By Marcel van der Veer
February 2024

Published in Military service

More on Education, Military service

Like in many other countries, able-bodied Dutch persons must partake in territorial defence. Young men selected for military service used to be drafted for a period of military training and active duty. This has been suspended for a long time already, though conscription has not. I was among the last drafted to serve for one year, thirty-two years ago. In this post I would like to share some anecdotes regarding this, in hindsight, formative year for a young academic who had all but lived in science faculties for the best part of a decade.

I received a letter from the Ministry of Defence that I was to serve in the Signal corps. Obediently following orders in that letter, I reported at the Isabella kazerne in Vught on a bleak midwinter morning for basic training. These barracks were on the terrain of former Fort Isabella that was constructed in the early seventeenth century. It was a small base with an eventful history where during World War II, SS units had been stationed and after the war, Highland division units. My doctorate supervisor appeared to have done basic training at these same barracks not long after the war, so when he asked me for some architectural details as the eighteenth-century entrance, I could reassure him those were still there.

That January was not an easy time for basic training as it was a particularly cold month. One hard frost night in the Loonse en Drunense duinen, I tried to get some sleep in a small shelter tent, tucked into an old sleeping bag with my UZI. However, we fresh recruits were more comfortable sleeping on the leafy forest floor than our instructors who were freezing in their field beds. The water truck's tap had frozen solid, so we marched unshaven, by way of exception. At the end of basic training, we were informed where we would be stationed for active duty. A number of recruits from our platoon including myself were transferred to the Netherlands Army Post Office (NAPO) in Utrecht. Considering the alternatives, Utrecht was a good place to be stationed, and NAPO was a swell unit to serve in.

There I was, a newly arrived private in the NAPO platoon of a large company of 543 VBDBAT stationed at the Kromhout kazerne in Utrecht. To my surprise I had a bed in the monumental building next to its sibling where my father stayed some thirty years before. Veldpost Utrecht, NAPO 500, was located elsewhere in the city at facilities of the Dutch mail service, PTT Post. The first weeks we attended a course on the army's mail distribution system at the PTT distribution centre at Utrecht central station. Here we were amidst civilian PTT personnel who did not blink an eye when seeing soldiers on their premises.

My year in the army went by at a gallop. Veldpost Utrecht was responsible for all mail streams within the Dutch army, handling mail between domestic bases, civilians and military personnel in the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, the Sinai, field exercises … it all went through our hands. Since the mail system never sleeps, Veldpost Utrecht had three shifts to cover operations around the clock. Our company lacked sergeants and I was soon made corporal so I could be shift leader, as an acting sergeant. After a while I became the administrator for the post office, was taken from shift work, and had a desk at the commander's office. Our commander took good care of his men, and I have learned things working close to him that have served me ever since.

Most postal items were routine and Veldpost Utrecht had fixed schedules for handling mail arriving and leaving by planes, trains and automobiles. However, urgent messages requiring a person to return home were added to the certified mail and also faxed to the nearest NAPO personnel who would arrange instant delivery. This frequently required problem solving and improvisation, making use of any resource to localize a person in the field, to get the message delivered on time. We were good at that, honoring the Signal corps' motto nuntius transmittendus.

Actually, serving at NAPO had its perks. One day the airforce offered us viewing the Netherlands from the air, in gratitude of NAPO support during the Gulf war. At former airforce base Soesterberg we boarded a military plane, so seats were spartan and we had to make do without in-flight service, but the flight was a great experience. Also, NAPO always had a philately booth when army, air force or navy opened their gates to the public. Especially our first-day covers with commemorative stamps were popular with philatelists. During the navy open days we had ourselves a ball in Den Helder. The naval base mess alledgedly was the best Indonesian restaurant in the country, so we ate as much as we wanted, not as much as we actually could.

Marcel van der Veer
Me being interviewed for the AVNM magazine, at the Veldpost booth during army open days at the base of 43rd Mechanized Brigade in Havelte.

Source: Appèl (227), September 1992.
AVNM archives are preserved by the "Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis" in Amsterdam.

Air mail had to be hauled to a PTT distribution centre at Amsterdam central station, therefore a small Veldpost convoy would frequently shuttle between Utrecht and our capital. Sometimes I would supervise that column, and one day driving down the highway, we spotted a large cloud of smoke on the horizon. It turned out there had been a big explosion at a chemical plant in Uithoorn, a village I had to look up on a map when we returned to Utrecht. How could I have guessed that I would actually settle there soon after my year in the military?

My grand finale was supervising mail distribution in the field during Clover Charge, a large-scale two-week field exercise in Gemany of Dutch fourth division and German Bundeswehr, involving tanks, artillery, and thousands of troops. These joint exercises appeared a prelude to the formation of 1 German-Netherlands Corps a few years later, and eventually to the integration of both armies in recent years. Clover Charge was scheduled for December, so I was in the field again in winter.

At the time, during field exercises mailmen were detached to a Supply corps company. We set up a field post office at one of their supply points, in a large tent kept comfortable and dry by diesel heaters - unlike the Loonse en Drunense duinen during basic training. Supply point command decided the safest place for their big machine gun would be our tent, since it was always guarded. Hence I kept that MAG safely under my field bed, sleeping tightly knowing that my post office was armed to the teeth.

Every evening a long column of trucks slowly drove by the supply point to collect for every unit food, fuel and at the last stop, the mail. These two weeks we managed to distribute everything despite units relocating or merging with others overnight, except for the mail for some reconnaissance unit. There was no shame in this belated delivery as those were commandos trained to operate undetected behind enemy lines. If I could have located them to hand them their mail, I would have earned myself a green baret. These two weeks in Germany were a singular experience, and made clear to me the importance of mail for the morale of the troops.

My military career ended shortly before Christmas. Our draft had a nice farewell dinner in Utrecht and I took the train home, wondering what the future would bring. Years afterwards I happened to learn what had become of some of the guys I served with. One started a veterinary clinic, another was ordained as a priest … and me, I started a career in the chemical industry in abovementioned village.

A considerable part of the Kromhout has been taken over by the University of Utrecht, and the PTT building where I worked has been demolished, though the restaurant where we had our farewell dinner is still there. A few years ago, driving past Vught, I left the highway to take a walk on the terrain of the former Isabella kazerne. The army left the barracks shortly after my basic training and nowadays the base is a residential area. However most buildings, some designated as monuments, are preserved, including the abovementioned entrance. Apart from memories and experience gained, what is left of my year in the army are a few parafernalia, some photos, and an assortment of philatelic collectables.

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