Every year, dozens of dual Finnish nationals living abroad complete military service in Finland.
"Yes, I do definitely feel a stronger connection to Finland and more responsibility as well. That if anything was to happen over there, I would feel compelled to help in whatever capacity I could," Oliver Boosey, a dual Finnish-British national told Yle News.
Boosey served in a readiness unit as part of a mortar detachment on the island base of Santahamina, working his way to become a corporal by the end of his time in the Finnish Defence Forces (FDF).
Boosey's mother is from Finland and father from the United Kingdom, making his story one that many expatriate or second-generation Finns can relate to — coming to Finland once or twice a year, but still calling another country home.
Despite what he had considered some initially weak connections to Finland while growing up in England, Boosey's Finnish passport gave him the same responsibility to complete armed service as male citizens raised in the country.
Finland's mandatory military service for young men is a staple of the country's society, culture, and life.
Against the backdrop of Nato membership, Finland's mandatory armed service looks set to remain in place. Military non-alignment is becoming a relic of a bygone era and in the past, Finland's absence from any international alliance constituted the primary justification for national service. Although Finland is now set to join Nato, conscription and national defence are now viewed as even more vital to Finland—mostly due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.
Expanding conscription has even been floated, with some MPs suggesting that mandatory service also be extended to women.
With a few exceptions, this mandatory military service—or intti as it is known in the local vernacular—applies to all Finnish men, even those that have never set foot in the country.
Dual citizens without "significant ties" to Finland aren't forced into military service, but they have the option to carry it out. For those that want to use their Finnish citizenship, either in Finland or the EU, military service is a means to maintain ties to Finland so that their citizenship remains valid after turning 22 years of age.
Jere Paldanius, a public affairs officer at the FDF, provided Yle News with more details about the process.
"The Finnish Defence Forces does not categorise those who have more than one nationality during the call-up process, and does not collect statistics on those with multiple citizenships in military service. If a conscript has Finnish citizenship, he will be called up for service," Paldanius said in an email.
Paldanius added that there are no restrictions on military service for dual citizens. However, certain unspecified service tasks require security clearance, regardless of nationality.
However, in 2018 at least 65 dual nationals came to Finland for military service.
Losiny Sheriff had to complete his military service in order to keep his Finnish citizenship. Adopted by his Finnish stepmother, he grew up splitting time between Switzerland and New York as a "global citizen".
"I had no choice, otherwise I would lose my Finnish citizenship, but I also wanted to try something new," Sheriff told Yle News about his decision to carry out his national service.
Treaties exempt dual citizens from the United States and from other Nordic countries from having to do military service in Finland, but they can still elect to go through the same military training.
Logistics of service
For Finnish citizens living outside the country, many find themselves getting similar call-up letters as those in Finland get when they turn 18.
Carl Rönnholm was born in the Philippines but raised in Hong Kong. As his father is Finnish, he received a call-up letter from the FDF when he turned 18.
"It [the letter] was in Finnish. I had to go to my dad and be like, 'can you translate please,'" Rönnholm jokingly recalled, adding, "he was really proud at first—you know how it is with Finnish dads."
Call-up letters like the one sent to Rönnholm appear in the mailboxes of Finnish citizens living in New York, Calgary, London and wherever else an 18-year-old male holding a Finnish passport happens to live.
It is the same call-up letter that those in the country receive, although unlike their counterparts in Finland, young Finnish men living outside of Finland are often unable to attend the actual call-up event. Instead, they are informed about their obligation if they want to maintain Finnish citizenship. Unless otherwise arranged, these expatriate Finns have until age 23 to contact their respective regional office.
Regional offices for military service are usually located according to the young recruit's parent's—or even grandparent's—last recorded address. If one cannot be found, Helsinki is the default regional office.
For conscripts and female volunteers, military service can be one of three lengths—165, 255 or 347 days.
During military service, dual citizens and expats from outside of Finland are entitled to similar benefits, such as having their rent paid by the social security system. Citizens also have their transportation paid to and from Finland for service. While performing their obligation, conscripts are also entitled to trips to their original country of residence. The number of visits depends on how long they are serving and where their original country of residence is.
For example, an expatriate Finn doing 347 days of service and residing in Europe is entitled to four trips home. By comparison, someone from the US undergoing 165 days of training will be allotted one paid-for trip.
For many expatriate Finns coming to Finland to do military service, the biggest barrier is the language. Unless they head to Dragsvik, a Swedish-speaking military installation that attracts many citizens from abroad, particularly those that grew up in Sweden, most will find themselves surrounded by Finnish speakers.
Some coming from abroad like Leo Sansalone, born and raised in Italy and Mozambique, have a fluent mastery of the Finnish language, but that can't be said for the vast majority of recruits.
Esko Reinikainen completed his military service in 1995, and was raised in France with a Finnish father. He said that the language barrier was undoubtedly the most difficult challenge he faced during his time in the service.
However, he emphasised that for the most part it was rarely a major issue in training.
"We understood that that was the plan. Because they also had NCOs and officers who spoke English, German—our native languages. Basically whenever you were asked to shoot something, you had the right to ask in your native language whether you had understood the order correctly," Reinikainen said.
Francis O'Sean from the province of Alberta in Canada completed six months of service starting in January 2022 and traces his citizenship back to his grandmother who emigrated from Finland. He also elaborated on the struggles with the notoriously difficult language.
"Besides the Finnish bank system, not speaking Finnish has made it quite difficult," O'Sean said, tongue-in-cheek, pointing out that many conscripts run into issues setting up a bank account.
Even though they have Finnish citizenship, they lack a permanent Finnish address, which complicates banking matters.
However, O'Sean added that he has since picked up a bit of the local slang.
"At the very least, I'm quite familiar with Finnish curse words at this point," O'Sean said.
Rönnholm went on to say that military service is one of the best ways to learn Finnish.
"It's not like the Finnish language you're supposed to know, or that you'd learn in a class, but you pick it up rather quickly," Rönnholm pointed out.
Oliver Boosey from London mentioned that while he grew up speaking a bit of the language through his mother, the army was perhaps the best language course he could ask for.
"I don't think there was a better way of getting fluent in the language than spending a year in the army," Boosey emphasised.
Experience of a lifetime, with heavy responsibility
Boosey detailed his experience coming into the FDF after watching his younger brother go through military service and graduating university in the midst of the Covid pandemic in 2020.
However, Boosey added that he was never too keen on the violent aspects of military life.
"My main problem was more of an ethical or moral question. I know in my nature I'm not a fighter, I like to think I'm more diplomatic. I don't like the idea of using a gun, even holding a gun. Which sounds ironic because I used to hold one every day for a year," Boosey admitted.
After completing his service, Boosey moved back to London for work, and said that his military service in Finland was one of the reasons he was able to land his current job.
For example, he highlighted leadership skills that he learned and put into practice during his time in the FDF, skills that he viewed as in line with his diplomatic nature.
"But there was a whole realm or nonviolent aspects of the army that I think kind of was my forte. It was leading a team, bringing the team together and motivating them and keeping them going. When you've got a job to do, breaking it down into small tasks, even when it's daunting, and just getting things done," Boosey explained.
He went on to describe the kinds of situations he was referring to.
"You'd have these expeditions that were just designed to make you miserable. And they were meant to be the toughest part of the whole thing, but I absolutely loved them. It would be like marching for 48 hours and carrying God knows what, doing various challenges throughout the night and then at the end they've carved a hole in the ice in the lake for us to jump in," Boosey shared.
With the war in Ukraine and Finland set to join Nato, conscription and its training for the reserves is more relevant to the country than at any point in the post-war era.
When asked whether they would come to Finland's aid in the event of a crisis, the overwhelming response by dual nationals undergoing military service was a resounding "yes".
"Me and my brother had this conversation a while back actually. We came to the consensus that we would definitely come back if there was anything, if anything looked like we could help out," Boosey told Yle News.
Reinikainen, having served in 1995, agreed with Boosey saying that he would want to help in any way possible and that conscription was necessary, especially given Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"We're not at war now because we've made those decisions for decades. Ukraine could just have easily been us" Reinikainen told Yle News.
Rönnholm agreed with the sentiment wholeheartedly, feeling a sense of duty.
"We have a responsibility, and I feel grateful to Finland, it's my home now, of course I'd defend it," Rönnholm told Yle.
A way to connect with Finland?
For many of those with Finnish citizenship, but raised abroad, military service offers an opportunity to connect with the country.
"I do [feel more Finnish] and partly just through living in the same dorm as say 14 young Finnish folks. I mean, how could you feel more [Finnish]?," Boosey said.
He went on to say that living with so many people who grew up in the country offered him a new perspective on life in Finland.
"I feel a lot more Finnish because I just kind of got an idea of what their lives are like, having lived in the same rooms as all those guys," Boosey added.
Rönnholm emphasised that he felt very connected to his Finnish side through military service.
"I would say for all the expatriate Finns thinking about doing the military, do it. And then you would definitely get to see a whole new side of Finland. If you don't do the military, you could still connect with your Finnish roots and all that, but with the military it's definitely a good experience. It challenges you in a way that gets you out of your comfort zone," Rönnholm said.
Meanwhile, Reinikainen told Yle News that he was at first a bit apprehensive about military service, but he ended up looking back on it fondly and was proud of going through it.
"I'm holding this Finnish passport by accident of geography and parents and things like that. I've known all the history. My grandparents fought in the war. That meant something to me. I said I have to do this if I want the rights of this paper and the privileges that come with it," Reinikainen said.
Source: The Nordic Page