This article originally appeared on VICE Austria
In August 2017, a 19-year-old Austrian army recruit died of dehydration while on an official training exercise. Austria is one of the few European countries that still has mandatory military service – men are required to serve six months when they turn 18. Since last month's death made local headlines, more stories of mistreatment of conscripts have surfaced in Austrian media.
A local prosecutor is currently investigating the incident to determine if it was a "negligent killing" – meaning, whether the recruit's superior deliberately put him in danger. Additionally, the Austrian Ministry of Defence announced it will launch a separate investigation into current training regulations in mandatory military service.
To better understand how common mistreatment of army recruits is in the central European country, VICE Austria asked readers to send in their personal experiences from their six months in service. The response was overwhelming. Some submissions were positive – former recruits wrote about great instructors, and about how the service had changed them for the better. But the many negative responses touched on a lot of the same kind of mistreatment – there were stories of humiliating and arbitrary punishments, and of instructors having little regard for the health and safety of recruits.
From an original selection of over 20 stories that VICE Austria ran, we've selected seven – all published under the condition of anonymity. Of course, it's very difficult to fact-check these personal experiences – especially if they happened ages ago. Nevertheless, we thought they deserve to be heard. When contacted by VICE, the Austrian Ministry of Defence promised to look into all official complaints.
'He was as white as a sheet, covered in vomit and soaking in sweat.'
"A week before the end of our basic training, we were all required to march together for ten kilometres. One of the other recruits had just spent the last three days in bed with severe stomach pains, but he was forced to join in, too. He hadn't been able to keep anything down during his illness, so he'd barely eaten for days. On the day of the march, he broke down after the first kilometre. But instead of helping him, our instructor just yelled abuse at him. 'You're a disgrace to our country,' he shouted, over and over again. 'You'll never amount to anything.'
The guy tried to carry on, but he collapsed a few more times. Six kilometres in, he was as white as a sheet, covered in vomit and soaking in sweat. Eventually, he was taken back to the barracks. By the time the rest of us had completed the march and returned to our base, he still hadn't seen a doctor. Worse still, he was told by our instructors that he would be expected to participate in more drills that day. He tried, but collapsed and began to spasm shortly after getting up again.
It was only after another recruit got on the floor with him to try to calm his spasms down, that a doctor was called. It later turned out that he had kidney stones, and he was eventually discharged because of his illness."
'My instructors told me they couldn't wait for the moment I would kill myself.'
"At the start of my service, I had severe knee problems. After getting it checked, I got a note from my doctor saying I shouldn't partake in exercises that lasted longer than ten minutes at a time.
I reported this to my commanding officer, who advised me to throw away the note. He predicted I and everyone in my unit would be punished every time I didn't complete an exercise. I decided not to take that advice, but it turned out he was right – whenever I was unable to complete an exercise, the instructors punished the whole group. It didn't take long before every single one of my 200 fellow recruits hated me.
The instructors eventually found another way of making sure I took part in every exercise. I was made to participate in each drill for exactly nine minutes and 30 seconds, before getting a 30 second break and then having to continue. You can imagine those 30 seconds were hardly any relief, and whenever I decided to power through the pain and not take the break at all, they punished me for "neglecting my military duty to protect my own health". Once, they made me sit on a stool in minus ten degrees celsius for hours, and told me not to move. The others were forced to stay outside in the cold even longer than I was, and were told I was to blame. But it didn't stop there – one of my instructors would regularly make me get back further down in the lunch queue, so that when it was finally my turn, there wasn't any food left.
Meanwhile, the swelling on my knee grew to the point where I was wearing trousers four sizes larger just so I could get them on, and was on five to ten painkillers a day. At night, some of the other conscripts would beat me up, during the day I'd get spat on. Once, two instructors came up to me and told me they couldn't wait for me to kill myself – they said they would celebrate by urinating on my grave. Yeah, that happened. I can honestly say I still have nightmares about my time in military training."
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'I deliberately broke my arm to get out.'
"When I was drafted, one of the guys in my unit died. He collapsed after having been forced to do press-ups for hours, under a cold shower in the middle of winter. This was back in the 1980s, so it's clear not much has changed since then. I think the media must have known about it then, but I've never seen any proper reporting on it.
Our instructors were generally horrible. Once, we found Nazi memorabilia hidden under a couple of the junior officers' desks. The only entertaining moment of my service was when one of my instructors got so drunk, he started shooting into the air thinking we were under attack from the Russians.
I was so fed up with it after a while, that I deliberately broke my arm by falling down the stairs. After that, they had no choice but to discharge me."
'We were told we didn't need proper clothing.'
"I found out I had asthma just before I started my service. Because there was a risk my lungs would collapse, I was under strict instructions from my doctor not to run more than a kilometre at a time or walk more than three. My instructors were very much aware of that, but they would often force me to march for more than six kilometres, up and down the same mountain. We weren't allowed to rest or even stop to do up our shoelaces. At lunchtime, I'd be so tired I couldn't eat.
In winter, we were outside all day in sub-zero temperatures without proper clothing, so I got sick. We were told we didn't need jackets because we were "real men", and not "faggots". Because of the cold, my testicles became inflamed – I didn't even know that that could happen. Obviously, the instructors found that very funny."
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'I wasn't allowed to help out my unconscious mate.'
"One morning during my service, we were shouted out of bed at about 6AM for a headcount. While standing in line, one of my mates collapsed next to me. Naturally, my instinct was to help him, but our instructor ordered me to leave him. I've never understood why I wasn't allowed to do anything, it just didn't make sense. It took ten minutes before he received any kind of medical attention.
I don't want to put anyone off joining the army, but it really makes you wonder how necessary these kinds of methods are. The only positive aspect of my time in service was that I met a lot of great people. Years later, I'm still friends with some of my fellow former recruits."
'I came close to having my feet amputated.'
"The final march at the end of basic training was when it really went south for me. At night, we slept in tents so small that our feet would stick out in the cold, and during the day we had to march for hours through the wilderness, wearing our full gear and heavy backpacks. There was no stopping, we had to walk through the pain.
When we finished, I spent my weekend at home unable to walk thanks to a bunch of terrible blisters on my feet. The following Monday, I went to hospital to have them checked out. I realised the situation was pretty bad when several doctors began gathering around me as if I was some medical curiosity. I was told that my blisters were severely infected, which could have developed into blood poisoning. My doctor told me that if I had come in any later, they would've had to amputate my feet."
'Two recruits collapsed because of a candy bar wrapper.'
"When I heard about the dead recruit last August, it immediately reminded me of my own experiences. Once, in the middle of summer, an instructor found a chocolate bar wrapper in the loos. When nobody admitted to having left it there, we were all sent out to run for hours in 30 degree celsius, wearing our full combat gear. Two conscripts collapsed on the side of the road.
I have to say I'm not surprised that someone died this summer. When you force people to such extremes – boys and men who might not be able to handle those kinds of physical and psychological challenges at all – it's only a matter of time, really."