The Victory Day, the Homeland Gratitude Day and the Croatian Defenders Day as well as…
We spoke with the winner of competition “First for Croatia” in Staff Brigadier Ante Šaškor Barracks in Delnice shortly after the main part of the ceremony marking the establishment the Special Forces Command, a unit Corporal Nicola Knežević belongs to, as visible by the coat-of-arms on his shoulder. CROMIL’s team arrived roughly 15 minutes before the appointed time, but this young NCO was already waiting for us at a soldiers’ club which had been named after Homeland War (1991-1995) hero Lieutenant Colonel Ivica Opačak-Pajo earlier that day. Corporal Knežević maintained his military posture throughout the interview, but at the same time quelled CROMIL journalists’ curiosity with his answers to their questions. However, that is not out of ordinary for somebody who emerged on top twice in the same month: first in the Leadership Development Course and then at “Memorial Major Davor Jović”, the competition for the fittest member of the Croatian Armed Forces.
When did the military calling begin to attract you?
I was born a child of Croatian emigrants in Frankfurt, Germany in 1994. However, I have no recollection of the time spent there: shortly after I turned five, my family returned to Croatia and built a house in Sesvete, the easternmost neighbourhood of Zagreb. I started fantasizing about joining the Croatian Armed Forces in primary school, but made the firm decision to give that career a try in secondary school. I was further motivated by my two cousins who completed commando training and were among the best students in the Leadership Development Course. Today, they are in the 2nd Special Forces Group of the Special Forces Command. Clearly, a military gene runs in the family.
Did your plan become a reality?
It did. When I turned 19, I applied for voluntary conscript service and received a call back a year later. A week after the end of my conscription period, I received an invitation to advanced individual training and signed an employment contract.
Did the conscript army strengthen your wish to join the military full-time?
When I joined the conscript army, I realized I was clueless about everything, especially weapons, which I had never encountered before. But, I learnt a great deal in short time. I was assigned to infantry ahead of advanced individual training, which I completed with success, and received a post in the 1st Motorized Battalion Vukovi (Wolves) in the mountainous town of Gospić.
When did you take a notion to join the special forces?
During voluntary conscript service, which is why I jumped at the chance to join the special forces when it was offered to me. I passed selection and commando training and here I am today, in the Commando Company in Delnice. The company consists of soldiers who have completed the commando training and are now being integrated into the Special Forces Command while undergoing specialist training in certain domains. When the process is finished, they will be assigned to one of two special forces groups. That is my current goal.
What do you remember about commando training?
It was extremely difficult! I was pushed to my limits. I cannot assess if it was more demanding mentally or physically. If you are mentally unstable, great physical strength alone will not help you complete the training. I lost about ten kilos and wanted to quit at times, but my ambitious drive pushed me forward. Trust me, once you have made it through those six months in the wilderness, you will feel better than ever before in your life. You are very happy to go back to normal. The experience improves you. You see things from a different perspective and acquire new habits. A few of us who finished the training together have remained a tight-knit group even though we perform different duties in different locations. We have become true friends.
What was your relationship with your instructors after the end of the training?
There was some distance between the students and them. We still perceived them in a different light and it was difficult to “switch back” immediately after six months. However, they are flesh-and-blood people as much as they are top-notch professionals.
Is the life in the special forces like you imagined it would be?
It is. It is physically demanding and I get to learn a lot. The reviews are rigorous. You have to maintain your level of readiness, but good conditions for that are created in the special forces. Our bodies process the food we eat quickly. I am a newbie, so I am constantly sent to courses and competitions. So far, I have completed specialist training in parachute jumping, mines and diversions, the latter of which is my specialty. I would also like to complete specialist training in diving, sniping, etc. The lifestyle in the Special Forces Command is the reason why people apply to join it. It is who we are. That unit is an ideal place to be for anyone who wishes to experience a military career in the full sense of that term.
You arrived to the competition for the fittest Croatian soldier fresh off the Leadership Development Course, where you were named the best student. It seems as though you run like a clockwork.
I suppose you could say that. I received my commando badge last August and was appointed to Delnice on 1st October. I was chosen to take the Leadership Development Course, which began in March, in the first go-round. Thanks to experienced instructors, I learnt a lot; many topics were addressed during the course. As a newly-commissioned NCO, I have many new responsibilities, but I feel ready for the task. I had a month to prepare for the competition, but I had kept in shape during the Leadership Development Course.
The fittest athletes are usually active in sports.
I played football throughout primary school. Afterwards, I did boxing and taekwondo. Since then, I have been running and hiking, but not on a regular basis.
What was your experience with the previous editions of the competition “First for Croatia”? How did you prepare for it this year?
I followed the competition while I was in the 1st Motorized Battalion Vukovi, but other obligations prevented me from participating in it. I was finally given an opportunity to compete when I joined the Special Forces Command. The training, which I joined after completing the Leadership Development Course, was led by Captain Ante Jović, a two-time winner of the competition. Captain Jović proved to be not only a top-level athlete but also a coach who knows how to make a difference. Six men from my unit trained with him for a month and all six finished the competition in top 13. That is the best proof of his capabilities. He prepared us mentally for the competition. He trained us for the military and operational level of the competition. In the end, he finished the competition in the sixth place. Captain Jović is a man who always wishes to go beyond his capabilities and he asked the same of us. We enjoyed immense support from our superiors in the Commando Company; they are by far the best superiors I have ever had. They always look after our interests and put in a lot of effort into training and preparing us. We never lack anything. Lately, I have noticed improvements in the living and working conditions as well as an increase in wages.
Did the training before the competition improve your confidence?
One always hopes to win, but, to be frank, not even in my own unit was I favoured to win. Not that I am weak. I knew that endurance was the most important quality. The competition is not won by big, grossly muscular men, although having a surplus of muscles is desirable.
What was the start of the race like?
I started the race in the 21st place, but there was crowding on the first work post (navigation); competitors were moving in large groups and creating a gridlock. I finished navigation in the fourth place, thus avoiding gridlocks on other work posts. Being quick in navigation opened up the race for those of us who emerged on top after that work post.
CROMIL followed the race. For most of the course, you marched alongside another competitor.
That is right. The other competitor was First Sergeant Dražen Henc from the Personnel Management Centre. He came to the first work post after me, but finished orientation in the third place. He is an excellent, very prepared competitor who works hard on himself. He is second to none in orientation marches; only Captain Jović can compare to him. First Sergeant Henc and I supported each other. When First Sergeant Henc got cramps and could no longer keep up the pace, he pushed me forward. Shortly before that, Corporal Marino Protrka from my unit had missed when firing from the AT4 anti-tank weapon and had to run a penalty loop. In the end, he came in second.
That was when you started chasing the gold.
First Lieutenant Ivan Gerenčir of the Guards Armoured Mechanized Brigade was in the lead throughout most of the race. After firing from the AT4 anti-tank weapon, I started closing in on him. I felt great and my confidence grew. First Sergeant Gerenčir later told me he could not keep up the pace because of cramps. I tried to keep an eye on him. I ran, I walked and I surpassed him after crossing a water obstacle on a zip line. Afterwards, First Sergeant Garančir tried to speed up and resume the lead. Whenever I turned around, there he was. However, my advantage finally began to increase on the Way of the Cross before the finish line. Fair play was adhered to throughout the competition. Whenever First Sergeant Gerenčir and I encountered one another on a work post, we shook hands.
Were you even aware of what you had accomplished?
Not on the first day; not while my equipment was being weighed on the finish line, not when I rang the bell and saluted the national flag, not even when I received the winner’s trophy or while I was celebrating with my colleagues from the Special Forces Command. We were exhausted and could not wait to lie down. My thoughts cleared up the next day, when I started receiving text messages from my former schoolmates and colleagues in the army whom I had not seen in a while. I told my parents about my victory shortly after the end of the competition, but they believed me only when they saw my name in the press.
What effect have the media exposure and the congratulatory wishes from the state and military leadership had on you?
I must admit the feeling is unusual. I am not used to such exposure; none of my colleagues are. However, the exposure comes with the victory. I shall certainly continue competing in the future.
Do you find that the winning trophy belongs with the Special Forces Command?
I do. That is expected of the special forces. Even if there is no outside pressure, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to give it our all.
Will your victory have an impact on your military career?
Of course. They say that winning this competition is a huge step for somebody who has just joined the Special Forces Command and I must keep up the pace. My aspirations are related to my current unit. As I have already mentioned, I hope to join a special forces group soon, hopefully in the next year or two. When I can no longer maintain my current level of physical fitness, I would like to become an instructor or be assigned to a post in the headquarters of the Special Forces Command. One cannot endure this pace for too long, only until the age of 35 at most.
Irrespective of your top-level physical fitness and vast military knowledge, what significance do you attach to the experience of older soldiers from the Homeland War or international missions?
I attach a lot of significance to them. These members of the special forces are role models to young soldiers. They have been through a lot and they are very knowledgeable, but they adapt to new trends and circumstances.
Which international mission would you choose to go to?
I would like to go to Afghanistan. However, I am still a rookie in my unit and I have time for international missions.
Interview by DOMAGOJ VLAHOVIĆ
Photo by TOMISLAV BRANDT
Translation by IVA GUGO