Like many young Estonian men, Marko Susi took a gap year before enrolling at the University of Tartu… not to travel or work, but to train in the Estonian Defense Forces.
Since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia has required men between the ages of 18 and 27 to serve in the military or perform alternative service in the case of conscientious objectors or those with health issues.
Susi is one of the approximately 3,200 young Estonians conscripted each year. Conscripts have the option of serving for either eight or 11 months. Susi chose the eight-month stint and began his service last October, an experience that he described as a challenging adjustment.
“At first, it was new and quite scary because it’s a different experience,” Susi said. “You live like 18, 19 years at home with your parents and you just aren’t there.”
Based in eastern Estonia, Susi was in a unit of about 40 people. Despite occasional diversions such as volleyball competitions, Susi spent much of his time training in the frigid Estonian winter.
“In the forest we were doing stuff, it was cold, really cold like minus 20,” Susi said referring to the frigid temperatures in Celsius. “So it wasn’t cool, it was cool but not in a good way.”
Although Susi has no interest in a military career, he said he appreciates the need for a strong national defense in a country that has been occupied by the Nazis and the Soviet Union throughout much of the 20th century.
“I’m not really interested in it, but defending our country is a big thing for Estonians,” Susi said. “Because of our history, we take pride in it.”
With his military service behind him, Susi is now a first-year student in Estonia’s largest university where he’s studying sports journalism.
“I want to become a sports journalist at the elite level, that’s the goal,” Susi said. “I feel like I’m at least a tad bit talented and just go with it, build a happy family in the future, a nice house, a wife, kids, that’s the goal for all people, I think.”
Logan Bourandas is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism at Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.