Where have all the soldiers gone?

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Illustration: graafika: Alari Paluots

An exhaustive report due in 2015 heralds reform in health requirements of servicemen, and in what and how they’ll have to do while in the army. To boost motivation, next spring will see certificates awarded to draftees, regarding levels of special skills acquired.

Changes are inevitable. On the one hand, national defence development plan for 2013–2022 requires that 3,200 recruits are trained yearly; meanwhile, however, the upcoming three years have fewer than 6,000 men listed in Defence Resources Agency (DRA), per year. Presumably, mere third of these will meet Defence Forces health requirements.

In reality, no one knows when we hit the critical wall. Contracting with Finland, for instance, it is the Estonian system’s peculiarity that one call-up notice may be compiled of ten years worth of perspective conscripts.

«It is not normal, of course, to man units with conscripts aged 27–28, but still the ten-year-slack makes it possible – so far – to get the 3,200 together. Quality, of course, is another matter,» said DRA director-general Margus Pae.

It’s a well-known secret that these past years Defence Forces units have not been satisfied with health and abilities of conscripts. According to Mr Pae, the Defence Forces will have to get used to the situation, for there will be no improvement.  

One reason being that while last year, laws featured 17 bases to postpone army service, this year – by Riigikogu decision – there are 23 already. Behind these lies the lobby of interest groups, as well as international agreements and treaties.

«My call is very simple: let’s not make more of these [options to postpone army service – edit]. While we are talking of the shrinking ranks, the cutting of these bases would definitely be a way to guarantee credible defence capability,» said Mr Pae.

But till the will is not there, the Defence Forces will have to adjust, by reorganising training programs for instance.

Indeed, this March defence ministry initiated a study of €110,000 budget lasting 1.5 years. The list of issues to be studied is not lots of pages long, as the main aim is one: to find out, what is the actual mental and physical capacity of conscripts, and how to alter health requirements so that more men would be fit for service or wouldn’t drop away down the road.

The project lead by Estonian National Defence College (KVÜÕA) involves, among others, sports medicine and rehabilitation doctors of Tartu University Hospital. The study will be detailed, as seen in the fact that €40,000 will go for mental and physical capacity of conscripts, and €21,000 to study the strength of their knees.

Going deep is well founded: as health requirements are altered in 2016, on basis of the research report, this needs to result in more numbers in the army, while not endangering health of any young man.

Two of five fit

Colonel Martin Herem, of KVÜÕA, having analysed the problems with conscripts, is among those who think DRA medical committee statistics do not reflect the real state of Estonian men.   

«Today we say: 39 percent of men are fit to serve, the rest are sick. In my opinion, this is a demoralising picture. Most of the men walking the streets thus ought to be lame, crooked, or mentally ill – but that’s obviously not the case,» reasons the Colonel.

According to Col Herem, there are two reasons: unreasonably strict health requirements, and the dissatisfactory patriotic education in schools and the military.

«If the numbers say an Estonian man is sick, then, actually, we have set ourselves unintelligibly high requirements. Secondly: the Estonian male isn’t sick at all, rather he has a bad attitude. They don’t grasp what army service is for,» he said.

Col Herem knows what he’s talking about; in KVÜÕA under his leadership, several Master’s theses have been defended on the subject. Revealing, for instance, that the soldier base course study programme dating back to 2003 does not feature talks on the role of servicemen, and why the system is being maintained.

«In army service, we are not educating the people, we are not instilling certain attitudes and a will to defend the land,» summarised Col Herem. A result being that from those entering the reserve, a will to defend the nation is not being passed on to the new generation yet to be enrolled.

As admitted by defence ministry military service department head Hellar Lill, the will to defend ought to come from the school. The ministry is aiming at doubling the amount of students, by 2016, being taught classes on national defence (currently 4,000). Also, discussions are on regarding physical education programmes – to add physical tests used in military service.

To give added value to military service, the ministry intends starting next spring to issue certificates regarding skills acquired while in the army. According to Mr Lill, the certificates might come to those passing courses for team work, paramedic, communications specialist etc.

«This is changing attitudes. If, with pride, one hangs this [certificate] on the wall of adds it to one’s CV, one might be a more valuable employee,» he said, bringing an example of possible benefits of military service in private life. The initial certificates will be handed to conscripts entering service this July and October.

This, however, will not solve the problem of, as stated by yearly research international defence studies’ centre, the numbers of such reservists keep growing who would like Estonia to opt for a shorter and more intensive military service.

In 2010, Defence Forces took a look at the «shortening issue» and found it could not work as the expenses would skyrocket and 200 extra instructors would have to be hired. In defence ministry, I was told that the research has by now been outdated and the discussion regarding shorter military service is not an option.

Week-end downtown

According to KVÜÕA chief Col Herem, shortening military service makes no sense as its current length will ensure the men develop needed skills and allows the army, during the second half of service, to concentrate on training potential commanders. Even so, the study programmes for conscripts and the outdated traditions need to be reviewed.

«It is wrong to keep conscripts in army bases during the weekends. Instead of sending them home, we are just creating some pseudo discipline. Starting the first wee-end, as many conscripts as possible should be let out to town,» he offered.

According to Riigikogu national defence committee chairman Mati Raidma (Reform Party), he sees no need currently to change the military service system, as the health and motivation problems are rooted outside the system.

«Also, the length of military service is linked to the cycle, yearly finished by the Spring Storm exercises. For updates, then, Defence Forces would need to come up with a totally new model,» he said.