SINGAPORE: Every morning, F-15SG fighter pilot Captain (CPT) Dominic Lee, 32, would get a regular visitor to his bedroom – his barely two-year-old daughter rushing in to look for him.
So when dad was not in his bed one morning, his daughter ran around the house to look for him, even peeking into the bathroom to check if he was taking a shower.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced some Singapore Armed Forces servicemen like CPT Lee to live on base to reduce the risk of infection within operational units.
This arrangement applies to those performing critical functions, like the protection of key installations, maritime security or air defence.
CPT Lee used to be able to go home every day after working hours. Now, he has been staying in Paya Lebar Air Base for more than a week.
“I am really close to them and I love to go home every day to play with them and be part of their growing up,” said CPT Lee, who has another seven-month-old daughter.
“These could be the first times they crawl, sit up or even walk. I would like to be there, but because of this, I am unable to do so.”
CPT Lee understands this is necessary to maintain operational readiness and protect Singapore’s skies.
“Fighter aircrew like myself need to continue flying to remain competent, so that when we are being called upon to do the job, we are always ready,” he told reporters via video conference on Saturday (Apr 18).
It is not just pilots – other Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) personnel performing critical duties like air defence weapon operators, air operations systems experts and some maintenance crew must also stay in before and during their operational duty.
This means some have been separated from their families for longer than usual.
The RSAF has made things easier by allowing them to make video calls in specific areas that were previously restricted, and ensuring family members can contact units directly if they need help with anything.
As most residents now work and study from home as part of Singapore’s “circuit breaker” measures, CPT Lee also asked members of the public for their patience if they are disturbed by the roar of fighter jets overhead.
He said the RSAF is constantly reviewing routes to minimise flying over residential areas while not compromising safety, adding that majority of their flights are done overseas or over water.
Flights have also been reduced to the minimum required to maintain proficiency and operational readiness, while night flights are restricted to certain weekdays and must finish by 11pm unless operationally required.
“I seek fellow Singaporeans who are working from home at this time to be patient and contend with the sound of freedom when we fly,” he said.
Affected RSAF personnel said family support is important too, as spouses take over household and childcare duties during this period.
CPT Lee said he feels blessed to have a “capable and supportive wife who is able to manage the home front while I am isolated on base”.
“My wife is taking care of my kids full time, and I think it is an incredible feat for her,” he added. “Those who are mothers will understand, to face kids 24/7 with no MC and leave, and not really have much time for yourself.”
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CPT Lee stays in touch by watching his wife’s Instagram stories when he is off duty, explaining that this allows him to keep up with his children’s lives.
“Being able to connect with family is crucial, especially during this difficult time,” he said. “Even though I’m not physically there, the least I could do is provide some kind of support and know each other is safe.”
It is the other way round for Military Expert 3 (ME3) Rajeswary Pandian Suppiah, 42, an air operations systems expert whose husband is holding the fort back home.
The first thing she will do when she gets back is to say a “big thank you” to him. After all, he is a former regular who knows how important her job is. She handles surveillance sensors, communications and computer systems so the RSAF can detect threats early.
“Usually it’s just how’s your day, then you get tired and you just want to rest. (Now) I want to spend quality time with my husband,” ME3 Rajes said, adding that she misses homecooked food.
She was only told she would have to live on base a day before her duty cycle started, and she now has to work longer hours as everyone is working in smaller teams.
For 22-year-old full-time national serviceman Keith Lim, this experience has given more meaning to his national service, even though he misses the days when he could book out of camp during the weekend to spend time and play games with his family.
“We have to sacrifice some things,” said Corporal First Class Lim, an air defence weapon operator.
“All this has made by NS life more worthwhile, being able to know my contribution is important to help the nation fight this COVID-19 crisis.”