Sunday 24 February 2013

SAF officer's sterling Afghan service

He is 1st Singaporean awarded US Bronze Star, at end of memorable 6 months there
By David Ee, The Straits Times, 23 Feb 2013

ON A clear, moonlit night last August, Major Cai Dexian was cycling home from work when sirens abruptly pierced the silence. It was close to midnight.

Diving behind the nearest shelter, his mind raced: Which direction was the rocket headed? Where would it land?

He was not in Bukit Timah where he lives in a condominium. The 28-year-old was in a military base in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, assisting the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.

Taleban insurgents had just fired a mortar at his base. Luckily for him, the rocket landed harmlessly on the base's southern fringe.

Over the six months he spent there, not a week would go by without incoming rocket attacks. Fortunately, there were no casualties among the several thousand strong contingent of coalition soldiers there.

Despite the relative safety of the base, these moments drilled in him the need to be always on full alert. "There is that moment of apprehension when you're uncertain of your safety," recalled Maj Cai, who returned from his tour of duty last October. "If the rocket lands directly on you, there's no shelter that would protect you."

The officer is among more than 470 Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) servicemen who have served in Afghanistan since 2007.

Two weeks ago, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen announced that all troops would be home by June, ending the SAF's six-year deployment there, as Afghan forces begin to take over responsibility for their country's security.

As executive officer to ISAF's director of operations for southern Afghanistan, Maj Cai, who enlisted in 2003, coordinated information crucial in helping commanders decide how and where to deploy tens of thousands of troops on any given day.

From infantry units to combat engineers and medical evacuation airlifts, the Stanford graduate's work helped make sure soldiers were quickly deployed where they were most needed. The soldiers came from countries such as the United States, Britain, Australia, Romania and Slovakia.

For his dedicated service, Maj Cai was awarded the US Bronze Star, the American military's fourth highest combat decoration, before his return - the first Singaporean to be so honoured.

Maj Cai worked 16-hour days, seven days a week. In a combat zone, the concept of weekends did not exist. He learnt to make the best use of any spare moment.

Each evening, he would race to the mess for dinner and spend a precious hour or so catching up with his wife, 28-year-old lawyer Lynette Ooi, over Skype while eating.

He also called his parents once a week. His father is retired; his mother, a civil servant.

Each month, he would eagerly anticipate a food package sent by the SAF and his family, filled with goodies like pineapple tarts and chicken bak kwa.

His birthday, spent alone at the base, came with a more poignant surprise. Tucked into that month's food package was a scrapbook made by his wife, with messages and photographs from family and friends.

"Every single moment (like those) was very precious," he said. "I've learnt now never to take my loved ones for granted."

On rare forays off-base to join commanders for meetings with the Afghan army or tribal elders, he also met the local residents, and their life stories gave him another perspective on life.

One Afghan man's brother was killed by the Taleban but he did not harbour hatred or yearn for revenge. Instead, the man was filled with a determination to help rebuild his country, Maj Cai said.

It is an encounter that has stuck with him even months after his return. "They are a very resilient people. Despite their personal hardship, they're still enthusiastic and very optimistic about the future," he said. "They have to work so hard to achieve just a very basic level of security. I came away very grateful for the peace and security that Singapore enjoys - we should never take it for granted."

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