Student soldiers reflect on mandatory military service

by Elizabeth Dunbar

Berk Yesin spent one month in a military training program in Turkey where push-ups were optional and running wasn’t recommended.

Three years of Koby Nahmias’ life were spent in the Israeli army, where he remembers seven-minute lunch breaks and running through freezing mud at 4 a.m.

Though many countries are thinking about reducing requirements or starting professional armies, Yesin, Nahmias and other international University students grew up knowing they would be soldiers.

Basic training, officer training and participating in actual combat have resulted in a range of viewpoints on what mandatory military service means for an individual and his or her country.


after spending three consecutive years working in the United States, Yesin, a mechanical engineering graduate student, bypassed the standard military requirements of serving for 16-18 months between the ages of 18 and 38.

Instead, Yesin paid the equivalent of $4,000 to spend one month at a military camp with other Turks who worked outside the country.

“Most of them had waited until age 38, so many of these guys were old and fat,” Yesin said.

Yesin said taking three shots with an old rifle and not having to do difficult exercises like at other army training camps didn’t prepare him for real combat.

“They weren’t interested in making us soldiers,” he said. “I remember my drill sergeant telling us, ‘If a war breaks out, you guys will be called after the women and children.’ “

Though Yesin said he enjoyed his short stint in the army, he doesn’t think the exception for people who work in other countries is fair.

“If everyone has to do it, then everyone should do it,” he said.

Yesin said the mandatory military service history in Turkey goes back to the Ottoman Empire when everyone had connections to the army.

“The army has never really been separate from the people of Turkey,” he said.

In recent times, Yesin said mandatory military service has affected how people see the military.

“In people’s eyes, the military is not as bad since practically everyone goes,” he said. “There’s not this far-out, unknown feeling about it.”

Though Yesin said he doesn’t like some of the military values, such as the idea of a chain of command, he thinks the one-month program benefited him.

“It was the perfect place for me to meet all these people who were working in Europe and talking to them about how they were adapting there,” he said.


entering the army right after the Persian Gulf War gave Koby Nahmias a different feeling about what he would be doing.

“For us, going to the army meant something different because it was different – Israel was being attacked,” he said. “It wasn’t playing soldier anymore. It meant protecting your hometown near the border.”

In Israel, both men and women serve in the military after high school or when they turn 18. Women serve two years and men serve three.

Michal Greenfield, a senior psychology student, said she didn’t think much about Israel being the only country that requires women to serve in the army.

“I grew up knowing that I would be in the army and looking forward to helping my country,” she said.

As an Israeli intelligence commander, Greenfield said it was exciting to know important information but that a lot was on her shoulders.

“The responsibility was huge,” she said. “If you do something wrong, something really bad will happen.”

In addition, Israel requires citizens to serve one month each year until age 55.

Nahmias said he remembers his father leaving once a year to serve.

“It’s nuts, but it’s a fact of life,” he said, adding that Israel has always been in a precarious position in the Middle East.

“They’ve tried to reduce the amount of time people must spend in the army, but with the current situation in Israel, it’s impossible,” he said.

Although Nahmias said he hopes future generations won’t be required to serve, his own experience changed his life.

“The army makes you more mature very fast,” Nahmias said.


petter Woll ate two slices of bread and slept for only two hours during his “hell week” in the Norwegian army.

The University graduate student served in the infantry for 12 months after high school, which is the standard requirement for Norwegian men. If Woll had been against war, however, he could have done community service for 18 months.

Though “hell week” during basic training was something Woll didn’t enjoy at the time, he said that experience and others helped him decide what to do with his life.

“For me it was a really good year off after high school to think about what to do next,” he said. “You learn a lot of things about yourself when you’re in the army.”

Woll said the question of mandatory military service is now up for debate again in Norway because there have been fewer threats since the Cold War ended.

“Russia is a lot more friendly now, so people are asking if it’s really necessary,” he said.

Having a professional army could present problems, however, because few people would want to be in the army, Woll said.

“I think they would have a lot of problems recruiting people,” he said.

“The good thing about it is you continuously have enough people trained to handle a situation,” he said.


iiterrupting his studies to go to the military for 18 months was something Dionysis Foustoukos had to explain when he wanted to come to the United States for graduate school.

“They couldn’t understand why I had to be in the army instead of studying,” he said.

Though Foustoukos, who studies geology, said the experience helped him learn a lot about himself, he said it would be better to not have to take a break from studying.

“In the army, you’re just thinking about how to make another day. You’re going to stop thinking about what I was thinking before,” he said, adding that being in the army can also make it harder to maintain job contacts.

Foustoukos said Greece is thinking about creating a professional army but that the need for a prepared army is still a necessity.

“Greece is in a very sensitive area of the world,” he said. “We’re on high alert, and people must serve in the army so that our nation can protect itself.”