Students at Harvard tend to complain—about reading assignments, dining-hall food, the distance from the Quad to the river and the lack of cable in dorms, to name but a few grievances. Yet there exist a small number of students who remain unfazed by such trivialities. These young men possess something they modestly call “perspective.” They have marched for miles upon miles, from dawn to dusk, with heavy packs on their backs. They have been left in the jungle to fend for themselves for days at a time. They have launched mortars without blinking an eye. They have learned the futility of complaining. These are Harvard undergraduate veterans, international students who came to Cambridge with military service under their belts.
Samuel Myat San ’06
Samuel Myat San ’06 applied to Harvard as a senior in junior college back home in Singapore. Admitted under early action, the 18-year-old Myat San deferred his acceptance, opting instead to spend a year-and-a-half seeing the world, getting in shape, making friends and, oh yes, learning how to use grenades and M-16s.
Myat San served in the Singapore Armed Forces. In Singapore, all males 16 and older are required to serve two years in the National Service, a requirement that Myat San, now 21, regards with pride. “You have to earn your citizenship. It’s not a free meal in Singapore,” he says.
After a physical examination and an aptitude test, Myat San was placed in the army branch and sent off to 10 weeks of accelerated and intense training at boot camp. Young men enter the Basic Military Training Center and are confronted with exhausting physical training, obstacle courses and marksmanship exercises. Myat San recalls the harsh period when he observed smart-alecks transformed into dutiful, fit soldiers. “You’ve just finished your exams, and you’re rather pudgy around the middle,” he says. “And the officers yell, ‘300 push-ups!’” Faced with a rigid command structure, Myat San says, the young men learn to obey their intimidating physical training instructors (“the gods of the island”) and to complain only on their own time.
Ten months of specialized training follow for Singaporean men. Having earned a spot in the top 10 percent of his class at boot camp, Myat San went on to Officer Cadet School. Here, he and comrades learned how to act efficiently as a part of a platoon, role-playing different ranks and training with all kinds of weaponry, from grenades to rocket launchers. “You live and die with your M-16,” he says. “It becomes your wife.”
During the final months at Officer Cadet School, cadets break off into specific schools. Myat San joined the ranks of the Infantry, which he affectionately deems “the queen of the battlefield.” There he learned a broad range of tactics—mastering the art of swimming in full combat gear, maneuvering assault boats, fighting in built-up areas, assaulting forts and operating helicopters. In order to master long-range navigation, the infantry cadets journeyed to the mountains of Taiwan. (The island of Singapore is only 15 miles long, a quarter of which is set aside for military training.) After navigation training, he completed jungle training in Brunei. He and the other cadets were tossed into the jungle, in pairs, to master basic survival for five long days. “In one word, it’s just hell,” Myat San says. In a group of six, he navigated a forest so densely packed with trees that it was virtually impossible to determine the elevation. And the meager rations weren’t anything to cheer about, either. “I would rather eat dog food,” he says.
The final two weeks of the school for Myat San consisted of dawn-to-dusk drills in preparation for graduation ceremonies, when the grueling 10 months of training culminated in an elaborate processional of 1,000 cadets before proud parents and the president of Singapore. Myat San had the great honor of serving as the parade commander, leading the entire entourage in a final display of expert ability.
Because at the time of graduation Myat Sat only had six months before matriculating at Harvard, he was sent back to boot camp—this time as a teacher. There he found himself ordering around recruits only a year younger than he, recruits who now had to refer to him as “sir” rather than “Sam.” “You’d be surprised how ill-prepared young men are for military life. Common sense deserts them when you shave their hair off,” says Myat San with an amused grin, citing examples of recruits unsure of how to mop or sweep. He found one young man washing his rifle in the sink.
Myat San speaks highly of the close bonds developed in the army, referring to it as “the brotherhood.” Together all of the time, he says, the young men cling to one another—both figuratively and literally (Myat San’s friend once grabbed his hand just in time to save him from a mudslide).
His military experience has shaped all aspects of his first three months at Harvard. He’s very independent now, and marvels at fellow first-years who feel compelled to call their parents every day. He also boasts “a stronger constitution” than most classmates (“I know the value of physical fitness,” he says). The discipline of his military training translates into great organization when it comes to his schoolwork. Annenberg’s culinary offerings are “fantastic” to him. And while fellow members of the debate team pack enormous suitcases for overnight trips, Myat San brings just a toothbrush. “You learn to live without a lot of things,” he says.
Myat San is at Harvard on a government scholarship, which pays for his entire tuition and provides him with an allowance under the stipulation that he maintain a certain GPA. After graduation, he will serve the remainder of his time (having “disrupted” his service by studying at Harvard), and then work for the government for six years, most likely in an international relations capacity.
Myat San’s friends at Harvard have responded in different ways to his military past and future. He says reactions have ranged from “Oh gee” to “Wow” to “Please don’t kill me, Sam.” Some cry that mandatory military service is “a gross violation of your civil rights.” But Myat San remains steadfast, proud of his country and accomplishments—if disapproving of actual combat. “I hate war,” a serious Myat San says. “War sucks.”
Avram D. Heilman ’03
It seems that everyone at Harvard has an opinion on the Middle East crisis. Politics are debated over e-mail lists, dinner tables, desks and podiums. But few have experienced the conflict firsthand. Avi D. Heilman ’03 is one of these select few.
Heilman, 23, a permanent resident of both Israel and the U.S., was drafted into the Israeli army as an 18-year-old Brandeis first-year. In Israel, both men and women are drafted (for three and two years, respectively), though women rarely see combat. Physical and IQ tests determine the ability and motivation of these young people, most of whom end up working desk jobs. All are considered reserves until they are nearly 50 years old and are called to serve about three weeks each year.
Heilman’s family did not expect him to go; they wanted him to use his American residency and citizenship as a reason to stay put. His parents cried, said no, told him they would cut off him off financially. They had never allowed him to own a toy gun and they weren’t about to let him operate a real gun. “They were terrified,” he recalls. But he remained firm in his decision, and his parents, realizing he would go regardless of what they said, eventually yielded. “This is something that every Israeli has to do,” Heilman says, “and I wasn’t willing to let someone else do it for me.”
Once in Israel, Heilman went through four months of basic training and two months of advanced training. He learned how to fire weapons, survive in the wilderness and fight in urban areas. He was taught “how to run really far and carry heavy things,” as well as how to sew. After entering training as “a wise-ass who thinks he’s crazy hot shit,” Heilman emerged a “functional, obedient and moral soldier” with a lot more muscle on his bones.
But such evolution comes with a hefty price tag. “They break you down as a person. And they do an inordinately good job,” he recalls. “They make you feel like shit, like you’re worthless. They push you beyond your physical and psychological barriers.” During all-day marches, it wasn’t uncommon for many soldiers—each with 50 pounds on his back—to break down in tears. “It’s really designed to break your spirit, and it does,” he says.
The camaraderie between soldiers alleviates the emotional burden of serving. “People will do anything for you. They’ll be killed for you,” Heilman asserts. “If you’re dying in a march, they’ll literally pull you. They’ll grab your collar and pull you for 15 miles.”
After training, Heilman served in Lebanon in the spring of 2000 during a conflict characterized by guerrilla warfare. He credits his thorough training with his survival. “A lot of things you learned become critical when you live in the bush for five days waiting for terrorists to pass by and kill you,” he says. Most of his time was spent at a base in a border zone between Lebanon and Israel, defending Israelis against the militant group Hezbollah. “We would shoot mortars at each other a lot. No biggie,” Heilman says.
Amidst all this action, Heilman found time to apply to transfer to Harvard. He recalls talking on the phone to a Harvard official while on an artillery base, explaining—while gunfire was echoing in the background—that, no, he couldn’t retake the SAT.
Heilman was called back to the reserves in January 2002. He spent his reading period guarding the Israeli-Palestinian border, a narrow dirt path. He patrolled the area in a Jeep, searching for bombs and for people crossing the border. Most were seeking jobs, he says, though some were armed and looking to kill Israelis. In his pack—alongside his gas mask, bullets, grenades, helmet and cigarettes—Heilman stashed his “Surrealism” and Math 21a textbook.
But the job was not all grim. While retaining a Palestinian at the border and checking his ID, Heilman exchanged friendly conversation with the man, discussing politics and joking in Arabic. He even gave him his fleece to keep warm. These kinds of interactions don’t make it on television, Heilman says. “You don’t really see human beings that much [on the news],” he says.
Back at Harvard Heilman claims, not surprisingly, that he doesn’t “stress as easily.” Some people think his military experience is interesting, others don’t care much, while some label him a war criminal, which he says is “more than a little disturbing.”
Heilman takes great pride in the Israeli Army. “The things that make good soldiers are not people who run really fast or shoot really straight,” he explains, “but people who take on more responsibility, people who look out for their friends, people whom you can count on.” He would like to return to Jerusalem after graduation, perhaps to the Foreign Ministry, and work to rectify a bad situation. “A lot of people I know—and a lot of people I don’t know—have been killed for no real reason,” he says.
Knut O. Klokk ’05
Knut O. Klokk ’05, of Norway, speaks quite fondly of his experience serving in his country’s army. “It was really, really nice,” he remarks with a smile.
In Norway, young men are required to join the service after finishing high school. They can complete the entirety of their service in 12 months, or serve just six months and then return once a week until they are 44. Klokk, now 22, chose the former, and had his hopes set on the Norwegian Special Forces, an elite unit for which 1,000 young men applied. Unfortunately, with only 49 other candidates and four days remaining in the selection process, Klokk broke his ankle and had to resign himself to serving in the Infantry.
A six-week boot camp on the west coast of Norway took a few thousand future soldiers through physical training, marching and lessons in weaponry. “You take your gun apart about 2,000 times a day,” Klokk says with a roll of his eyes. The extensive training seems to have left him relatively unscathed. “It’s not so hard,” he says coolly. “It’s the fact they keep you going all the time. You get very little sleep. You’re always on your feet.” He adds, “Boot camp is the best thing about the army. You get a lot of good friends.”
After boot camp, most people are sent to the isolated and frozen north. (“It’s pretty not-so-fun up there,” Klokk says.) About 150 lucky young men, including Klokk, were stationed on an island in the Oslo Fjord in the south of the country. As a member of Norway’s national rowing team, Klokk became part of a special service for athletes within the infantry, along with three other rowers. These “special” young men participated in the usual military drills and night shifts, but were allotted plenty of free time to accommodate their workout schedule. (The night shift consisted of manning the phone and watching an electronic board that would alert the guard if anything went wrong.) In fact, this fantastic four had between 70 and 80 days off during the year, as opposed to the regular 20. “Other people complained that we weren’t really in the army,” Klokk recollects.
Klokk and his rowing mates went to Denmark that year, and took second place in the Nordic championships in Denmark. He applied to Harvard because the crew program appealed to him, and he is now a member of the varsity team. Of his military experience, he says he does not think it has affected his life at Harvard much. He does, however, continue to feel close ties to the system and expresses disappointment that “it’s getting easier and easier to get out of it. You can fake a back injury or go to the shrink and cry.” Klokk estimates that during his 12 months in the military, a quarter of his fellow soldiers on the island left the service and returned home. With the endurance of a varsity athlete and the ambition of a Harvard student, Klokk is contemplating applying for the Special Forces again after graduating.
Martin Kanz ’04
For most people, it’s just something you see in the movies. But for Martin Kanz ’04, it was a reality: He has actually scrubbed a bathroom with a toothbrush.
Kanz, age 23, served in the German military. The German constitution requires male citizens to commit to a year of military or civil service once they turn 18. Kanz chose the military because he was curious, and because, as he says, “at that point I didn’t know better.” During his senior year of high school, Kanz reported to the draft office to have a physical and to sign forms. He had already been accepted at Harvard, but the government didn’t buy it as a valid excuse for getting out of service. Kanz says that despite arguments about the constitutionality of this process, the criteria for recruitment varies each year depending upon how many people the military needs, and it was a particularly hard year when he graduated from high school.
Kanz survived two months of boot camp, where he underwent basic infantry training, as well as “camping out in the forest, marching around and generally being yelled at.” He characterizes the experience as “pretty unpleasant,” though not very physically demanding. “My boot camp experience definitely turned me pacifist,” he says. “It was definitely an eye-opener. The military is a very hierarchical organization. It attracts a certain type of person.” He says this kind of person is one who loves authority but would probably never have the chance to exert such power in the real world. The German military, in Kanz’s opinion, is “run by a bunch of pseudo-Rambos,” young drill sergeants who “have complete power over you” but lack the maturity to handle that kind of power. He recalls how one young man who, in light of the Kosovo bombing at the time, refused to serve on his first day at the boot camp—and was imprisoned for a year. “If you don’t do what these people want you to do, they’re going to lock you up,” Kanz says. Another recruit suffered a nervous breakdown but was not permitted to see a doctor. “It was pretty awful,” he says, “but also pretty interesting” from a psychological viewpoint.
Kanz cites the friendships formed during these two months as “one of the things I think was a really good experience.” The diverse social background of the recruits brought together civilians who would not have mixed otherwise. He worked with someone who had recently been released from jail, and another who could barely read. Each gave Kanz a new perspective. “Some of the very best friends I made there were from completely different backgrounds,” he recalls.
After boot camp, Kanz was assigned to Army Aviation and spent the remaining 10 months working on a helicopter airfield. He performed basic bookkeeping duties there, spending a half-hour each morning entering numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. Kanz befriended the pilots at the airfield, and three or four days a week they would take him flying when he had nothing to do. He traveled many places with them, including, in one instance, over his own house. “My parents were scared shitless,” he says, laughing.
Overall, Kanz expresses dissatisfaction with his military experience. “They pretend that they have to draft you, that they really need you,” he says. “But there’s not a lot to do. It doesn’t give you a lot of skills. People who want to go to university are pretty bitter about it.”
Kanz says he thinks his academic endeavors at Harvard would be easier if he had matriculated right after high school. “I had to relearn how to use my brain!” he cries. He does value the perspective that his service gave him, though. When things don’t go well, he copes with it. “This year is not everything,” he declares. “There a lot of worse things. Like working in the army.”