It’s just past 8 a.m., the sky is overcast and it’s still quite chilly in this nature reserve near Weert, Limburg. A group of soldiers bang on the door of an old hangar. “This is the Royal Netherlands Army. Identify yourselves.” There’s no response. The soldiers repeat themselves. No response, again. The soldiers decide to enter the building.
Bram Boots, fourth-year International Business student and Private Class 1, is behind a tree near the hangar. He’s keeping an eye on both the building and its surroundings, his gun at the ready. It’s all part of a 25-hour training exercise of the Dutch National Reserve Corps, of which he’s a member.
People are often a little surprised when he tells them about his side job, says Boots. They’re either not aware of the existence of the ‘Natres’, as the corps is called by insiders, or they don’t know it’s a paid job. It takes up at least two Saturdays and two evenings per month of Boots’s time. “About 250 hours per year in total. We have theory classes in the evenings and training exercises during the days. Exercises take 25, 50 or 66 hours. The latter are particularly intense, we don’t get much sleep during them.”
The reservists’ main task is to defend and protect Dutch territory, but they do much more than that. “For example, we help allies transport military equipment, play a role in ceremonies and commemorations, and support full-time soldiers or local authorities (like the police) in emergencies.” So would Boots be called into action if the perpetrator of an attack – like the one that took place in Utrecht, the Netherlands, a few weeks ago – wasn’t arrested soon after? “Certainly not right away, but we may be called in to relieve the full-timers if such a situation continues for a long time.”
The scenario of today’s training exercise: suspected terrorists are reportedly holed up in the hangar. There could also be improvised explosive devices inside. It’s an adrenaline rush, says Boots. “IEDs look pretty real. And it’s very difficult to spot a trip wire, even though we do practise it.” Moments later, his colleagues come running outside. “IED! Take cover!” Boots is sent to the other side of the building to check if the people who ran out there are all at a safe distance as well. “And now we wait. If there really was a bomb, we’d have to call the Defence Explosive Ordnance Disposal Service. They’re stationed two hours away from here, in Amersfoort.”
The participants in today’s exercise don’t have to wait quite that long, but they do stay a while. There might still be people in the building, and its surroundings must also be monitored. “I once participated in a larger training exercise in which a group of ‘concerned civilians’ arrived, played by members of another unit. We have to learn how to deal with that, we can’t just treat those people very roughly. It’s quite a difficult mental switch to make.”
Another difficult question for Boots: when do you shoot? “We discuss ethical issues during the evening classes. This question often recurs. What’s the correct course of action in a certain situation? We have extensive discussions about it. Sometimes it’s like Problem-Based Learning in that way. The bottom line is that you don’t know what you’d do in real life, when you have a split second to make a decision. That’s why we do ‘skills and drills’, as we call it. We practise so often that the right reaction becomes second nature to us.” The semi-automatic and automatic firearms they use today are loaded with blanks. “We have firearms training a few times a year. We first practise in simulators and go to the shooting range the next day.”
Boots wants to stay involved in the military after completing his studies. He thinks it’s a fascinating and important world, but patriotism also plays a role. “The idea of doing something useful for my fellow countrymen appeals to me.” He’d prefer to become an aviator in the Royal Netherlands Air Force, but he’d have to get laser eye surgery first. And pass the stringent selection process, of course. If he fails, he’ll look for a civilian job. “Hopefully one linked to the military in some way. I’d probably stay in the Reserve Corps as well. I like staying active in addition to having a desk job, spending time outdoors.”