For six weeks from October 11 to September 20 I was stationed at the Youth Development Unit (YDU) located near Trentham Army Camp. I was taking part in the Limited Service Volunteer (LSV) programme run by The Ministry of Social Development and the New Zealand Defence Force, combined of NZ Army, Air Force, and Navy.
LSV is for unemployed youth aged between 17-25, teaching self-discipline, confidence and other life skills in a structured military environment. You can read more on the website (although Work & Income really sugar coats it). It must be noted that YDU is voluntary and not a “boot camp” (see myth).
LSV originated in 1980 in Burnham (South of Christchurch) and has been running ever since. Early this year John Key got the course up and running in Trentham (Upper Hutt) on the 8th of June, and in Hobsonville (Waitakere City).
Spoilers! If you’re interested in actually taking the LSV course at some stage, I suggest you stop reading here. It won’t be the same if you know what’s coming up next! The first day. Leaving everything to the last minute. I finished off a game review, but was still trying to type up notes from the Fair Trade Supporters Conference the day before (I write for yet another blog if you didn’t already know). I left home with less than 5 minutes to spare. In my formal gears I hurriedly hobbled down the street wearing a backpack and carrying a suitcase bag. I crossed the carpark and took a shortcut across the field.
I had been to the CIT many times before. But never inside. There were three uniformed men sitting at three separate desks (which I later found out represented the three platoons). I said my name, and was shown a door to follow by a man in military uniform holding a stick (my mind jumped to conclusions –- surely they wouldn’t hit us?!). I was assigned a number but I barely heard it as I left the room.
There were a few others sitting down. Most of them wearing jeans or hoodies. The information sent out said to come dressed in formal gear. I felt almost out of place even though I was in the right. I was told to chuck my gear down in the corridor, and sit down and join the others.
I wasn’t totally sure which number I was assigned, but I sat down at the desk that processed my name. Turns out that was the right group, number 2.
We were giving manila folders which contained some important looking documents.
After signing away our lives, we were told to grab our bags. This wasn’t done politely either. Already we were being yelled at and told to hurry up. We scrambled out the door and kept running. My overcoat felt heavy and my black dress shoes clacked as they hit pavement.
We came to a long outdoor shelter, and were instructed to line up, put our bags in front of us, and shut up, to stand perfectly still. There were now quite a few military personnel, some female. When some of our eyes followed the people talking we were given a warning. In the army you look straight ahead.
And then we were given our first punishment or “corrective training” as they call it. One of the personnel pointed out a tree in the distance and told us to run there and back. Again we scrambled for it, running into each other on the return. It wasn’t that far, but a few of us were puffing as we got back into our positions.
Contraband. We were instructed to tip out everything in our bags. I started to gingerly take out items one by one. Again we were told to hurry up and dump our bags, tip everything out, and pull our pockets out. And so I did. We were given an amnesty to hand over any drugs or illegal items, and no further questions would be asked. No one spoke up. Our encounter with the drug dogs would come later in the course.
“Yes staff.” You must always follow your answer with “Staff”. Unfortunately some of my fellow comrades were used to their old sayings, “Yep”, or “Yeah”. They were given more tree.
I was the last to be checked. I stood there not looking down while the ginger-haired staff (Lance Corporal Straw*) went through all my things, checking every item of clothing for hidden items. I was told to take out my ID. I answered each of his questions ending with “Staff” and I could hear my own voice quiver.
The army taught me a lot about possessions. “Nebulous shit,” he barked as he grabbed all my pens & pencils and stuffed in them in a bag. I never did see those pens again (until a few weeks after course, that’s also where my keys disappeared to!). He questioned one of the female staff, Lance Corporal Lisa*, to see if we could have books. She said yes. Not that I had time for reading them in the next 2 weeks, but eventually I had to hand them in.
After my inspection, we were told to stuff everything back into our bags. Naturally everyone had started before me, as I was still being inspected. So I was still packing, and got more of a yelling. We were directed to run through some electric doors into the building we were in earlier. Placing our bags and lining up, before our mug shots were taken.
Hair be gone. I was one of the first to be given a haircut, they were doing two at a time. I sat down in one of those old red-cushion school seats, and removed my glasses. They grabbed the electric razor and shaved up and down my skull all the way down to a number two. After shaking off my hair I had to rejoin the line where we were facing the other direction, again staring straight ahead.
The Full Monty. After our new crew cuts, we were led off to a room with the curtains drawn and racks of clothes in the centre. It was time to get measured up. We were divided into three heights and lined up against the wall. Next we were instructed to strip down to our knickers. Now that’s certainly something I’d never do on the outside, but being told by the military somehow makes you do things you ordinarily wouldn’t. Each item of clothing got passed out, and we were told to try them on. Reporting back our size and passing it onto the next person. I think all of us felt a little embarrassed/scared shitless.
Potter! Being the only one to wear glasses in my platoon, and brown hair to boot, I was given the name Harry Potter. Not the worst of names by a long shot. But not having any nicknames in school, it was a little unnerving (not that I know of anyway!). But it only really started getting to me when the other trainees started addressing me as the “boy that lived”, especially as I went to all the trouble of trying to learn their real names. No one else really had a nickname.
Although there was another nickname victim. Not able to decide on which size boot would fit, he was given the name Princess. So there are worse names! It was just a few of us that got them, names that stuck anyway.
Scary sergeant. So during these first few hours I had learned which of the staff to stay well away from, and that was Sergeant Hopper*. He was the loudest of the bunch, and the one with that stick.
We were shown our classroom for the rest of the day.
Lunch. We were given a brown paper bag with lunch. We were told we had to eat all of it. I wasn’t much of a pear eater at the time so I kept it on the desk. I was terrified I’d get told off. But it turned out Staff Hopper had gone through the rubbish bag and procured a half-eaten pear. We were again punished as a group and told to run to the goal posts outside and back. The first of many runs that night.
Dinner. Food was served from a hot box. Not at the Mess where we would usually eat from. We lined up and were dished out our food onto disposable plates. I tried to skip the salad. Bad idea. I was pulled back by the staff, and they let everyone know about it. From that moment on I was always reminded by the staff to not forget to pile up on the veggies.
We hauled our bags up to level 4. And told to get to a room, two to a room. I was bunking with Garood. Oh that’s another thing I forgot to mention.
Last names. We were told to forget our first names. The only name the staff cared about was our last name. So when I wasn’t being called Harry Potter, “Gray” would be shouted out.
Our rooms were divided up into three sections represented by famous NZ Army folks who received the Victorian Cross: Apiata (Willie Apiata), Ngarimu (Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu), and Upham (Charles Upham). These would be our groups for the cleaning and other duties in the barracks.
Unfortunately due to back problems Garood had to leave the course after two weeks. And I had a new roommate, Eramiha.
Shit. Shower. Shave. The morning routine. Corridor is called at 5.30am. And then we’re straight into it, getting ready before 6am. Making our beds, shaving, showering, getting dressed into uniform. I found this to be the best order. Now having 30 guys share 3 showers… well you do the math. It got a bit hectic. Sometimes we had 3 guys showering at once – yep even me (in underwear of course).
The Mess. Located in the Trentham Army Base, we would march there every morning.
For breakfast we were allowed a choice of hot or cold. For the first few days I chose hot which comprised of either scrambled egg or 2 fried eggs, Wattie’s Spaghetti or Wattie’s Baked Beans and some change-ups which included bacon, black pudding, saveloys, and sausages. I mean who wouldn’t?! But after a while I’d still feel hungry, so after a few days I started having cold breakfasts. Cereal and fruit. But I was truly sold when they started handing out yoghurts. Some days your favourite cereal wasn’t there or had just run out, so sometimes it was bit of a gamble.
We were allowed two pieces of bread for each and every meal (toasted for breakfast) on most occasions. I never thought of bread as being valuable before. But it wasn’t long before people were trading the much loved bread for cigarettes or ironing duties.
My friend Ethan worked at the Mess, the only person I knew from my old life. And we even spotted comedian and NZ celebrity Mike King. Just sitting at a table chatting away as we lined up for lunch.
Corridor! You haven’t lived until you’ve woken up to a corridor signal. It’s about as bad as being woken up to a fire drill. At 5.30am, Staff would shout “Corridor!” and we’d have 10 seconds to get out of bed, blurry-eyed, slip on our jandals and race to the corridor to line up shoulder to shoulder.
Corridor was our default position, our standby mode, where we listened to instructions, and herded all the sheep together. Again eyes straight ahead, numbering off from right to left.
Corrective training. While on the first day it was all running to the goalposts and back. We soon learned that wasn’t all of their arsenal on display. These were mostly group punishments involving wall squats, push ups, and prone bridge. In the start of week 3 individual punishments were on the cards (though there was still plenty of group ones to be had). Failing an instruction, getting cheeky with staff, or just plain screwing up, you get written up . Get written up three times and you have Flagpole. Marching at double speed for 10-20 minutes. We got to try it out for a minute, and that was hard enough. Fortunately I managed to make sure I never got to that stage again.
If you were really bad there was The Cells. One guy from our Platoon got sent there after acting up, and running away during a march back from the Mess. The cells are located within the Trentham Army base, and we had to stag on members of our own platoon throughout the night to keep watch. Meanwhile, I never got to see the cells firsthand, but the stories weren’t exactly pleasant. Being imprisoned in a small concrete room, being woken up every hour, and water thrown on the cell floor so they had to sleep on wet ground (that last one sounds a bit too extreme to be true).
PT. Physical training. Or PE back at school. The PT instructor wasn’t exactly the nicest woman on earth when it came to training. Giving us more hurtful PT if one of us couldn’t follow instructions. Our uniform was the brown top and black shorts get-up.
Room Monster! The staff often joked about the room monster, and its relation to the Christchurch earthquake. The room monster may visit any unlucky trainee that leaves his or her door open, or their light on. We never did see the room monster, but we did see their mark. Returning to our floor, rooms absolutely trashed, ironing on the floor, beds torn apart, mattresses missing, drawers out. Some room monsters had a bit of flair and flexed their creative muscles.
On the girl’s floor they took the mattresses to the bathroom, above the toilet stalls and showers. When more than one room monster takes place sometimes it’s a little hard to tell which stuff is yours. Our room nearly managed to avoid it that course, but while down to polish our boots for 5 minutes, we didn’t think, and it was all over. Returning up stairs to see our room in such a state. Only the very best can survive being room monstered.
Drill. The name for our marching. As well as marching to the Mess and back, three times a day, we had practice of more difficult drill movements in the “Parade Ground”. We weren’t punished if we made mistakes, but we would be ridiculed in front of everybody. Especially if it was Goon Marching (arms swinging at the same time as the legs), but it’s a little hard to pull off after weeks of marching.
We were given the precautionary order and the executive order. Commands included Reaching for height, standing to attention, standing at ease, standing easy, left and right turns, about turn, remove and replace headdress, open and close order, eyes left, right & front, mark time, left & right wheel, double march, halt, and fall out.
Ironing. Every night without fail we had to iron up our uniform for the next day. The annoying thing was that we didn’t have enough irons, and there were always queues. Most of us were beginner ironers as well, so we took a lot longer than we should have. The Staff, mostly Corporal Goliathson*, would point out the tiniest crease and tell us to fix it up, sometimes dropping it or kicking it onto the floor so we had to to do it all over again.
Cleaning. Or Fatigues as it was called. Working together we had to make our floor spotless. There was a set universal layout for everyone, and we had to follow it to a T. Come inspection time, one coat hanger a cm off might get all of your ironed clothing thrown on the floor. 2 finger spacing, with all the clothes facing the right way, buttons done up, clothes in the drawers rolled up. Smiley socks (done in such a way that they appear to be grinning up at you). Dust. We needed to wipe every surface, above every door, to make sure it wouldn’t get found. And beds.
I thought I was okay at making beds, but I guess I had never been in the Army. There are two bed layouts. Day and Night. The spacing had to be exact, done to pillow width and length. And it had to be stretched out completely flat, no folds at all. We were instructed to do hospital corners, but mine never came out right, and in the end I gave up on them, as most of the corners weren’t even visible.
Class time. Sometimes LSV was like school. I sometimes thought of LSV as school meets Scouts, meets the army.
We had visitors come in to take our Platoons or the whole Company for lessons. Fire safety, NZ Red Cross 2 day First Aid Course, Tenancy Rights & Obligations, Civil & Community Law, Budgeting, Dining Etiquette, Personal Hygiene, Family Planning, Drug & Alcohol Awareness.
We were no longer citizens or “Bloody Civvies!”, as Staff Hopper would decree. We were now under military law, not as “Soldiers”, but as “Trainees”. “Lazy fucking civvies” Hopper would joke, criticising their lack of discipline.
At home I had the Internet, TV, and videogames. Here I had nothing. Nothing to distract me. My notebook, my only escape.
Living just down the street from the CIT, I often had glimpses of my old life. Over the last 10 or so years I used to visit the CIT for its field and tennis courts, as well as for driving practice. The surrounds I often walked or biked past. Also visiting Hangdog in Lower Hutt, the cross country at Trentham Memorial Park. Passing my house many a time by van. Silverstream New World where I used to work. I swear I spotted my Mum’s car and my brother on his Scooter when on the outskirts of the CIT.
It’s strange feeling homesick when you’re only a block away from home! My dreams were often plagued with finishing the course and getting back home, or getting an exemption to go home for a little while.
One of the big conundrums in the military is that they expert you to be perfect, and they also expect you to do it in as little time as they give you.
Our platoon was about 30 people including several females (who had their own floor). We were then split into three sections for the occasional group activity. Not all lasted to the end however. Some people were kicked out for bad behaviour, some left for medical reasons.
FTX 1 (Fitness Training Exercise). We camped at Otaki Forks for 3 days.
Riding in a Mog was a new experience. Quite a bumpy one at that. We did quite a few activities, some to name a few: River crossing, white water rafting (the rapids and ice cold water made it quite terrifying!), tramping practice, helping DOC build a walking track.
We used Hangdog as rock climbing practice for when we went to Titahi Bay and did it for real. There I was conquering my fear of heights, but it wasn’t as nearly as terrifying as when we did a high ropes course at Arohou Farms (I may have spelt that wrong) near Johnsonville. It was terrible weather to start with, windy and wet. But we carried on and the day got better.
The Pampa Pole, also known as The Leap of Faith involved climbing up the rungs of a very high pole, somehow finding the poise to get on top of it and balance there precariously before jumping off and grabbing a trapeze. You have a harness of course, but that doesn’t make it any less frightening. Needless to say, it took every ounce of courage to make me stand up there, and not all the ounces came at once.
Flight Commander Bacon* had the knack for turning the smallest things into the most meaningful lessons. During the lunch stealing at Hangdog, it was a lesson of trust. How can you trust your Platoon belaying you in a rock climb when they could go so low as stealing your lunch?
And during our 40km tramp in FTX 2, we had the choice of taking 2 roads; the known path or the unknown path. The unknown path could’ve been an easier route or a harder route. We voted unknown and luckily it worked out in our favour.
The Longest Day is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’m man enough to admit I shed a few man tears that day. We were woken up at 4am, put on our tramping packs (packed the night before), ran outside into the darkness, glowsticks on the back of our packs lighting our way for a log run.
The words ‘Log run’ now strike fear into my very being. A log run has each Section running with a massive log on their shoulders. We ran to the rifle range and back again, a 4km journey. We were dead from that. Shoulders aching, backs straining, sour moods. Thankfully we were finished. Or so we thought. Staff Hopper came along and shouted at us to pick up the logs and do it all again, another 4km. Because someone had been smoking from our Platoon. We were all punished for their misdeed, and the trainee responsible was probably too scared shitless to own up.
We started with a much smaller breakfast than we were used to, 2 small sausages on 2 pieces of bread. We had to earn the rest of our food that day. Throughout the day we had to tramp with our packs around the CIT to each of the team building activities that we did in our Sections (Section 1 for me). Around, meaning that we had to do a full circuit around the perimeter of the CIT each time. If we passed an activity, we got a choice of food, if not we received a 15kg jerry can of water to cart around with us on our circuit. Luckily we didn’t starve that day, we started off well but ended up getting a few cans in the end.
The activities were based on an earthquake scenario. Some of them included:
Stretcher carry – Carrying a dummy made of sand bags over and under obstacles. Pass!
Burma bridge – Tying a rope between two trees to get to the other side, climbing it upside down. Pass!
Tent – Setting up one of the old Staff tents. Fail. Unfortunately we mucked this one up, using some poles in the incorrect places, and we ran out of time.
Acid crossing – Stepping on mats and picking up puzzles pieces, making several helicopter landing pads. Pass!
River crossing – Crossing an actual river we had to transport our packs, an oil drum, ammo crates and ourselves, without touching the water. We also had to be blindfolded crossing the planks. Pass!
Acid square – Crossing a square with only barrels and planks, having to return with items from three sides of the squares. Pass! My turn as leader. I wasn’t vocal enough, but in the end we managed to get it done as a team.
Pyramid – A pyramid constructed out of ammo crates (which were filled with flippin’ heavy sand by the way). We had to carry them to the tennis court, not letting them touch the ground, and reconstructing the pyramid so that only one colour was showing. Fail. No Section passed this puzzle, most likely because the starting pyramid wasn’t correct to begin with.
Stuck Car – We had to escort a 4WD vehicle over the field, using several planks without us or the car touching the grass. Fail. It was a pretty tough challenge, and we ended up making things harder for ourselves.
That night we had a stretcher carry relay, again qualifying for the Top Platoon. It was the same track as the log run earlier this morning, to the rifle range and back. This time with a stretcher with 60kg worth of jerry cans on top. After that long day it was not easy. We hadn’t properly secured the jerry cans, and they bounced around, falling off many a time. Unfortunately 2 Platoon lost this one.
After the stretch carry finished it was about 8pm. Then normal night routine began. We nursed our wounds and cringed in the shower. The Longest Day caused me severe blisters on my feet that I had for the rest of the course, they kept coming back too.
FTX 2. Our tramp starting at the end of the Rimutaka Incline, nearest to Featherston, working our way down the track. Pitching our tents along the way. The next day at Kaitoke, the day after at Tunnel Gully. In all it ended up being 40km we travelled. Probably the hardest walk I’ll ever do! And I biked to Hamilton and back!
I wasn’t really expecting this with only two days to go until we would leave. But after our final Beep Test & Push up test, Sergeant Hopper would keep us busy. We were told not to have watches on during PT right at the start of the course. I was one of those silly forgetful people. And something about keeping track of each other’s beep test, which was incredibly hard to do with all three platoons there. In any case, we were all told to line up on the field. And to run. And to drop to the ground when called and crawl across the field with only our arms, by dragging our legs along. And then back again. Only to be told to do an assortment of exercises which involved a series of burpies-like tasks. And then straight back into more field crawling. This sort of thing really puts you on the tipping point, and the only reason you keep on going is because everyone else is. By the end of it our knees and elbows were a right mess, scratched up and bruised. Morale was low that evening.
Our last day together as a Platoon. We had to perform our drill in the parade square, and remain absolutely motionless when standing. We performed the LSV Haka which we had been learning throughout the course. Some of us were more convincing than others!
LSV dictionary. A few phrases commonly used by staff (sometimes trainees) and what they mean:
”My fault, your problem” – The staff stuffing something up, putting the trainees in a worse off position.
”HTFU” or “Harden The Fuck Up” – Often comes up when whinging takes place.
“Tip top” – A remark used to end a conversation.
”Fail” – I think everyone knows this one (when you stuff up)
”Fat Freddy Fail” – More emphasis on the failing.
”Foxtrot Oscar” followed by “Sex and travel” – Both stand for “Fuck Off”.
”All over the place like a mad woman’s shit” – Usually used to describe our drill
”Heat Seeker” – A trainee that catches too much unwanted attention.
”Miaow” – Similar to “HTFU”, used when accusing trainees of being a “pussy”.
”Squared away” – Getting something sorted & tidy, usually the rooms or fatigues.
”If it’s not raining, it’s not training.” – when trainees complain of rain.
”Scotti it up!” – Used by trainees when skipping showers or wearing the same clothes days in a row.
”You stick out like dog’s balls” – In drill if you muck up, turn your head or even itch, it’s going to catch the staff’s attention.
”Guuci” – Describing something flash or fancy. Often describing equipment.
“Top tip” – Staff Straw would say, before offering us some sage wisdom. From bush survival to ironing, he always had some sort of shortcut or advice. This would be followed by a “Too easy?”.
”Don’t make me turn asshole” – The Staff’s sudden mood changes from good to not so good. Warning that punishments might start flying any second.
”Pain is just weakness leaving the body” – Used to motivate us during one of Staff Hopper’s corrective training exercises.
”Pain is only temporary, glory lasts forever” – Same as above”
”Tits for hands” – Dropping a thrown ball or object
”You rookie” – Used by Trainee Cotter when someone makes a mistake. Later learned it was from a TV ad.
“Integrity” – Said to own up, when someone did something but wasn’t caught.
”Lead from the front” – The Staff of our platoon pride themselves on doing everything we do.
”I don’t want to hear the labour pains, I want to see the baby” – During Staff Hopper’s famous corrective training exercises, upon hearing too much groaning.
”Don’t look at me, I might think you’re in love with me” – Usually used in drill. Supposed to keep looking ahead, not turning our heads to follow the Staff.
”Holy shit balls!” or “Holy fuck balls!” – An exclamation of surprise
”Get on the pain train” – Again used during Staff Hopper’s exercises.
”You strongyloid worm” – An insult.
There is a bit of foul language in the military as you’d expect. A bit of racism too. We had one chap in our platoon from Sudan. It was only slight teasing from both trainees and staff, but it still made me feel uncomfortable.
The first two weeks were the hardest. The staff didn’t show the slightest bit of compassion. But once we started to get to know them, and them us, things got a lot easier. They let their guards down and we saw that underneath the tough military persona they were still human, like us.
So the LSV course was one heck of an experience. We were a mix of people from different backgrounds; Some were young parents, some involved in gangs, some heavy drug users, some addicted to drinking.
We were all pushed outside our comfort zones. Physically & mentally.
And I’d like to thank the staff for helping us along this six week journey. The military lifestyle isn’t for everyone (including me!), but it can help do some really positive things in people’s lives. Breaking bad habits, creating good ones. It’s not just the capitalist ideal of getting us all into jobs as productive members of society. But for us to really get to know ourselves, and what we’re truly capable of.
Here’s a few videos of the LSV course in Burnham, which is pretty similar to Trentham’s (though we didn’t have a confidence course).
*To protect staff I have chosen fictional names.