Belgian army criticised for plan to let homesick cadets sleep at home

‘You do not go to war zone with men who miss their mama,’ says veterans association chair

Brussels: The Belgian army has been criticised over plans to allow homesick recruits to sleep at home rather in barracks during their initial training, as it deals with a major recruitment crisis.

The 28,000 strong army has suffered from a large number of recruits quitting early over complaints that they miss their friends and family.

With a high attrition rate among older soldiers adding to the defence ministry’s woes, the army is examining whether to lift its boarding requirements altogether for recruits.

Alex Claesen, a spokesman for the defence ministry, told the Belgian daily newspaper Het Nieuwsblad that the Belgian army was responding to modern lifestyles.

“The army wants to include more free evenings where the recruit can leave the barracks. The youngsters are still expected at the gate on Sunday evening or at the latest Monday morning and are not allowed to go outside before Friday,” he said.

“We are also looking into extending the free weekend by focusing more on the lessons. The army is even studying whether the boarding regime can be relaxed or even lifted. Then the recruits who live near the military school or the barracks can go home in the evening.”

Belgium has come under criticism in recent years over its failure to live up to its Nato commitment to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. It currently spends 0.9 per cent, of which 75 per cent goes on personnel and pension costs.

The defence ministry has been on a major recruitment drive, but it has been a hard sell because of pension reforms, poor job prospects on leaving the army and a demand in recent years for soldiers to patrol the streets of Belgium’s major cities under the counter-terrorism operation Vigilant Guardian.

The chairman of a veterans organisation representing Ostend and the areas bordering the Netherlands, the former paratrooper Danny Lams, nevertheless condemned the army’s plans to allow soldiers to sleep at home.

“That’s how you grow a defence of nothing, an army that you cannot count on. You do not go to war zone with men who miss their mama,” he said.

“We used to sleep on the cold ground under a leaky tarpaulin. We wanted to serve our country. If you allow the recruits to go home during the week, the military will soon ask for a mobile home if they are sent to the front.”

Some units patrolled the streets for about 200 days out of 365 last year. Belgium has 70 personnel in Afghanistan protecting Mazar-i-Sharif airport in the north of the country. The army has 2,204 women in its ranks and 25,687 men.


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