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Feature on John Cheo Credit: Christina Prudencio , Christina Prudencio

Swathed in complete darkness, a malnourished and sleep-deprived Singaporean male was sitting in the middle of a swamp in a tent he had woven together from vines and jungle leaves.

He was cold and wet, and the mosquitoes around him were in a frenzy all over his body, driven crazy by bloodlust. With a resigned grunt, he began slapping himself, smearing blood and insects against his skin before lying back down to try and sleep. But the mosquitoes wouldn’t let him.

Before arriving at Penn, 22-year-old College freshman John Cheo was somewhere in the middle of Brunei’s jungles on a survival expedition, living off whatever he could scavenge from the area while fulfilling Singapore’s military obligations.

Because its small population is unable to sustain an army of regular servicemen, Singapore requires all male citizens who have reached the age of 18 to serve a mandatory conscription service of 22 to 24 months.

After undergoing a medical screening during high school, Cheo was considered to be fit for combat and was then put through two and a half months of basic military training before being assigned to Officer Cadet School.

“You had to lose a sense of individualism because you were now just part of a platoon,” he said. “You dress the same, you eat the same thing, you go through the same thing.”

At OCS, Cheo found himself regularly in the jungle, setting up wire coil and trip flares to practice ambushes. He also learned skills such as how to gather fresh water with only a bundle of leaves and some twine, along with how to set traps to capture animals for food.

But the constant pressure under which he was working gnawed at him daily.

“There were many times where I wanted to drop out of it,” he said. “But what really kept me going on were my friends.”

Cheo’s greatest hardship, however, came in the form of a three-week training period in the jungles of Brunei. Cheo spent the first two weeks getting acclimated to the area before he and other soldiers were sent off to experience the last nine days in a survival trial known as the Jungle Confidence Course.

During those nine days, Cheo and his comrades were only given a day and a half’s worth of rations.

Cheo called the final three days of the Jungle Confidence Course the “most terrible days of my life.”

“It’s always raining, everything is wet, you’re mentally and physically exhausted, hungry and cold,” he said.

For Cheo, the mosquito swarms were a veritable nightmare.

“When you lie down to sleep, you’ll then feel this wave of itch across your body,” he said, re-enacting the scene with mock indignation. “So then you wake up for awhile and you try to kill as many as you can. All you need to do is give one swipe of your arm, and there’ll be a wave of blood.”

By the time he was flown back to the army base, his stomach was so shrunken that he could only eat small portions of food at a time to nurse himself back to health.

Now at Penn, Cheo feels as if he blends in well with the rest of the Class of 2015, with the only difference being his attitude toward life.

“I don’t feel so excited by any form of independence any more,” he said. “The freedom that college offers for my freshman friends here — I don’t feel the need to maximize that freedom.”

College freshman Julie Clanahan — a friend of Cheo’s — found that the Singaporean freshman, despite his military background, struck her as a regular person, no different from anyone else.

“I would definitely say he’s very mature,” she said. “The way that he interacts with others, he comes off as a very normal student. He studies hard and he likes to have a good time.”

College and Wharton junior Stanley Lim — who is president of Club Singapore — added that there are programs at the University designed to help all Singaporeans integrate themselves into the Penn community.

Looking back, Cheo said he does not have any regrets about his military experience.

“While I was doing training, I was cursing at it every single day,” Cheo said. “But in retrospect, I think it was worth it.”

“If anything, it will be an advantage,” he continued. “The way I see it, we are older and hopefully with the military training, we’ve become more mature and experienced.”

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