When the decision was announced in 2014 to
introduce military conscription for men between the ages of 18 to 30, mixed
emotions swept through Emirati households. Feelings of pride, fear, confusion,
excitement and relief were juggled between family members and friends as they
tried to understand, accept and adapt to this huge decision that would forever
change the future of the country and its people.
In my own home, I witnessed my son, who is
only a few years shy of 18, struggle with the news that he would soon have to
leave his home, family and friends to serve his nine months of service. What
made the news even more difficult for all of us is that every member of our
immediate and extended family, be they young or old, supports peace and
diplomacy in every aspect of our lives. But logic dictated that the UAE and its
allies must prepare for the worst, accepting the undeniable truth that enemies
were conspiring to push towards neighbouring gates. And so, to protect my
country and loved ones, as well as to lead my son by example to accept his
mandatory service, I decided to head to the nearest recruitment centre to sign
up for my military service.
This proved harder than expected since I was
at the time 34, well older than the maximum age of 30. I was reminded of this
fact when the receptionist at the recruitment centre – tasked, it seemed, with
breaking the will of young cadets -- ridiculed me. He nonchalantly informed me that the army didn’t
have any need for old men. Yet, it later turned out that I was not the first,
but one of many Emiratis older than 30 who had requested an opportunity to
serve but who were unfortunately all similarly turned away. Thankfully, due to
the overwhelming number of requests, the decision was made in 2016 to open the
door for Emiratis between the ages of 30 to 40 to volunteer and serve for four
months of training. And so, shortly thereafter, at the age of 37, I became one
of the first to sign up as a volunteer for the UAE’s National Military Service.
Whilst army regulations restrict me from
providing specific information of my training, I can tell you about the
invaluable lessons learnt and how this experience allowed me to grow as a
person in ways I did not think possible.
Our initial period of training was boot
camp. We were thrown into barracks together, and we followed a rigorous schedule
that began in the very early hours of the morning and continued non-stop until
late in the evening. It is here where our lives changed. We were a group of men
(most older than 35), thrown into what was -- most likely -- the most difficult
experience we had faced for quite some time. At our seasoned ages, we all had
developed a pleasantly comfortable daily routine, living in a comfort zone that
took years to build, tailored towards our every want and need. In an instant, the
comfortable nests we had worked so hard to create were demolished. What freedom
we believed we possessed was ripped away from us, leading us to let go of any
ounce of control we thought we had because we were instructed on exactly what
to do, every minute of every day.
At first the shock and confusion lead to
the most silent of complaints and protests. The aches and pains of training
only assisted in fueling the moans and grumbles that remained only whispers
until sleep finally remedied our mind, body and soul. Then came the morning and
our spirits were refreshed once more as we began our day energised and ready to
tackle any challenge put before us. We had all volunteered to participate for
the same reasons: to serve our country and receive training of basics military
skills so that we may be ready -- should the day every come, God forbid --
where we would have to protect our country and our families. And so we marched
onwards and upwards, our faith in the system renewed night after night, our aim
firmly locked on completing our training with our heads held high.
It was over the course of the first few
weeks, however, when we learnt our most vital lesson, which was a test of
personal change and growth -- the hardest of all lessons to accept. To survive
our training, we were obliged to make a tectonic shift in our own perception.
During our everyday lives as civilians, each of us had developed a strong
concept of how to judge others based on the level of work and social life to
which we were accustomed. As with any larger group gathering, one would expect
that we would break off and be divided into smaller groups of similar backgrounds,
thoughts or interests. After all, we were comprised of men from every class of
society, from various origins and backgrounds, including mentalities and
personalities that sat on complete opposite sides of the spectrum. But the army
didn’t allow for such segregation or alienation, compelling us all to live and
be judged as one body. We worked, struggled, succeeded and failed as one unit.
And this was the invaluable lesson learnt that would forever change the paths
of our lives. Every preconception we may have unintentionally been harbouring
for any of our brothers was drilled out of us. All social status,
discrimination, office politics, bias, nepotism or favouritism that existed in
the world outside our camp had no room in our squadron. And for once in our
lives, we finally stood together as truly equal men, standing for one goal.
Never have I seen a more beautiful sight
then that of my squadron standing in line, each assisting the next in
correcting the other’s uniform. All working to ensure that every soldier
represented the perfect presentation of the unit when it came time for the
Back in the world of a civilian, our
squadron remains in daily contact, our WhatsApp group blasting never-ending
messages of support and love. We gather together often to strengthen the bond
that was forged during our training. A bond that one develops with childhood
friends and expects never to build in later years. This is the greatest of
gifts the country offered us, a gift of brotherhood. I say without exaggeration
that I would lay my life down for any of these great men, these brave soldiers
who selflessly volunteered to leave their lives of comfort and satisfaction to
join the thousands of Emirati men and women who heed the call to serve and
protect this greatest of nations.
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