Last year, while most members of the class of 2017 were in the throes of senior prom, college acceptances and graduation, Tristan Biber ’17 was on track to become a sergeant in the Swiss Army.
As an armed neutrality, Switzerland upholds a mandatory period of service for all males. But while all men must complete this service, they do not necessarily spend it in the army; some choose to work in social services, while others opt to be taxed until their time of service would end.
Born and raised in Geneva, Biber chose the “traditional” route, enlisting promptly in the Swiss Army after his high -school graduation. After an initial informational day, and a two-day intensive period of psychological, physical and medical tests, he was stationed in a Swiss-German part of Switzerland.
His unit consisted of 50 French and Italian speakers, and was part of a larger, 400-soldier barrack.
Biber underwent boot camp for around two months. While boot camp typically lasts a few months longer, Biber was promoted early in order to pursue Under-Officer School.
“The first week or two, even three weeks, they will make your life intentionally miserable,” Biber said. “Two hours of sleep for a week. A lot of psychological things; ﾑYou’re not at home any more’ type of things.”
But once the recruits settle into a routine, they learn the fundamental skills of any soldier.
“Everyone does the same thing ﾗ basic hand-to-hand fighting, rifling skills, discipline, marches,” Biber said. “I learned basic electrical things, so I helped wire my house with the skills I learned in the army, so it’s stuff I could bring back into the civilian life.”
At Under-Officer School, Biber was training to become a sergeant, but an unexpected accident quickly changed his trajectory.
“I broke my leg coming back from an exercise, not seeing the black ice. It turns out that when you’ve got 90 pounds of gear on your back, when you go, you go,” he said with a laugh.
With a fractured tibia and destroyed ligaments in his ankle during his deferral, Biber was unable to continue training before coming to Ohio.
So with the Swiss Army’s permission, Biber enrolled instead at Kenyon, joining the class of 2017. He will complete his sergeant training ﾗ 10 weeks total ﾗ next summer.
Eventually, after graduating from Kenyon, Biber plans to continue his service as a lieutenant ﾗ a training commitment of 52 weeks.
Biber explained that most people complete their service in one shot. “Clearly I’ve had a couple setbacks so I haven’t been able to do that,” he said. “But because the army is more relaxed now, I will have a job once I graduate Kenyon, in the Swiss Army.”
“I’m definitely an advocate for required service,” Biber said. “For me, I worked parts of the system, but it’s also working with the system. The Swiss Army is the most direct, and one of the clearest, organizations I know ﾗ if you play by their rules. But the second you start making rules up is when they decide to play the game too, and they have been playing it a lot longer than you have.”
Chris Kwan ’16 also completed mandatory service for his native country, Singapore.
Kwan served two years in the Singapore Army before enrolling in the class of 2016 last year.
The Singapore Army has a minimum of two years’ service, during which all men are required to enlist. Though currently ranked a specialist, Kwan was temporarily discharged on Aug. 14, 2012 to attend Kenyon. He is considering enlisting for an extra six months’ service, which he would complete over the summer.
Though the Swiss Army exists in order to defend its country’s neutrality, “The Singapore Army exists to oversee complicated and wavering geo-political, cultural and religious tensions in the region,” said Kwan.
Recruited in August 2010, two months after his high-school graduation, Kwan began a 19-week basic military training in Pulau Tekong, an island off the coast of Singapore. There he learned basic military training derived from the Israeli Army’s, as well as training from the U.S. Marines and Navy.
Through specialized communications training, Kwan learned modern communication skills such as hacking and encrypting data analysis, and also trained to establish communication in the wilderness, to create smoke signals and even to use the natural environment, such as tree trunks and roots, to enhance communication capabilities.
Under the overseas branch of the Singapore Corps, Kwan received further specialized training in advanced combat, jungle survival skills and military intelligence.
Once, Kwan was even tasked with smuggling his group and their weapons through Brunei under a time limit, all while blending in as civilians.
“Part of our training was blending into the natural environment ﾗ either the forest or the urban landscape,” he said. “So we learned to conceal and disguise ourselves, and transport our weaponry across the capital city, back to our camp. That in itself was a challenge.”
Though Kwan’s experience had its struggles, overall it proved to be quite beneficial.
“When I first joined the Singapore Army, I thought I would hate it,” Kwan said. “But now I view those two years as the best in my life, and I would do it all over again. There’s so much stuff you get to experience in the army that you don’t get to do anywhere else in the world, like throwing a hand grenade, jumping out of airplanes, jumping out of a helicopter, firing a sniper rifle. Flying to different parts of the world to do different training missions. You just can’t do that in the daily world, as a civilian.”