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From West Palm Beach to Tikkakoski: Dual Finnish nationals explore roots through military service

Every year, dozens of dual Finnish nationals living abroad complete military service in Finland.

Naispuolinen varusmies.
Iida Hakkarainen traded rollerblading on Florida's palm tree lined streets for long marches in the Finnish forest. Image: Niko Mannonen / Yle

Last year, 65 Finnish dual nationals reported for military service in the country, with the majority arriving from Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom. Most of them said they were serving to strengthen their bond to Finland and keep their Finnish citizenship.

Finnish male citizens living outside of Finland are subject to the conscription call-up when they turn 18 -- just like their counterparts living in the country. Finnish men living abroad can, however, apply for exemptions from military service and still retain their Finnish citizenship.

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Varusmies seikoo varuskunnan pihalla.
Iida Hakkarainen said she now knows what it feels like to have freezing fingers and toes. Image: Niko Mannonen / Yle

Nineteen year-old Finnish-American Iida Hakkarainen, whose family relocated to Florida when she was a baby, is now completing a nine-month stint at the Air Force Unit in Tikkakoski, north of Jyväskylä.

Hakkarainen, who is about halfway through her service, is in military police training.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study after finishing high school. My older brother had completed his Finnish military service and recommended I do it too,” Hakkarainen said.

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Varusmies hymyilee karvalakki päässä ulkona.
Image: Niko Mannonen / Yle

When sitting out on a watch alone, sleep deprived and in the freezing cold, Hakkarainen said she sometimes wonders if she made a mistake.

“It’s been a mental challenge,” she told Yle. "I start considering what I’m doing here, but then I have to remind myself that it's all new and a learning experience.”

Hakkarainen is the only woman in her unit and lodges separately from the other conscripts. “Physically I’ve done alright, sometimes it’s been rough, like when completing a 20-kilometre march through the rain while carrying a full kit,” she explained.

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Nainen istuu varuskunnan käytävällä.
Hakkarainen said she got in shape back home by dancing, jogging and working out at the gym before donning army fatigues. Image: Niko Mannonen / Yle

Hakkarainen told Yle she has enjoyed training related to military technology, particularly marksmanship where it’s easy to track improvement.

She said fellow male and female conscripts have not been too understanding of her decision to volunteer for service. But she said being Finnish was always an important part of her identity. Her family spent summers in Finland and spoke Finnish at home.

“We celebrated all of the holidays Finnish-style and prepared Finnish food at home. When I was younger, we also attended a Finnish church.”

Hakkarainen said she has become accustomed to the joking and teasing in the barracks and has slowly made some new friends.

“Initially it was a culture shock for me to meet people that weren’t friendly right away in the way Americans are. It takes time for people to warm up. It’s strange and has taken some getting used to.”

Hakkarainen said the first thing she plans to do when returning stateside is running into the ocean and eating a burrito. “Mostly I miss my family, our dog and American food -- Florida has such a great variety of fresh fruit.”

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Nainen seisoo auringossa ja hymyilee.
Image: Iida Hakkarainen

"Overall, I think this experience has made me physically and mentally stronger. I’ve also gained some independence and learned more about my Finnish roots.”

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