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Sentenced to the Legion by thadeusz
The reader is warned that this story is pure fiction. The military high school mentioned at the end of the story does not exist, but all the rest is possible.
My father, Mohammed Bakil, is a senior NCO in the French Air Force. I am his only son, Charles Bakil. My father's name comes from his Algerian origins: my grandfather came from Algeria and became French before my father's birth. My father, who studied as well as he could considering the poverty of his own father, is very proud to have reached the rank of "Adjudant Chef”, highest NCO rank in the French Air Force. He always wanted me to join the military and possibly to become an officer. When he realised that my notes were far from satisfactory at school. He wanted to send me to the Air Force Military High School, as son of an NCO, but I refused and my mother stopped him doing so. My father let me go on in my civilian school, with bad notes but he decided that I should at least become NCO in the Air Force, as he has done. Unluckily for him, I did not want to join the military, I did not want to wear a uniform and to have to respect any strict discipline. My mother protected me and let me have long brown and curly hair going down to my shoulders.
Unluckily, my mother died when I was 14. I was then in 9th grade. My father wanted to send me to another school, organized by the Air Force, where I would learn to be an Air Force technician and after my BAC, the French high school diploma, I would become Sergeant in the Air Force. According to my father, I would then live a wonderful life and it would be one more success for the grandson of an Algerian immigrant. When I started my 10th grade, my father took me to the school he had in mind, the EETAA, to visit the place and admire the way the students behaved. These students were all in military uniform, moved only in ranks and in step. In fact these students had already signed a contract with the Air Force, they marched and saluted like little soldiers and worst of all, they had very short hair. I made up my mind never to go there, and I said so to my father who reacted by giving me a solid beating. Later in the year my father took me again to this school to take the entrance exam. I purposely cheated : I knew the correct answers, but I gave wrong ones. A few days later we received at home a letter saying that my school level was so low that I could not be accepted, and that I would probably not be accepted at the lowest rank in the Air Force if I did not study more seriously in my own civilian school. This time my father gave me at least a double beating and locked me in my room for several days. After that, he let me go to school but I had to be back home immediately after school: I had no parties, no contacts with my friends. My dear father did not even once let me go to a movie. In any case, he had suppressed my pocket money !
A little before I reached 17, the minimum age to become reservist in France, my father made me an offer. There were two options. Either I refused any military activity and I would remain "confined to barracks”, as he said, without pocket money and without any freedom, or I would accept to join the reserves, "in order to prepare you for your future career” and in that case I would again get some pocket money and a little freedom.
After a very short reflection time, I told him that I would accept to become a reservist, but that I did not want to start a military career immediately. In fact, being "confined” as I had been, I had had no choice but to study and I realized that maths and physics were not so bad: I wanted to study further maths and physics at the University and possibly become a maths teacher. I certainly did not want to become a technician, even less a military technician, as my father wanted. Obviously, I did not give him all these details. I simply asked him:
"If I join as reservist, are you going to give me some free time and some pocket money ?”
"Yes son, it's a deal”
So I simply asked him to let me go freely to a recruitment center to join a reserve unit of my choice. My father agreed and gave me his written authorization to join the reserves: this was necessary because I was not 18 yet.
My father was happy: in his mind his only son would join the Air Force reserves on the base where he was Adjudant Chef, in Orange where we lived. That was not what I had in mind. I knew that my father despised the French Foreign Legion, so I chose a Legion regiment close to our place: the 2 REI in Nîmes. This regiment accepted reservists and I fell I would be more free there than in my father's regiment. I knew that I had no choice : either become a reservist or live another very uncomfortable year, which was my 12th grade. So I purposely chose a regiment my father would not like, but still a regiment in the French military, so that my dear father would not have the possibility to block me again in my own room, without pocket money.
I was immediately accepted in the reserves of that regiment and told to come during the summer holidays to get my initial training period, which was a short 10 days period ! I went home with my contract and my father did not like it, but he could not destroy this contract, nor refuse to give me some free time: he had promised and respected his own promises. The only thing he required, and it had already been required when I signed my contract, was to cut my long hair "a little bit shorter”. I went to a hairdresser who gave me a nice Ivy cut, not too short but not too long either. Hair length rules for reservists are much more flexible than for active duty soldiers !
During my initial training period, I learned how to behave in a regiment, how to walk, how to salute my chiefs and how to sing. I also learned a little bit about the ways to use a rifle. Most important, we were all taught how to "take the guard”, which in the legion is called "guard 24” because guard duty lasts 24 hours, from 6 am to 6 am the next day. There were other new reservists and we had a great time, drinking a lot a making fun of everything we discovered. Life there was great.
I went home and during the month of September, I studied as well as I could in order to get my BAC and be accepted in a University for my new dream: getting a maths and physics degree! There was another summon for a weekend period in my regiment. I accepted that, having organized my schoolwork in order to be absent from the Friday noon till the Monday evening without having problems. When I arrived, I realized that most of my friends from the initial period had excused themselves for very valid reasons. I was thus left there with two other reservists and of course a bunch of real legionnaires with whom we were supposed to work. I was given a guard duty from the Saturday 6 am to the Sunday 6 am. I had to stand guard, without drinking alcohol, inside the barracks courtyard. I was supposed to be visible from the outside since I was not a "real” legionnaire, and was thus not allowed to wear the famous White Kepi, characteristic of the Legion. I remained thus in the courtyard with my beret, but in full service dress. One of the legionnaires asked me:
"You don't want to go and get a little drink ?”
"Where ? I am standing guard and not allowed to go to the company bar!”
"Let's go over the wall for a couple of hours, nobody will notice it.”
"What about the other reservists ?”
"Let's take them with us.”
I accepted to go with him for a short time. In order not to be too conspicuous for the Military Police of the Legion, we all put on our head one of these White Kepis that only real legionnaires are allowed to wear and not the green berets we were supposed to wear as reservists. Sadly enough, I got completely drunk and started a fight which ended by resisting an arrest by the "PLE”, the Foreign Legion Police! The others, luckily for them, could escape.
The MPs finally got me and brought me back to the barracks, still drunk, and placed me in a cell in the brig of my "reserve” regiment.
The next day, the sergeant in charge of the brig helped me becoming sober: he woke me up very early, brought me to the small courtyard of the brig, inside the brig walls, and told me to undress completely. He then took the hose used to clean inside this courtyard. He said that he used the hose to "clean me from my evil spirits”. He kept me a long time in this cold water, telling me from time to time to turn or jump, or kneel in order to expose another part of my body to his rather brutal hose. When he decided that he had done enough, he told me to put my new service uniform on, with my green legion beret and NOT the White Kepi reserved to real legionnaires. He added:
"Now you will go and appear in front of the Colonel, but my guess is that you will soon be back and for a long time.”
"But sergeant, on Monday evening I must leave the regiment and go back to school.”
"You will see !”
I had been told how to introduce myself to the Colonel, which in the Legion is a complex business since they want to keep up with their traditions. Once in his office, I stood politely and silently in the position of attention, I knew I had been caught while doing something wrong. The Colonel appeared very angry:
"Bakil, you are new here and you behave in the most dreadful way. You abandoned your guard duty without authorization, you put on a White Kepi and you are only a reservist, you also were drunk in public and started a fight. You must be punished for all that. Remember that, despite the fact that you are a reservist, for the time being you are in uniform and answering a summon. You are thus subject to all the rigors of military laws. For abandon of post, I give you 12 days in the brig, for being drunk in public you get another 8 days, and for wearing a White Kepi and thus desecrating one of the main symbols of the legion and of the hard work real legionnaires must do to get it, I give you 12 more days in the brig. Which makes a total of 32 days.”
"But Colonel, on Monday evening I must leave to be back at school on Tuesday.”
"Too bad, Bakil. You will have to serve time in the brig and thus you will learn how real legionnaires can be punished. But since I gave you more than 20 days, the punishment must first be confirmed by the General commanding the Legion.”
The Colonel told a Corporal from the Military Police to bring me back to the brig, but first to lead me to the barber in order to have a less "civilian” haircut.
That was really what hurt me most at the time. I had accepted to have a hairdresser cut my long curls in order to have an Ivy haircut, but now this Corporal took me firmly by the arm, telling me that if I did not behave well, he would handcuff me. And I was not really in the military! We arrived at the barracks barber place and the guy there, a "real legionnaire” told me to sit on a chair. He took his clippers and put them in action. When he was done, I was left with 2 mm on the sides and 6 mm on the top, with a very visible straight line marking the separation between the top and the sides. My Ivy cut was gone, I looked like a soldier or even worse like a legionnaire.
I spent the rest of the the Sunday and most of the Monday in the brig, in isolation. My only contact was with the Sergeant in charge of the brig who took me out of isolation three times to place me under the hose and then to give me some bread and water. It was nearly 4 pm on the Monday afternoon, and my train home was at 5 pm when the Corporal came back and told me to get ready for another visit to the Colonel. This meant changing from BDU, or brig uniform, to dress service uniform.
The Corporal from the Legion Military Police took me to the Colonel who looked at me and said:
"With this haircut, you look much better Bakil, nearly like a real soldier. Too bad it comes so late, too late in fact. Because I must now tell you what the General decided for you. According to him, your misbehavior is a very serious one, so he did not simply confirm the punishment I had suggested. He adds to that 8 days in the brig for resisting arrest and starting a fight. This makes thus a total of 40 days in the brig and it will be mentioned in your file. You don't get more because 40 days is the maximum a legionnaire can receive at once. It is a lot to pay for a simple outing in a bar at night. I hope you will remember that.”
"But Colonel, and my school tomorrow ?”
"That's another problem. Your father has been advised of your despicable behavior and he has taken some measures which will be communicated to you at a later stage. The General has also decided to change you from regiment: this regiment is too close from your home. You belong as of now, and as reservist, to the 2 REP, the para regiment which is in Corsica.”
"That's far Colonel”
"Shut up !” The Colonel was now shouting, and was also red in his face. "40 days is the maximum punishment you can get for one single misbehavior, but you are still a reservist answering a summon and I could give you another punishment for another misbehavior, such as speaking when you are not questioned. In any case, in accordance with the Legion tradition, the General has decided to change your name. As of this instant you are no longer reservist Charles Bakil, but reservist Ali Ben Mourad. Your father has also been warned. You also received a Matricule Number, to be treated like the real legionnaires while you will be in the brig. That Number is 208.761 and it will be your identification if you join the legion as a real legionnaire. You will now be transported to Corsica and since you are under detention status, you will travel handcuffed and in a cell. Corporal, take this prisoner to the transportation place. QUICKLY.”
Everything went very fast then. I barely had time to salute the Colonel as I had been told to do and the Corporal took me out of his office. He told me to change to my BDU, handcuffed me and changed my name tag, on my BDU, to the new one imposed by the General. In any case I had no time to think and could only follow the Corporal who had attached a small chain to the handcuffs in order to pull me behind him. We reached a train and arrived at night in town which I recognized as Marseille. From there I was lead, in silence, to a boat where I was lead to a downstairs cabin organized as a cell. The trip was very uncomfortable and I kept wondering "Why did I listen to that legionnaire who told me to get a drink ? They are not going to let me off before 40 days now ! How am I going to study ?”
The next day, we finally arrived to "my new regiment”, 2 REP and I was immediately sent to the brig. I was no longer, in isolation there, but I could have contacts with others, real legionnaires, who were also serving time in the brig. All had been sentenced to much shorter periods and they kept asking "But what have you done to get 40 days ?”. When I told them, they all said "You don't have too much for what you did.” Especially the fact that I had put on a White Képi without being a real legionnaire was considered as an insult to the Legion and to everything they had done to have their White Kepi. In the brig, I only had contacts with other punished legionnaires. We ate and slept far away from the "free” legionnaires. We spent our time doing menial tasks, like picking up cigarette buts or cutting grass with small scissors. We also did everyday special exercises, like running with a heavy backpack during an hour. I had no time to study there and was awaiting my liberation.
When these 40 days of chores and special exercises were over, I was brought to the Colonel of 2 REP. This Colonel told me what my father had decided for me:
"Well Ben Mourad, you are no longer a reservist. You are still less than 18 years old and thus you need your father's authorization. But your father considers that your behavior is so bad that he does no longer want you to be a reservist.”
"I prefer that Colonel. But my name is not Ali Ben Mourad, but Charles Bakil.”
"Wait, Ben Mourad is YOUR name for the time being and you must also keep referring to yourself by mentioning your Matricule Number which is 208.761. Did you understand, Ben Mourad ?”
"No Colonel, since i am no longer a reservist, why should I keep going under that name and that Matricule Number ?”
"Ben Mourad, your father has decided to place you in a military high school with very strict discipline. In fact, as NCO, it is his right to ask for that provided he pays for your education a minimal amount. So he has decided to place you in the Legion Military High School, which is situated here. As of now, you are a Legion Cadet subject to the same disciplinary rules as the legionnaires, plus some extra ones since you are only a cadet. A Chief Sergeant, in charge of this school, will explain everything to you.”
"But Colonel, I have already a school and I am used to study maths and physics there in order to go to the University. Please tell my father that I will behave well in the future.”
"Ben Mourad, it is too late for changing that. You ARE a Legion Cadet and will remain thus during two years at least. You must know that here we do not prepare for university studies, we prepare boys for the army as technician. Since you missed your 11th grade technical training, you must repeat this 11th grade and learn everything that is requested in order to get a 12th grade technical BAC. Move now, and quickly if you don't want to go back to the brig.”
The Chief Sergeant told me that I had to continue identifying myself using the same Matricule Number and use Ali Ben Mourad as only name. He confiscated all the sets of uniforms which had been given to me when I became a reservist, but he gave me new sets of uniform, three battle dress and one service uniform with a typical legionnaire's shirt. This new uniform looked very much like a real legionnaire's uniform, but the buttons and insignia were different. The collar buttons did not have a pomegranate with seven flames but an open book, but in both cases the background was green, one of the colors of the Legion (the other being red). The tunic of the service dress had copper buttons with the letters "L.M.L.E.” (for "Lycée Militaire de la Légion Etrangère”, i.e. Military Highschool of the Foreign Legion) instead of "Légion Etrangère” for the legionnaires. On the left sleeve of this tunic and of the BDU vest there was a flap with a French flag and top of it "Lycée Militaire de la légion Etrangère” around the top of the sleeve. On the right sleeve of the dress service tunic, there was a drawing representing the school emblem: an open book and the same four letters, all that on a green and red background (the colors of the Legion): the L.M.L.E. was now treated as if it were the equivalent of my regiment ! On the right sleeve, where legionnaires normally wear their rank insignia when going out of the barracks, there simply was a number representing the grade : in my case it was ready, an 11 because I had to do again an 11th grade. Below this 11 was a "R” because I was as of now a repeater, and a big "R” was also represented in the back of my BDU vest but not in the back of my service dress tunic, probably to avoid to humiliate the Legion should I ever have an authorization to go for a walk outside the barracks. The beret, the only cover I could have, was the traditional green legion beret, but with as insignia a circle in copper containing a book on top of which were the same letters : "L.M.L.E.”.
In fact, this uniform was not very different from a usual legionnaire's uniform, when you looked at it from far: to see the carefully chosen differences, you had to have a very close look. The Chief Sergeant taking care of my first steps explained me all that, adding that he assumed that I already knew the bases: how to march, how to salute, etc. I was too stunned by this rapid and definitive transformation to react, maybe even to understand all that was told to me, to realize my new situation.
The Chief Sergeant then added that it was necessary, if I was allowed to go out in the streets, to let everybody see at once that I was a Legion Cadet and not a real legionnaire. In order to reach that aim, I would have to wear what he called "a special Cadet collar”. In fact it was a dog collar containing an electronic chip giving permanently my position. This dog collar was painted in red and green, according to the legion tradition. There was a ring in the back and the Chief Sergeant explained that this was meant to attach a leash whenever needed for disciplinary reasons. Precisely, since I had arrived to the "L.M.L.E.” because of my very bad behavior, I would have to wear this leash as long as necessary. The Chief Sergeant then attached the leash to my dog collar and added that as long as he felt that I needed to keep this leash, I would not be allowed to go out of the barracks. I was motionless and silent. Then the Chief Sergeant added the last insult:
"As sign of difference with the legionnaires, and also as sign of humility, you will have your head shaved every week.”
He took me then to the regimental barber who was an NCO in the Legion. This legionnaire looked at me and said:
"So, we have a new Cadet ?”
"Yes,” said the Chief Sergeant, "He is an ex-reservist who got 40 days in the brig for leaving his post during a guard and for wearing a White Kepi without being one of us.”
"A reservist who wanted to wear a White Kepi ? Shame on him ! Well, let's treat his head now. In any case this jailbird he will soon be back in the brig if you don't take care.”
He then told me to sit on one of the chairs and to remain there motionless. He attached my leash to the chair in such a way that I could not move anymore: I was his prisoner and he could do what he wanted with my head. He took off my beret and started to shave my head, first with his clippers, but without guard this time. He pushed my head from left to right and from the front to the back, rather gently in the beginning. Then he mumbled "Wearing a White Kepi while being a reservist !” And he stopped being gentle and started on the contrary to push and turn my head rather brutally, as a way to get his vengeance. It took him time and I started to be nervous because I was losing what was left of my precious hair. He went on with the razor and water, explaining that a legionnaire did not need shaving cream: he had to learn and be able to shave while in the field, nor did I deserve hot water because of my bad conduct. In any case, that was all he was ready to do for "a jailbird like me”. When he was done with my haircut, the barber started to shave my face, with razor and cold water only. He explained that I would have to keep a clean face permanently but that I was not allowed to shave it myself, so I had to come back to his place every week.
When he was completely done and my leash had been released from the chair, the Chief Sergeant took me to the building foreseen for the L.M.L.E.. This building was in the shape of quadrangle, with a small courtyard in the middle. The facilities, the classes and the workshops were downstairs and the Cadet rooms (identical to legionnaires room) were upstairs. The Chief Sergeant showed me my room and told me to place my things in what would be my cupboard and to get my bed ready. He insisted that it had to be done perfectly, according to Legion rules. Later in the day he came back and inspected my cupboard and bed, which resulted in several punishments because he was not satisfied.
So started my life in this Military School with a very strict discipline. Punishments were severe, but there was no real corporal punishment. It was more subtle than that: several times I was ordered to "take the guard during one hour”, this meant standing still in the middle of our small courtyard, carrying a heavy rifle. Every 15 minutes, the Chief Sergeant, or another chief, gave the orders necessary to change the position of the rifle and thus move a little bit. A worse punishment was the "one hour walk”, this meant walking in step during one hour, with a rifle on your right shoulder, between two posts placed in our small courtyard. Every Time we reached a post, we had to do a perfect "about turn”. If the movements were not perfect, the punished cadet could start the whole punishment over from scratch.
During several weeks I had to keep the leash and was not allowed to leave the barracks. Every weekend I was told to take the guard during 24 hours, as is usual in the Legion and as I described earlier. I was told to guard the entrance of our courtyard (with others) in a special way: the Chief Sergeant told me the first time:
"Ben Mourad, you are known for abandoning your post. I will thus fasten your leash to a specially foreseen post, placed next to the entrance you are supposed to guard. Every two hours, one of your comrades will take over for two hours, but you will remain fasten until the complete end of your guard period, in 24 hours.”
"But Chief Sergeant, if I need to go to the toilet, what should I do ?”
"You will be fasten to this post because you behaved like a dog with the White Kepi business, so will do like dogs do when they are fasten to a niche.”
This extra punishment caused me special problems, which was not the case of my comrades, since even those who had to wear a leash were unfastened when temporarily relieved !
Nevertheless I survived. After three months on the leash, I was freed from that instrument of torture and authorized to go out of the barracks for the first time. It was during a Sunday afternoon and I could go, with comrades, to the nearest town. We went in group, in uniform, with our beret and our dog collar, and we saluted militarily all the "real legionnaires” we met, and there were many !
I must confess that our uniform was elegant and that we felt proud being allowed to wear it in public, even if the discipline inside the barracks was very hard. Inside, we spent our time learning to become good technicians, useful for the Legion. I learned well, but it was not my chosen domain and I had decided that as soon as I could leave this place, I would do it and never more try to be in the military.
When I turned 18, after one year in this horrible school, I was called to the Colonel's office. He told me:
"Ben Mourad [that was still my name] you are now 18 years old. You are free to decide by yourself what you are going to do. I know that you don't like this place and you can leave now. But in that case, you will leave without any BAC.”
"Colonel, could I study somewhere else ?”
"No, Ben Mourad, what you have studied here is very specific and will not give you access to a diploma outside the Legion. But you can go, now immediately if you want.”
"Colonel, I think that this is what I am going to do. I am disciplined now and I will go back to my father and study there for a BAC.”
"Ben Mourad, you must know that your father is so angry about your bad behavior in the past that he does not want to see you again. He will not give you money for your studies, nor for your food and lodgings.”
"Nothing Colonel ? Can he do that ?”
"Of course, but you can stay here one more year and you will have a diploma. I strongly advise you to do that.”
Obediently, the disciplined Ben Mourad I had become accepted this kind offer and signed a piece of paper asking for the permission to stay one more year. That meant one more year of strict discipline, of weekly head and face shaving with cold water, of lack of alcohol and girls. But it also meant a diploma at the end.
During that year, I was punished more than I deserved but each time I was put on the leash for a disciplinary problem, I used the time I had to spend inside the barracks to study more and better, including maths and physics. When the end of the year came, I took all the exams for the BAC and passed brilliantly all the theoretical and practical exams. Once again I was told to go and visit the Colonel.
The Colonel congratulated me and told me that now it was time for me to leave:
"You can go now, and you can be proud of what you have achieved!”
"Thank you Colonel”
"How are you going to pay for your studies ?”
"To pay Colonel ? But I have no money.”
"It is very simple. The first year you stayed here, you were in fact sent here by your father who paid the bills. But you chose by yourself to stay during a second year. Somebody has to pay for your room and board, and for your education.”
"Well Colonel, that's for my father.”
"I told you last year that your father is not going to pay anymore. So you have to pay, and you signed yourself a request to stay one more year.”
"But Colonel, I asked the permission to stay because you told me that it was the only way to get a diploma”
"That's correct, but now you have to take your responsibilities and pay. Either you have the money NOW” and he started shouting "or the only option you have is to sign a contract with the Legion for 5 years.”
"I could borrow the money Colonel”
"No, we must have the money NOW. So either you have it or you enlist.”
This is why I signed a first contract with the Legion for 5 years. I was sent to Castelnaudary to start it all over with the other new legionnaires. When instruction was finished, I was sent back to 2 REP as a technician preparing all kinds of stuff. I hate my job, but there is no way out. I know very well that after 5 years I could leave the Legion, but I also know that my diploma is not valid outside the Legion, that I have no training, that I would be lost in the civilian world. I realize now that the real punishment for leaving my post and wearing a White Kepi while I was a reservist, the real punishment is a sentence to life in the Legion.
The uniform is still elegant, but I am no longer proudly wearing it in the streets of Calvi, in Corsica. My name is still Ali Ben Mourad without hope to get my real name rapidly back. I am no longer considered as French, but as an Algerian. My Matricule Number is still 208.761 and I have to shout it very loudly, like the prisoner I am, every time I must introduce myself to a superior. The only difference is the haircut: it is no longer a baldy, but a very short 3 mm all around.