give us a lesson on how to shine our boots. While he was demonstrating his method he explained the merits of shiny shoes by likening them to his generation’s form of bling. His generation didn’t know as much about fancy cars, clothes and gold chains and instead grew up in an age where one showcased success through pure hard work. He said walking into a room with shoes that bling shows more about a person then a gold chain. Isn’t it said that the first thing a woman notices of a man is his shoes?

The lessons learned of ironing our clothes and polishing our boots can go a long way in helping make solid first impressions for a well maintained appearance says a lot about an individual. The difference between a well maintained appearance can be the make or break aspect of landing a job or making a sale, however I have been left wondering if in my own case whether my employer would rather I dedicate my evenings to my appearance or instead studying to improve my trade skills.  By some regards, my generation is already a bit too focused on appearances and not focused enough on skills.

Q: Were you subject to, or did you witness, any bad treatment amongst the recruits?

A: I had heard a great many horror stories from people I knew who had been through Boot Camp. In my own experience nothing we were subjected to resembled the worst of those stories, although the language and profanity witnessed at was quite often far beyond what was necessary.

The Regiment was very good about ensuring that no physical abuse occurred and that the genuinely injured were cared for. There were times when injured individuals could have received better treatment, although considering the huge number of people faking illness, it was not a surprise that the medics were sometimes overwhelmed.

I do still question the merit of such limited hours of sleep and the necessity of making the bathroom inaccessible after lights out. The Regiment’s official position of requiring a Corporal to escort recruits to the bathroom during those hours is ill-conceived. It is also unreasonable to expect the Corporals to get no sleep because they’re taking recruits to the bathroom every hour. I disagree with the policy of limiting access to the bathrooms after lights out. If it is not possible to have facilities installed within the barracks then they should be freely accessible at all hours. The alternatives were certainly less then desirable.

Q: It’s said that the Regiment is a great leveler – an ideal opportunity for young men from different social circles and neighborhoods to get together, interact, and, if nothing else, become good friends. Did you find that to be the case?

A: It certainly brings young men from different social circles together and was certainly a great leveler. It brought me closer to individuals I likely never would have met and no doubt will become good friends with as our time goes on. One thing that did serve as an eye opener during this experience is that I got a much closer look at the level my generation is at.  I would have thought and hoped that many are taking advantage of the wealth of opportunity at their fingertips, however this wasn’t readily apparent.

It was very concerning for me to witness individuals who showed signs of a poor education, the direct result of our floundering education system. My generation has very unfortunately been given the short end of the stick. While we’ve been exposed to more opportunity then our parents could ever have dreamed of, it has come at the price of losing our sense of community and pride in achieving things together. Much of the mentality I witnessed was focused more on the self then the whole, which is
truly unfortunate.

Q: To what extent did you find the Regiment was a "character-building" exercise?

The community belief held by many that Regiment will straighten out the bad apples in our society is a misguided one. Our society needs to decide what it wants. The Regiment is tasked as being the national defense force for a variety of scenarios and an organization to be relied on in times of need. To try to merge this goal with the objective of straightening out our youth on a limited budget of both time and money is ill-conceived and does damage to both causes.

If our youth are in need of such ‘character-building’ it should be done properly through a combination of discipline, education, skills and opportunity which should lie separate from the objective of national support. 

As was stated by numerous officers, you’ll get out of Regiment what you put into it. It can be an incredibly wholesome, character building exercise if you realize that you can push yourself further then you ever thought possible and reach for greater achievement. However, if you truly resent being forced against your will to be there for no other reason then being unluckily chosen, then it’s unlikely you’ll gain much if anything from the experience.

Q: How inconvenient was it having to take two weeks off work, and how inconvenient is it likely to be in the future?

A: In the grand scheme of things, losing two weeks won’t have long term impact on my career. However, for those who are not in my position and are struggling to find jobs or work hourly, the wage is mediocre and measure up to less then the minimum of developed nations. While any pay is
appreciated, it should come as no surprise that few if any volunteer to put in 18+ hour days at the equivalent of less then $4 an hour.

One of the largest concerns I have about the requirement is that it adds one more tick on the list of differences between hiring a Bermudian and an expatriate worker. Thanks to certain government policies, there is less and less incentive for employers to bother trying to fill entry-level jobs with
Bermudians in the face of the investment required to do so. Adding negatives such as Regiment and requiring those employers to foot the bill will not bode well in opening up future opportunities.

Q: Have your views on the Regiment changed since you joined up?

A: Before attending camp, I had little understanding of the point of it. Having an army mandated to national defense on an island is counter intuitive. I could not and still cannot conceive of any scenario where a foreign army would invade. Years ago the Regiment may have had a very solid purpose but that appears to be fading.  Both the US and Canada no longer have bases here simply because it is no longer necessary. There is little to no strategic value left in Bermuda’s location for military purposes like there once was in our history. Today’s technology has allowed the range of missiles, planes, ships and submarines to far surpass any but the most minimal need to stop here.

I think our community would be better served if we were to evolve the army into a form of National or Coast Guard-style organization where we could try and form training partnerships with the US and Canada to cross-utilize some of our resources in exchange for access to theirs. There are many youth who haven’t been fortunate enough to have a boat of their own who would jump at the chance to cruise around in a semi-modern cutter visiting foreign ports along with assisting our island in defending and patrolling our waters.

Support in the events of civil disturbance and emergencies could certainly still fall under this style of organization. Regarding conscription, my views have not changed – it’s unjust and unnecessary and should not exist at all.  Despite my bitter reluctance to participate in the Regiment, I entered camp with a positive attitude. Very quickly, other recruits noted my constructive attitude and condemned me as a must be volunteer. It caused a gap between myself and other recruits along with a sense of resentment towards me. I ended up changing my attitude in order to fit in as to do otherwise would have made camp even more unbearable.  The worst part of camp was that there are people who truly do not want to be there and only bring the down moral of everyone else. Because there’s only a minority of people who wanted to be there in the first place, you’re better off having a bad attitude then a constructive one because you’ll be better accepted this way. How can this be a positive scenario for
assisting our country in times of need?

Conscription is inherently flawed as is discriminates and is ‘random’. How can it be justified that women are perfectly fit and capable enough to volunteer but are incapable of being conscripted?  Men are held to a different standard. I mean no offense intended to the women who volunteer, but if conscription is to continue, either women should be deemed fit to be conscripted or they shouldn’t be permitted to volunteer.  If it wasn’t right to pick out a certain race to perform compulsory service in the past, why is it okay to pick out a certain gender and age group to perform it today? On top of that, why is it that a ‘random’ allotment gets chosen and others skate by with no obligation?

Q: What alternatives to the Regiment should be made available, or are you opposed to any form of compulsory service?

A: Alternatives are available, although limited. Prior to fully enlisting you join either the Police Reserves, St. John’s Ambulance or the Fire Service in St. David’s. Policing your own community has to be a very difficult job given that you are asked to enforce the law on your friends and family who may resent you for it later. St. John’s Ambulance, can be unappealing for those who wouldn’t want to bear witness to the tragedies and gruesome scenarios, which just leaves the Fire Service, although you have to live in St. David’s to be part of that. This would have been my choice, though I was already enlisted before I moved back to St. David’s.

Ultimately, you do have alternatives if you haven’t already enlisted. I am not so certain of the options once you enlist however. I believe we still need to see more alternatives made available, even if it means we increase the draft. There are a great many organizations that could make good use of the assistance able to be provided by many individuals in our society.

Q; What are your views on the members of Bermudians Against the Draft?

A: I applaud the members of the Bermudians Against the Draft for standing up for what they believe in. You have two choices when it comes to the draft. Either show up for Regiment and accept the legal obligation and three year commitment, or face a criminal record – which could include being placed on the stop list – and imprisonment. I chose the former simply because I could not afford to throw away everything I have worked hard to achieve. Many individuals in the community see the Regiment as fulfilling a tradition that has been in place for generations. Some of these individuals instantly chastise any who complain about the obligation on the argument that they had to do it so why should younger generations not also have to ‘suck it up’?

Personally, I’m against the draft but am taking a different approach to combating it. I have agreed to fulfill my legal obligation to serve, despite my opposition to being forced to do it. I believe future generations should not be forced to participate in the draft and as such, I intend to remain a vocal opponent of it throughout my time in the Regiment. My goal is not to stop myself from serving, but to put a stop to the requirement for others who come after me to serve against their will.

Because of my opposition to the draft I have opted not to volunteer to serve extra time and join the  Junior Non-Commissioned Officer’s Cadre. Despite the fact that I may gain from the experience and that the Regiment needs ‘good soldiers’, I have no intention of serving in any capacity further then what I am forced to do. I admit it’s unfortunate that I have chosen to take this approach, however it is against my principles to support an organization that supports the draft.

Until I have the choice to serve or not serve, I shall serve in the lowest capacity possible and I invite future recruits who don’t have the ability to follow in the footsteps of BAD to take a similar work-to-rule approach.

Q: Do you think having a positive attitude makes Regiment life easier?

A: The best way to make camp life easier is to do what you’re asked to do. Talking back or refusing definitely will make it harder and you’ll only single yourself out. The reality is you can’t win against the system, it is designed that way with legal support from our Government. The only thing you can do is try to bend the rules as much as you can get away with to make things easier. If you try to break or live outside them, you’ll only make things a great deal worse.

Q: What would your advice be to recruits facing the draft next year? 

A: Try not to dread the experience.  I’m not saying you won’t hate camp while you’re there, but for the most part it is only two weeks and camp does end eventually even though it feels like it may last for an eternity.

If you’re lucky enough to have the prospect of living off island, I would encourage you to consider it unless you have your heart set on remaining in Bermuda.  Prior to attending camp, if I didn’t have a great career and didn’t want to be in Bermuda, the Regiment would have been a major factor in encouraging me to stay off island.  Given what I now know having gone through camp, my view hasn’t changed and while some people may dislike my opinion, my recommendation to my brother who faces camp next year shall be that if the opportunities offered abroad are even remotely close to what he could attain on island, he is better off staying away to avoid it.

It is an unfortunate position to hold, however I simply don’t yet feel that I or the country have gained much from my conscripted requirement to serve in the Regiment.  Perhaps this attitude will change as my training progresses and I serve out the length of my conscription.

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2 thoughts on “Interview: Life in The Bermuda Regiment

  1. A great segment and thanks for reproducing it online. It’s great to have your viewpoint on such a controversial activity. I am in agreement of the draft lottery being inherently wrong but I am of the opinion that Bermuda will not change the law as regards this issue anytime in the near future.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Tryangle. It may be doubtful for conscription to be changed any time soon however I am hopeful that my segment will help encourage government and the regiment to do more to make it more enjoyable and encouraging for people to want to and volunteer to be there.
    It should be a goal to spur an increase in the number of volunteers until there is no longer any need for any conscripted members.
    The proposed wage increase in this years budget and education initiatives are great first steps but I am hopeful they are only the first of many.

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