Four short stories about how the French Foreign Legion changed my life
My story had begun in 2012, when I decided to make a little break between high school and university. I wanted to become a history and foreign language teacher. However, there was one thing I didn’t want to do. Spending my whole life in a school. So, once I finished high school and passed all of my exams, I took my backpack, bought a plane ticket, flew to Paris and joined the French Foreign Legion. That’s how my story begins.
The school of the French Foreign Legion
Once a legionnaire signed his contract and passed all of his medical tests, he goes to Castelnaudary for his basic training in the school of the French Foreign Legion. That was a particular part of my life. For the first time I was far away from my family and from my friends. A new country and a new language that I didn’t speak at all, foreign people and a totally different lifestyle than I had before. A big change. I didn’t live in a protected bubble anymore, it was Real Life. So let me tell you some short stories I lived during my military service.
We were living five in a room
Four legionnaires and a corporal (he was an instructor and the chief of the room).
Once happened, that he was arrested for some days by the French gendarmerie because he was involved in a drug affair. Some days after his arrest, someone offered me three packets of Russian cigarettes for 10 euros. I didn’t smoke but my friend was one of the biggest chain-smokers I ever knew and bought those packets for his upcoming birthday. I was sure that he’ll be happy because back in that period it wasn’t an easy thing to buy cigarettes during the basic training in Castelnaudary. The next day after lunch the corporal came back from his arrest. The police found out that he wasn’t implicated in the drug business.
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We were having a lesson about weapons when suddenly the platoon chief came over and ordered us to empty all of the bedrooms. Once everyone was down at the assembly area the instructors started to check our stuff and one of them found the cigarettes in my backpack. I wasn’t alone and eveyone who had Russian cigarettes had to go in our chief’s office. We had to explain to him one-by-one where did we get the cigarettes. He was yelling on us during a minute before we could say anything. Fortunately, I somehow told him on my poor French that I bought them, but I didn’t say anything about where.
When everyone passed
he called all of us back in the office and told us that the cigarettes were in the corporal’s locker before landing in our backpack. Someone has broken his lock and stolen his stuffs not only cigarettes. He knew the thief’s name but I’ve never found out who told him. This experience downgraded my moral for a big while. It was hard to believe that someone tried to have me over and I almost got a real punishment because of someone else.
It was complicated to manage this situation on my own. Everyone was looking at us like we were some petty pickpockets who just broke the most important non-written law in the army. I felt very bad, but it taught me to be less naïve. I think being crucial (a bit at least), makes you take better decisions every day…
Have you ever felt cold? Have you ever been hungry or even tired?
I thought I’ve already experienced all of these feelings before the Legion. Until the day I realized what actually means feeling cold, being hungry and tired.
At the end of the basic training, each platoon had to participate in an exercise, called ‘raid march’. During 72 hours, day and night, we were marching and completing different combat scenarios commanded by our instructors. The first night, after marching something around 22 km, we had to observe a zone.
I didn’t have time to change my t-shirt and 20 minutes later I was freezing in the cold November morning with the guys from my team. In a normal situation, I would have never arrived to this point, but that moment I didn’t have a choice. Although I was tired, I couldn’t sleep because my teeth were chattering like I was staying naked in the Arctic winds. I couldn’t even concentrate on my mission, I was only surviving.
4 years later
I was back in Castelnaudary for the 16 weeks long NCO training. The first few weeks are always a mental and physical challenge until the instructors test the capacity of trainees. The farm of the 4th company – called Bertrandou – is a notorious place in the French Foreign Legion. Everyone passes some stimulating moments while doing his continuation courses.
The first week was very intensive. In 7 days I didn’t sleep more than 12 hours and we started an infiltration exercise on Sunday night. Initially, we should have done 20 km. Everything was well prepared; I was the second leader of the squad. We definitely wanted to be back at 2.30 AM, so we could have slept 3 hours. It was a real motivation, because with 3 hours of sleep, you’re already able to survive a day without suffering too much.
At 1 AM we reached our objective
got the message from the “partisan contact” (the message was six big bean conserves, 5kg each). So the team only had the easiest part of the mission left. A bit further, we missed a small pathway and had to turn back. It wasn’t a big loss, but during the return, we got caught by one of our instructors. He thaught that we tried to cheat. We had to pay for that “professional fault” by marching 12km more. I was mentally dead once I realized that it means that we are not going to arrive back to the base before 5 AM. It was equal with another white night (a night without a second of sleep).
It was my hardest march ever
The first and last time when I was hallucinating because of the tiredness. I saw phantoms behind each bush and thought seeing dead bodies instead of tree-stumps. I don’t know how I didn’t give up and how I finished that mission. Once we were back at our camp, the platoon leader forced us to listen to his briefing. I only understood his last phrase: you have 30 minutes to clean off the camouflage of your face and be prepared for a 17km long run. This is how I experienced what it means to be tired.
The fact, that I learned to appreciate small things, makes me happier than ever. Things I have never even noticed before. Like sleeping in a bed, having a pillow under my head, having a normal bathroom, being able to take a hot shower before going to sleep… All of these small things in my everyday life were evident before. Nowadays, after all of these struggling, my mornings start with a satisfying moment. Only by being able to use hot water for shaving…
My first deployment was in 2014
when I went to the Central African Republic with my unit. Before leaving, we had at least 15 different briefing about the complexity of the tactical situation in that country. However, I wasn’t prepared for the challenge which concerned myself. I knew that the Central African Republic was the 3rd poorest country in the world, but I didn’t know what it actually means. Our first mission started one week after we landed in Bangui, the capital of this African country.
My platoon was on the head of the convoy. We were waiting for the rest of the task force. While I was observing the zone and listening to the command net of my unit, a 6-7 years old kid approached our jeep. I was sure that he wanted to ask money. In a normal case I should have sent him away. I didn’t want my attention to be distracted but before I could open my mouth, he asked me to give him a bottle of water.
It was unbelievable
I wasn’t conscious that this level of poverty can actually exist. A child is begging me to give him a bottle of water. I knew that I only have four bottles for a day, but it was still more than what he had. So I couldn’t resist…
This experience made me learn to cherish what I have. When you are seeing children in a war zone and one of them is begging you to give him clear water, you know that there is no deeper. That is real poverty. Since that day, I’m living a more equilibrated life. I stopped chasing money. It is the biggest cliché ever, but I’m happy with what I have this moment.
survived experienced all of these things, I changed a lot. Not just in my personality, but also in my habits. Life became easier and happier. I’m very grateful to the French Foreign Legion because without this enormous life experience, I would be a completely different person. However, you don’t have to join the army to become happier. You can directly start by looking around you and appreciate the small things surrounding you. Your bedroom. The clear water you drink. The hot shower you take, your apartment or just the comfortable chair you are sitting in right now.