Has it been seven months, or seven years?
The mildly overawed teenagers we met for the first time in the pages of Mission & Defence 1/08 look now like they've stepped out of the Seventies film classic Kelly's Heroes, dirty unshaven - but with a mighty self-confidence burning from their blood-shot eyes. Eight days. Sleep? Well ...
We are back in Boden. The leaves are marked with first blush of autumn in this first week of September. The rifle company's first platoon round off over a week's field training in fighting in built-up areas.
"Constant fatigue resulting from a combination of lack of sleep and physical exertion is certainly something to be experienced."
A short break before the next attack. Machine gunner David Eriksson uses the pause in action for what a soldier on the front line should be doing - checking his equipment. Re-filling ammunition. In this case, tying rounds to his machine gun ksp 58. Rounds with a red point. This is, thank goodness, only an exercise. It is Alfa platoon's seventh week in the field during just as many months of basic training.
Besides Eriksson, soldier 007, Ercan Akdogan, is looking at his machine gun ksp 90 with a certain degree of concern. He is renowned to be ferociously effective at "clearance" during fighting in built-up areas (and famous for this year's first front cover of Mission & Defence, when we began this series on the platoon). Misfire again. Shit!
"It cost us our Section Commander. There was nothing I could do. After that the whole operation collapsed."
The man in charge of the exercise is specialist officer Staff Sergeant Björn Hedén
"A good example of when something goes badly wrong. We've lost the Section Commander, yes, but we all know the score. Forward. If the entry stalls then the whole operation can fail. Everyone has heard the order, act in the commander's spirit!"
Chose Swedish National Service
The Section Commander they are talking about is David Evans. He is standing upright by the hospital all-terrain carrier, with a neat compression bandage tied round his right upper arm, smiling, but still disappointed that the officer conducting the exercise took him out just when the entry attempt was at a critical juncture,
Just two years ago, Evans was an American citizen.
"I took Swedish citizenship just so that I could do National Service. It always seemed like the right thing to do for me, and I'd rather perform National Service in Sweden than in the US. I have, after all, lived in Sweden for all of my school years. I'm probably going to try to become a professional officer. This has been an excellent start. Now, if only I can get rid of this bandage before the next attack ..."
Johan Bergman leans against the troop carrier, without helmet, weapons or body armour. With a minor injury to one of his calves, he is temporarily out of the match.
"How did I end up here? I'm not really sure. I'd missed the bus for enlisting and things just went very quickly after that. Boden? We-e-ll ... But, sure, I wanted to do my national service. Get the whole thing over and done with. Grow up a bit. Maybe a little wiser. I just can't get my head round the fact that it's only been seven months since we reported for duty. Sometimes it feels like seven years, but boring is the last thing it's been here."
Deputy Platoon Commander, Axel Bergström, has something to say. And when Lieutenant Bergström raises his voice, it can be heard:
"Speed, flexibility, movement, tempo, gentlemen, tempo! The Section Commander must make sure that there are new men being constantly pushed forward. If number one or number two are beaten or pinned down , numbers three and four take up fire and then take their place. Bend your knees. Quick on your feet. Lift them high like your in the woods."
Bergström, 26, did his national service at I 19, later commanding a Combat Vehicle 90. He is currently preparing for half a year's service in Afghanistan, starting April next year:
"I applied for international service so many times that I was on the verge of giving up. Can't be helped. Shortage of commanding officers. That's about what's been said. Recently, the officer situation has got a lot better."
"After Afghanistan I'm going to have to take a good long look at my options. Either I can go back to school, get that extra star and become Captain, or switch careers - jump ship. There's nothing wrong with being a deputy, but I want my own platoon: and that's the choice I have to make, even if more studying doesn't really appeal to me. But I want to come back here. Training soldiers is the best job I can imagine."
Axel Bergström will fill the deputy's position for FS 17 in Afghanistan. And just like in Boden, he will be Jonas Kassberg's number two:
"The intention was, when the platoon was brought together, that there would be an opportunity to continue for a third term, and then go on to serve together on a mission abroad. That won't happen now, for financial reasons. Their places will be filled by soldiers who were previously in the Nordic Battlegroup", Kassberg remarks.
”… making the best of it”
"It's sure to be a success, but I have to admit that it does feel as if some of the sparkle is missing from our day-to-day activities. We should have been setting off together ... Bergström, the soldiers of the first platoon and I. But, like many times in the past, it's a matter of making the best of it."
The platoon's leading duo have had reason to be grateful for that phlegmatic attitude on a number of occasions during the year. More than anything else, they have had problems with equipment, worn out items due for replacement.
"Things are a bit difficult as regards kit since we haven't trained up a company of light infantry like this for 15 years or so, and the equipment list is somewhat lacking. It is, of course, irritating when there are no blank firing adapters for the model 90 machine gun, which has, after all, been around for a while. Tracked vehicles have, oddly enough, been another shortage item."
"It happens, as well, that important pieces of equipment, such as AK 5 assault rifles, fall apart in a soldier's hands. It's not good if the lads lose confidence in their own kit."
But Captain Kassberg is more than satisfied with his soldiers:
"I've been around for a number of years now, but I've never had a platoon with so many thoughts and opinions. On Fridays we hold an hour of general discussion, "Platoon Hour", and they are always very constructive. It's great that they don't just discuss the food or the state of their gloves. They have detailed suggestions to make regarding improvements to our training exercises."
Rest break, over!
Back to the junction between Kicking Bear Alley and Cherokee Road in the FIBUA (Fighting In Built-Up Areas) mock village. It has ten buildings, most of which consist in only outer walls, lining two main streets and a town square - Crazy Horse Square.
”Secure entry zone. Entry point, window. Foxtrot Alpha! First attack group, advance through Echo Alfa. Golf and Hotel! Prepare to support Foxtrot. Mind your own. Three of ours in the east corner of the building. Forward”
Captain Kassberg has given his orders - a new offensive to break into the building. This time the operation is brilliantly successful. Perhaps because some of the soldiers found their way into the "bandit's nest" via a subterranean culvert.
A very long day comes to its end for the first platoon, rifle company.
"Not quite yet", corrects deputy Section Commander Hannes Yttersjö, as he heaves a sigh of relief upon locating a lost anti-tank grenade.
"It wouldn't have been much fun, looking for that in this terrain. We've been moving about a lot and the grenade got misplaced yesterday. Thankfully, it was just in the wrong place in the wrong carrier."
Final guard-duty roster
All that remains is for Lance Corporal Yttersjö to do the guard-duty roster for the night, the last before the warm beds of the barracks welcome them home :
"I'll take the worst double watch, between 02 - 04, myself. It'll be a little easier to get the lads on side later ..."
By Sven-Åke Haglund
Photo by Niklas Ehlén, Försvarets bildbyrå
Footnote: NATO standard call signs are used. The first platoon is referred to as Alpha, the second Bravo, and then Charlieand Delta. The sections in turn Echo, Foxtrot, Golfand Hotel. The first section of the first platoon is thus known as Echo Alpha, the second section Foxtrot Alfa(section name first).