Monday, December 29, 2008

All In The Heart, Not The Head

We had a masa a while back that absolutely killed me. For those that don't know, masa means journey in Hebrew. For combat soldiers in the Israeli Army you have to do a masa for everything on your uniform, for everything you earn. For example, to get the strap for our gun we had a masa. For the pin on our beret saying we are a foot soldier we had a masa. The final masa for the brigade beret (masa kumta) is a 70 kilometer feat of endurance that I am already dreading even though it's a solid 6.5 months away.

The word masa is actually a little bit misleading. I'd say instead of calling it a "journey," it should be called a jog/run/sprint. You have full combat gear on - vest, 7 magazines, 2 canteens, camping gear if you're coming from the field - and here you are basically running half the trip. The gear probably weighs an extra 30 pounds, maybe more, and the pace is nearly unbearable. People that are able to participate in the crawling and running and heavy lifting throughout the week often still sit out from the masaot. It's just that tough.

The masa that killed me was only a 4 kilometer run, but I was carrying the worst of the extra gear - the water bottle pack. This pack is a backpack with some ridiculous number of one liter water bottles strapped in, all of which are tarred on the outside, so the lids don't close properly. Whoever wears the pack ends the masa drenched from the lower back to the shoes. When the commander told me to grab the pack my strength withered and I knew hell was about to begin.

We began the hike well into the night, and the whipping winds stung against my already damp legs. I wasn't yet warmed up, I was cold and wet, and we don't stretch before the masa, so I couldn't quite find the spirit to be a team leader. I was just kind of there. My head wasn't in the right place. I was only there to finish, not to help others. Needless to say, when we began the hike with a charge up a long hill I knew it wasn't going to be pretty.

The problem with being selected to carry extra gear (water packs, stretcher, radio) is that you have to be in the front, right behind the commander. You have the heaviest weight on your back, but you have to be in the very front where the running is obviously the fastest! There is no "I'll just take my time in the back" option. No sir.

Unfortunately, you're not going to read a "and then I found my resolve" ending to this story. I had a bad mentality from start to finish. I felt outmatched because of the water pack. I felt incapable of continuing. I felt finished the entire time. I never found the guts to yell and soldier on like a true Golanchik.

But nonetheless I stayed up front for all but about 2 minutes when we took a hill near the end of the first half. After that extremely short stint falling behind, I leaned on my unencumbered brothers up front and pulled it together. I put one foot in front of the other and ran with the commander, leading the group ahead. We stayed together as one tight block all the way until the final 500 meters or so when the commander, a small Ethiopian guy that can run like the wind for hours, took my hand and sprinted with me to the finish line. I was dying dying dying during the sprint, and once I tried to pull my arm away as if to say "I can't sprint anymore!," but he wasn't having any of that. He grabbed me even stronger and charged ahead even faster. I said nothing and dug deep, eyeing the finish line as if to will it closer.

A picture someone snapped of me afterward. Note the wet pants.
That's the waterpack. Absolute exhaustion.

At the end I nearly fell down, but I caught myself and put my hands on my knees, doubling over in relief and exhaustion. I looked back to see the group a good 100 meters behind me. Despite the water pack and the lack of nerve, I persevered through my mind's unwillingness and pulled strength from my heart's dedication to never give up. One guy in the group got yelled at viciously by the commander because he actually said "I can't." He had no extra gear on, either. He needs to develop the heart of a warrior.

All the hardest physical tests in the world mean nothing to a heart that refuses to fail. My head said NO!, but my heart couldn't bear that weakness. I'm not saying I'm some great athlete who can do anything, I'm not, but I know what it means to go past my limit. I'm absolutely loving these times in the army, at least afterwards. Beforehand I dread the masaot more than anything else. That and Krav Maga, I guess.

One final word on perseverance. We did another masa this past week, a longer one as each successive one is, and I had no extra gear. I absolutely murdered it. I wasn't even tired, despite running and pushing the guy in front of me for nearly half the journey. Even though I felt great on this hike, I still had to persevere unfavorable conditions. During the previous week we did the obstacle course, and while climbing the rope I got a really bad rope burn. That was being rubbed and bloodied throughout the entire hike.

Enjoy :)

Secondly, my sock was way down inside one shoe, making each step uneven and uncomfortable.

Furthermore, in my other shoe the two pads I use were crunched together, making that totally awkward. My toes were stepping onto the wooden interior sole instead of padding. It sucked. I just pushed it out of mind, however, and continued without a word. The thought or inclination to step out of line and take off my shoes and fix the insides didn't even cross my mind. I didn't let it get to me, no matter how terrible it all felt.

Just don't give up, EVER!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Gaza Operation And Me

This is a very last minute post.  I just wanted to throw a note out there that I am OK. I'm not in the front lines or anything like that, so there really isn't any connection at this point between what you read in the news and my safety.  I'm still in basic training, so there's no sending me off to war for another half a year.

In case your head was underneath a rock all this week, Hamas has started the post-ceasefire period off with a bang, literally.  Israel's half-year ceasefire with the terrorist organization just expired, and right away Hamas began launching rockets into Israel.  They spent the entire period of calm stocking up on rockets, and now they can use them freely.

Israel was just hanging out, and as expected Hamas started an offensive.  But anyway, I don't want to talk politics right now.  I want to give an explanation, as far as I learned from soldiers who were in basic training during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, what would happen to me if a war were to break out.  As in, what would I be doing, where would I be, etc.

During Michve Alon some of my commanders had the Lebanon War pin, even though I knew they began basic in August of 2006.  The war ended in August.  They told me that in time of war, the basic training programs go on freeze while the commanders and various people around the training bases head off to their combat units.  At the same time, full soldiers who were doing guard duty around the country get repositioned to fight in the conflict.

So, the guys in basic take the guard duty spots that were vacated.  Like everyone else I don't know what's going to happen in this conflict with Hamas.  Our defense minister, Ehud Barak, hasn't said whether or not a ground invasion into Gaza is going to follow the aerial strikes on the Hamas compounds.  I just don't know what's going to happen.

My Gd, what a strange feeling.  I return to base tomorrow morning, and I can't even begin to imagine what kind of discussions and briefings we're going to receive.  What are they going to tell us?  Is it going to be really serious on base?  Is the training going to change in some way, at least in a subtle, intangible nature?  Will there be laughter?  Will anyone smile?

How do I feel?  All Shabbat I concentrated especially hard during the supplications for peace in the prayers.  I said "shalom" with extra intent and genuineness.  What's strange about that is that I am shomer Shabbat, which means I don't watch television or read the news or anything during Friday night to Saturday night.  I had no idea that Saturday the 27th, today, was the deadliest day in Gaza in the past 20 years.

How do I feel?  Nervous and very upset that we have to deal with this all over again. Like all Israelis, I just want peace and quiet.

Please read this prayer for the well-being of Israel's soldiers:   Click Here

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Interview With The M"P (Company Commander)

(Not my captain, but a captain in Golani nonetheless)

A few weeks ago while at the shooting range I was called out to have an interview with the company commander (M"P). The company is about 150 guys, I'd say. The commander of a company is a commissioned officer of the rank Seren, which is a captain in the American army. You have to be pretty damn smart and good at your job to get to that point, even though it's achievable after only about five years or so. So, as I went into the shelter to talk to the M"P, I was a little bit nervous.

When we first made it to our unit the M"P gave us a speech, and I was surprised when he told us his details. Without giving too much away, I'll just tell you his age. He's 24, the same as me. So when I heard this, I understandably felt a little bit intimidated. Here I am, some pseudo-intellectual American with a degree from an artsy liberal university, serving underneath a bona-fide warrior. I thought, "What the hell am I doing here?"

But then again, there aren't too many guys like him in the Israeli army. He's one of those bull dog Israelis that you expect to see in Tel Aviv with a really tight black shirt on and some barbwire tattoos on bulging biceps. These bull dogs tend to be bartenders, I think. If you want a visual image of my M"P, he's probably 5'5, he's built like an American Marine, and he's got a bald head. That's the Tel Aviv tough guy look. If you are missing one part of those three requirements, you're not a Tel Aviv tough guy.

So anyway, I sat down for the interview and instantly apologized for my Hebrew. He was all smiles right from the start, and he asked me all about my education, why I wanted to serve in the Israeli army and not the American, and so on and so forth. This tough guy turned out to have a great personality, and we had a nice chat about the State of Israel and her army. He found out about my life, who I am and what drives me, and I felt like he was honestly interested. I mean, I'm not the average kid that he is going to have an interview with. I am unique here, and I felt like my presence was appreciated. Even though he probably did with everyone else, I was really honored to shake his hand at the end.

He knows how to be a good commander, obviously. He's strong and connected to his soldiers at the same time. Despite his warmth, I still can't help but be afraid of this guy. He scolded me a few days ago for having my gun strap around my shoulder instead of around my neck, the necessary position while wearing the combat vest. In my defense I was building a tent and we had permission to have it around our shoulder instead in order to put it out of the way while still wearing it, but it's not like I am going to make some excuse to my company commander. I know when to shut my mouth and accept punishment.

"The next time this happens... I don't even know what," he said.

"Yes, Company Commander," I replied.

Either way, he knows how to do his job, and I am fortunate to have yet another highly professional, battle-tested (more on that later), competent, and understanding officer in the chain of command.

Oh, one last point. Of all the things in the world, you know what I noticed right away when I had my interview with him? His teeth are perfect. White and properly spaced and aligned. He has movie star teeth. What a strange thing to think of over and over again during an interview with a true warrior.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Humane Army

Before I entered the army I used to always throw around something I had heard from Israeli advocates. They like to say that Israel is one of the most humane armies in the world, despite what anti-Israel crowds may say. That crowd says that we kill innocents, that we beat the Palestinians, that we do everything possible to demean the humans living in Gaza, the West Bank, and within the borders of the State. I knew it wasn't true, so I followed the pro-Israel declaration of humanity.

However, I didn't really know what it meant for the IDF to be "humane." I knew that Israel gives free medical care to Palestinians with serious problems, including allowing women in to give birth in Israeli hospitals. I knew that we take religious Muslim laws seriously at checkpoints, especially in terms of male soldiers not touching female Muslims. I knew that we take the utmost care to protect the dignity of the Palestinians. I guess I didn't know how we got to that point, to the point of knowing how to be humane, what being humane meant.

I finally figured it out when we were taken into an auditorium on base recently to receive a lecture about "The Spirit of The IDF," or Ruach Tzahal in Hebrew. This was actually the second time that I was formally taught the ethical code of the IDF, the first being in Michve Alon. We took our seats in the large auditorium, and at the podium stood the Company Commander, the commander in charge of all the new recruits in my battalion. After we got situated he started.

We spent well over an hour going through all the points of Ruach Tzahal, from the principle of Comradeship to "Purity of Arms." We looked at pictures taken of Israeli soldiers who upheld the principles, and we also looked at a couple pictures of soldiers that failed this all important code. I can't even begin to tell you how serious this lecture was.

In the three Israeli military bases I've been on I've seen the Spirit of the IDF posted everywhere. In the dining hall there is the guidelines. In the armory. In the classrooms and by the shooting range. We are Jews, after all, a religion and ethnicity of humanitarians. Who wrote the book on the Golden Rule, doing unto others as you wish them to do unto you? I challenge anyone to say that the Israeli army doesn't know how to teach its soldiers what it means to be the most humane army in the world.

After the lecture they gave us pocket sized copies of Ruach Tzahal to keep in our military ID case, something we have to have with us at all times. Every time I see a commander open his I see a copy of Ruach Tzahal. It's just that kind of army. We are obsessed with our ethical code. I am obsessed with our ethical code, and I read it constantly, endeavoring to know each word.

Here are some finer points that might drive all this home:

Human Life - The IDF serviceman will, above all, preserve human life, in the recognition of its supreme value and will place himself or others at risk solely to the extent required to carry out his mission. The sanctity of life in the eyes of the IDF servicemen will find expression in all of their actions, in deliberate and meticulous planning, in safe and intelligent training and in proper execution of their mission. In evaluating the risk to self and others, they will use the appropriate standards and will exercise constant care to limit injury to life to the extent required to accomplish the mission.

Purity of Arms - The IDF serviceman will use force of arms only for the purpose of subduing the enemy to the necessary extent and will limit his use of force so as to prevent unnecessary harm to human life and limb, dignity and property. The IDF servicemen's purity of arms is their self-control in use of armed force. They will use their arms only for the purpose of achieving their mission, without inflicting unnecessary injury to human life or limb; dignity or property, of both soldiers and civilians, with special consideration for the defenseless, whether in wartime, or during routine security operations, or in the absence of combat, or times of peace.

C. When Confronting The Enemy. 23) The IDF serviceman will act fairly with self-control, reasonably, and professionally, in carrying out the responsibilities of his position, in all his contacts with civilians in areas controlled by the IDF, whether in the course of battle or afterward. He will show respect towards the beliefs, values, sacred and historical sites of all civilians and military personnel as they deem proper and to the extent possible, in keeping with the values and basic principles of the IDF and in accordance with military needs and the given circumstances.

And the list goes on, but I won't beat a dead horse. I am so encouraged by the overwhelming importance this army has placed in our unique code of conduct. I sat in the lecture led by the top of the commanders, something that doesn't happen too often, and I realized what it meant for the Israeli Defense Force to be the most humane army in the world: Our ethical code isn't just something written on a sheet of paper. Its words are holy to the Israeli soldier.

Here's a link to a translation of the Spirit of IDF.

Here's a link from the JCPA about the code and related issues.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Being Sick In The Army

Since I was drafted into the army in October, I've been fairly sick off and on. Two weeks ago I was hacking up radioactive green mucus all day every day, non stop coughing and sneezing. Every winter I get sick with a sinus infection, but this year it was pretty hard to get over. I still haven't fully recovered, and as a matter of fact I just got up to blow my nose. Considering that we get up at about 5AM every day, and go to bed after 11PM, give or take, it's not so hard to get sick.

But before this obvious infection came on I was really happy to see our company medic (the "chovesh") was a smiley kind of guy who always just stood at the entrance to the commanders' barracks, hands down his pants, looking around like a contented veteran. He didn't seem to do anything, but he was around and smiling, so I figured he was a good guy. He just has that look to him. He's the guy you go to for all types of medical issues, from needing gauze for a blister to getting sick leave. So, it's comforting to see him being so available. In light of his visage, let's call him Medic Smiley.

In the midst of being sick as a dog, I was selected to help the SARSAP for a day, a commander who's in charge of food related duties. He's a combat commander, but this is an undesirable role that all ambitious commanders take on. The guys that help the SARSAP for the day have a routine:

-Put the silverware for breakfast into buckets based on type (fork, knife, spoon)
-Bring silverware to the dining hall
-Hand out silverware to each soldier individually (to make sure no other group takes our silverware)
-Collect silverware after everyone has finished eating
-Bring silverware back to the barracks
-Clean silverware

You repeat that process two more times, obviously, for the rest of the meals in the day. There are other things you do, a lot of other timed busy work, but that's the main duty. So, I couldn't believe it when out of the three other guys helping the SARSAP I was told to be the guy handing out the silverware. Before each meal the platoon sergeant lines his soldiers up in two single file lines opposite from the door, letting in two at a time. The two enter, and there is the guy handing out the silverware. He sits on a chair and hands the silverware out by hand.

I found myself sitting overtop the silverware with my head turned to the side trying not to sneeze into the forks and knives. The SARSAP was standing next to me, and he noticed my eyes watering and nose running. I wiped my nose across my shoulder without using my hands, and looked to him thinking that he'd recognize my condition. As I coughed up a loogie the size of a golf ball and looked around in agony, the SARSAP just shrugged his shoulders. It seems that he doesn't mind getting the entire company of 150 guys sick.

A couple days later I figured I'd talk to Medic Smiley when the chance arose. He called me into his small medical room and asked me what the problem was with cynicism right off the bat.

"It seems to me that I have an infection. Every year-"

Cutting me off, he snapped, "What's hurting you?"

"Well, my throat hurts, my head hurts. I have a fever. I have a lot of sneezing and coughing, and a lot of snot. Also, I have a huge amount of mucus."

"What color?"

"Green. Really really green."

"OK," he said, and reached into the drawer behind the desk for a thermometer. "Put this under your tongue."

I put it under my tongue and sat there quietly, wondering when he was going to realize that I needed a doctor and antibiotics. I mean, I know his job is fraught with people making excuses to get out of this and that, but it's pretty easy to spot those who really need medical attention. After about 15 seconds he asked me to pass him something, and I figured he said to pass the thermometer. It wasn't a matter of not understanding the Hebrew, it was just that he mumbled whatever he said.

I took out the thermometer and held it out for him, but he waved it away and told me to give him my hand. I put the thermometer back in, and put my hand on the table. While checking my pulse the electric thermometer beeped. It was ready to be checked. I pulled it out, and it read 30.6 degrees Celsius.

Now, I'm from America. I don't really have the instant recognition of what degrees mean in Celsius, but I had a feeling that 30.6 was slightly low. I looked over to Medic Smiley, who was not smiling at the time, and wondered if he was going to tell me to redo the test. He didn't, and I sat there wondering what 30.6 degrees meant.

Medic Smiley typed something into the computer on the desk, and then reached into the medicine cabinet and gave me four Ibuprofens. I took them into my hand dejectedly, realizing that it would take a small battle to get past the medic to the doctor. I didn't want to seem like a pansy, so I left without a fight, figuring that if I got any worse I'd ask to see him again. My head throbbed for another week before the fever broke, and I think I swallowed a handful of Ibuprofens in the meantime.

Later on I did the calculation on what the thermometer told the medic. My temperature was 87 degrees Fahrenheit. I had one hell of a cold, apparently!

The entire point of this poorly written post is to tell you that I hate the company medic. Medic Smiley, you are worthless. The other point is to give advice to those entering the army. Bring a Z-Pack (Zithromax) with you if you can swing it. Israelis think Americans are wusses because we take a lot of antibiotics, but if you were as sick as I was, you wouldn't care who called you what.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gas Masks

A couple weeks ago we did our training on unconventional warfare. We learned all about biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, and what to do in the case of an attack. We learned about what to do in all the alert levels, and how to prepare for these situations. Finally, we were trained in all gear - gas masks and biochem suits. After we had reviewed and discussed all of the material, we took a test to qualify. Even though it was pretty technical Hebrew, I did alright.

The next morning we went for a masa, literally a journey, which is a fully geared up hike. It's kind of a big deal that I'll discuss later, the general idea of why you do those hikes and what they mean. Anyway, we finished the hike and then went to breakfast. Because of the strenuous morning we all had big meals. We doubled up on the eggs, I took a huge bowl of corn flakes, and instead of my usual one I had a second cup of lavanah, a heavy sour cream-esque cheese that people eat on bread, with vegetables, with anything really, or even alone. It's the only food that we've actually been forced to eat.

After our big meal we went back to the barracks, hoping that they'd go easy on us. It was the end of two straight weeks on base, and we had just done very well on our first masa. Didn't we deserve an easy rest of the morning? Instead, the commanders told us to grab our gas masks and meet out front in 30 seconds. I still had no idea. To be honest, I thought we were going home early. Thursday afternoon back to home. I had my reasons.

Then we lined up and headed, with our guns mind you, towards the direction of the logistics facility. Ah, I though, maybe we're going to put our guns inside there since we can't take them home yet! "Now I'm pretty sure we're going home early," I thought. Wrong. As we turned a corner I saw the tent. I realized I was very much not going home yet.

Around the tent our commanders told us to test out our masks, make sure everything was still working on them. So we put them on and tightened the straps, breathing through the filters. I looked around and saw about 100 guys straight out of some bad science fiction movie. How strange it seemed to be surrounded by those alien faces, big black rubber with bubble bug eyes and a protruding round mouth.

The SAMAL, a jerk of a commander, took us four at a time to prepare for the tent. My turn eventually came, and the first thing we did was drop to the ground and crawl across rocks. Then we jumped up and sprinted over to a pile of dirt and back. By this time, considering the physical exertion of the morning, I was beat. But not yet was I finished. Another commander I had never seen before came out of nowhere and started yelling at us, so we dropped down and did an undetermined amount of pushups. I think we probably did about 40 or 50. At about 20 I thought I was going to die because breathing through the gas mask is labored, and I was already out of breath. I was sucking in air through a straw, all while doing pushups with a sealed mask on my face.

Finally he yelled at us to go into the tent. I ducked down beneath the brown tarp and entered the haze inside. My commander was there in a full biochem suit, gas mask on face, but he was taking the mask off one of the other guys that entered before me. I stood there with my mask on, breathing deeply but feeling none of the gas. The mask really does work, which amazed me. I didn't know if I was supposed to take my mask off yet, especially since there were less commanders than the soldiers, and they were talking to the soldiers individually. I pulled my mask partially off, a fraction of a second, and I got a burning sensation instantly on my face. Just as instantly I pushed the mask back on, figuring I'd wait for them to come talk to me.

I watched for a few seconds as the soldier my commander was talking to struggled to keep his head up, obviously pained from the gas in the tent. Before I knew it, however, my commander came over to me and literally ripped my mask off my head without loosening any of the straps. My eyes-- my eyes! I felt like a million little pins were stabbed into every millimeter of my eyeballs, a burning sensation like acid dropped on the skin. My throat tightened against the toxin, and I choked out answers to the commander's questions.

"Do you have a girlfriend?!"


"Where do you live??!!"


"Sing HaTikva!!!!"


"Sing HaTikva, the anthem!"



I spun on my feet, gas mask in hand, and ducked below the tarp towards the light filtering in through the fog. As I left a girl shouted at me not to touch my face, and then a commander shouted to wave my arms like a bird. I followed the above directions, jogging around to get fresh air into my lungs, all the while spitting and coughing imaginary poison deep within. There's really nothing you can do but let a few minutes pass before you feel ok.

It was pretty awesome. It really wasn't that bad, though. See the below video to see some girly U.S. military guys overreacting.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Golani, G'dud 12, Barak

As per my request, I received the battalion within Golani that I wanted. Essentially, you have the Golani Brigade, then three different battalions - 12, 13, and 51. I personally wanted 12 simply because I have a friend in 12, and he's about 4 months ahead of me. He gives me the inside scoop, and being within 12 nearly guarantees that I'll be following his footsteps to the T. Sometimes I need to know what's in store, and when it comes to this stuff, mystery is a bad thing.

So, now we're finished discussing trom and all this preliminary stuff. Basic training has started (as of the posting of this, training started a few weeks ago, actually). I'm in the army, in my specific unit. I'm with the commander I'll be with for the next 8 months. I'm with the guys I'll be with for my army stint. I'm here. I'm settled.

We were taken from our trom units to a large square where we practice ceremonial formations, dumped all our gear, and sat down on the ground. An officer was at a podium up front and began calling out our names. Eventually my name was called, and I walked over to a group of guys already in formation. Some jerk was yelling at the group, and then we began walking over to our new barracks.

Finally we reached the barracks and were taken to our assigned rooms. I dumped my stuff on one of the far beds, and then stood next to it in my typically slumped posture. We were waiting for our commander to enter. I looked around the room at the 15 other guys, 14 native Israelis, and just marveled at the idea that these young men were soon to be my brothers in arms. We all were glancing around, nervous, wondering who would be friends with who, who would fight with who, who would be the star, who would be the weak link... And most importantly, what was our commander going to be like.

After a few minutes squadron commander walked in. In charge of about 16 new soldiers, give or take, is a skinny little Ethiopian guy no more than 20 years old, and most likely he's 19. My heart dropped the instant I saw he was Ethiopian, not because he's black, but because I, along with many Western immigrants, have a hard time understanding the Ethiopian accent. I can't understand French people speaking Hebrew. I can't understand Mizrachi Jews speaking Hebrew. And generally I can't understand Ethiopians. It's just an accent thing. Some people can't understand Americans speaking Hebrew.

But, it turned out that his Hebrew is very clear and he speaks with a minimal accent. I got used to it within a few hours, so all of those fears have been allayed. Moreover, I can't even begin to tell you how happy I am with my squad. Your Danny really does luck out sometimes. First of all, as far as commanders go, mine is a sweetheart. During basic training there is supposed to be serious distance between the new guys and their leader. No smiles, no jokes, no "good morning" or "did you sleep well" friendliness. But my guy, he's totally the opposite.

Obviously I'm exagerating a little bit, but honestly the distance is minimal. We overheard his name a few times, but of course we don't use it. He's just "HaMefaked," or The Commander, to us. But he's always smiling when someone says something stupid, which is pretty often. He always asks if we have any problems. He talks to us like humans. He understands when we mess up, and instead of yelling at us he'll just give us physical punishment, which is much better than being berated. He even laughs at our jokes - generally. Most importantly, he told me that my Hebrew is good and that whenever it's lacking, he's there to help me. Do you have any idea how relieving it is to hear that from your direct commander on the first day of basic training after an entire year sweating bullets about whether or not I'd be able to hack it based solely on my language skills?

My commander is just an all around good guy. I'll have to come up with a name for him for the sake of the blog. Any suggestions? Just write them in as a comment!

Secondly, and finally for this initial post about my squad, the guys are all great. About every single one of them has come up to me and asked all about why I'm here, how old I am, what college was like, and finally they tell me "kol hakavod," which literally means "all the honor." As you can tell, they're very appreciate of me. Coming out here and joining this army takes a hell of a lot of inspiration and ideology, so when you get a native that wants to shake your hand because of it... that really makes the struggles worth it.

What really made me smile was when I heard one after another of them call their parents at night and tell them about me. I'm just one of many immigrants to go to Golani this draft, but here in my squadron I'm a special person for them.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Messing With A Frenchman - Why Not?

(This is another post about trom, the last one. See the post before the previous one for an explanation of what trom is)

Two posts ago I talked about an incident involving Commander Pants (as I explained before, he always has his hands down his pants) in which he made a guy carry around a cardboard girlfriend all day. As you can imagine, he was an odd authority figure. What made him so interesting, at least for me, was that he is a Sayeret Golani soldier, one of the most elite units in the army. It's weird for an recon commando to be so goofy.

As we were standing in formation one day, a French goof ball yelled out from the front line.

"Commander, I have to use the bathroom!"

Commander Pants walked over to the French guy and stared him down, presumably to see if he was being serious. It was hard to tell with the Frenchman.

"Heavy or light?"

"Heavy or light, Commander?"

"Yeah, is it going to be heavy in the toilet or light in the toilet?"

"Oh... heavy, Commander! I have to poop really bad!"

"Nice. Matsav shtayim."


"You heard me."

The French guy dropped down into matsav shtayim - position two - which is the upper position of a pushup. He looked pretty desperate, and Commander Pants just stood over top of him, looking down, smiling. After a minute or two of keeping the kid in the position, he started counting out pushups.

"1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 4, 8, 4, 9, 10..."

We were all cracking up by this point, both at the French kid sweating out the pushups when we knew he only had one thing on his mind, and also at Commander Pants saying the number four over and over again. We had no idea why. It was just funny.

"Do you know why I repeated 4, Baguette?"

"Baguette, Commander?"

"Aren't you from France?"


"Well, French people eat a lot of baguettes."

"Yes, Commander!"

"Again... why 4, Baguette?"

"Um, because you're going to give me four minutes to go to the bathroom?!" The group had to laugh at that one, but when he said it I thought it was actually pretty clever.

"No," Pants said. Pants turned around and walked to the other side of the formation, a wide smile across his face. "No, number four because the commander likes the number four."

We were in hysterics for the second time in a day with Commander Pants. Again he started calling out numbers of pushups.

"1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4..."

The kid never did go to the bathroom. (I wish I could write comedy.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Mexican Far From Home

(This is a post about trom, the week or so before placement into your actual unit. See the previous post's beginning for an explanation)

During trom, which is not technically basic training, they still want to keep you busy. So, instead of a gun you carry around a shovel. We did everything from clearing small rocks from fields to putting small rocks into pretty little rows. I even saw one group creatively make the Golani olive tree, the logo of the brigade, on their front lawn. That was pretty impressive.

One particularly boring day we had to take rocks from one yard to another. It was mindless busy work that had no point, but you had to do it all the same. I placated my annoyance with the knowledge that even the Special Forces guys all had to do this in the beginning of their service. It’s just a part of being a nobody in the army.

Brace for a bad transition:

I am from, as I’ve belabored before, rural Virginia. That being said, I live in a farming area, and as per usual in America, these areas are highly populated with Hispanic, largely Mexican, laborers and immigrants. That’s just the way it works. Being that I grew up in that environment, I have a strong association between Hispanics and manual labor, however spurious and egregious it may be. I realize Hispanics work in all fields, from farming to medicine, and I hope I haven’t offended anyone too badly.

Anyway, I was busily transporting some rocks when I looked over and saw my friend, a convert from Mexico, squatting down next to some pebbles with his shovel in one hand, chin in the other, slowly and repeatedly poking at the ground. With the shovel’s point he was picking at a stone in the earth, not doing anything but killing time, obviously bored. I felt bad for making any kind of association between his background and this form of work, but I admit I made the association.

Now, the reputation of the Mexican laborers, at least where I’m from, is that they are one of the hardest working groups of people you can find. I have enormous respect for their continuance in the face of all the struggles they have overcome, for their plight, and enormous respect for a work ethic I have seen first hand.

I found it ironic, however, that my association of a Mexican manual laborer was so off track here in Israel. And even more connected to the association was that this guy converted to Judaism, moved to Israel, became a citizen, and here he is working the ground! He kind of moved far away from America’s farmlands to be stuck doing the same thing, right? Is that bad to say or think? It’s ironic, right?

Anyway, I went over to the guy, a friend of mine, in all honesty (he speaks great English), and I asked him what’s up.

“Hey man, this sucks,” I offered.


“Nice work you’re doing there,” I joked.

He smiled and continued picking slowly at the same rock buried deep underground. He looked up at me, laughed, and through his smile said, “I’m not that kind of Mexican.”

True story.

Monday, December 8, 2008

What Not To Do In The Army

Here's the schedule of what happens when you're drafted into army. This is the order of where you come from and go to:

1) Civilian Life
2) Trom (processing stage)
3) Gdud (actual unit, actual commanders, actual guys you're with)

So, when you're placed in your brigade (Golani, Paratroopers, Givati, Education, etc) you have about a week and a half of being in trom, a stage where the soldiers and commanders and barracks are all temporary. You're on your base, but this stage is just a period for paperwork and processing and waiting for everyone to arrive (there are always late comers for various reasons). Nothing is set at this point except your brigade.

That being said, most of the commanders during trom are special forces guys that basically are getting a two week vacation to yell at newbies. A little fun for the veterans, if you will.

The first day of trom was a Sunday, but the group of immigrants I was with didn't arrive until Wednesday. We went home Thursday afternoon, and had to come back Sunday morning. The commanders told everyone to have fun, but not do anything crazy on their Thursday night back with all their friends from home. FYI, Thursday is the big party night in Israel.

Sunday came all too quickly, and before I knew it I was standing in formation in front of the barracks. A special forces commander who just happens to always have his hands down his pants (Commander Pants) stood up front staring at us, pacing back and forth, a devilish look on his face. He wasn't angry. He wasn't annoyed. I just couldn't tell what his expression was. He was the nicest guy, but he looked like he was up to something. Finally he stood still, and then he looked at one very short Canadian in the end of the line.

"Brad, come up here and tell the group about your weekend."

Brad looked down at the ground, smiled, and then laughed nervously. "Really," he asked.


He made his way up front, turned around, and put his hands in his pockets. He looked over at Commander Pants, smiled, laughed again, and then looked back to the group. Commander Pants smiled slyly, but then instantly wiped it off his face. Brad took his hands out of his pants and started to tell us about his weekend.

"Well, I got home Thursday night and went out to a bar with a few friends of mine. We had a beer or two, nothing serious, and we talked about the army. There were some girls with us, so that was cool."

"Get to the good part," pushed Commander Pants.

"Ok. So my friends wanted me to call my commander, you know, for fun. I told them 'no way,' and that was that."


"But then we left that bar and went to another bar. I drank more at the second bar. And then this girl that was with us, an American girl, said she wanted to date an Israeli army officer. I told her that I have a really cool commander, and since I drank a lot of beer..."


"Since I drank more beer I called Commander Pants."

"What did you say?"

"You answered, and then I told you that I have a girl for you. A nice American girl that wants to date a cool Israeli army officer."

From our formation a random guy shouted, "What'd he say?!" We all were cracking up by this point.

Brad looked at the group, a smile from ear to ear, and then looked back Commander Pants.

"He said... nothing. Silence. And then he hung up."

We were in hysterics, and Commander Pants, with two hands down his pants, was also smiling widely.

"First of all, never call your commander for anything other than emergencies," he said. "Secondly, Brad, idiot, I already have a girlfriend. In fact, believe it or not, she's here right now." Commander Pants was looking over top the group, looking behind us, when he yelled, "NO ONE LOOK BACK! She's very shy." Another commander had disappeared behind us, and then Pants told him to bring her out.

The second commander walked around the formation and up to Commander Pants. He was carrying a full-size cardboard cutout shooting target of a human body. One side is the target, and the other side is blank cardboard. A surprisingly realistic female face was drawn on, as well as skimpy clothes and oversized breasts. Yellow paper was stapled on her head for hair. On her stomach was written "Golani," our brigade.

"Now," Commander Pants shouted over the laughter, "since I already have a girlfriend, the army, I'd let you share in on the fun. For the rest of the day your girlfriend is to be with you. You are going to run with her, hold her hand in the dining hall, she'll sit on your lap when you eat, help her in the bathroom, and of course she'll sleep with you tonight. That's what boyfriends and girlfriends do."

"Seriously," Brad asked.

"Yes, seriously," Commander Pants smiled, "Now put your girlfriend on her back."

Brad placed her on her back on the ground, and then looked to the group for confirmation that this might be the funniest thing ever to happen in an army. It was.

Commander Pants leaned over to Brad and told him to do 10 pushups. Brad started his pushups overtop his girlfriend, and then halfway through Pants interrupted.

"Give her a kiss!"

Brad gave her a kiss on each downward movement of the pushup position, but then Pants yelled, "FRENCH KISS!"

...Yes, trom isn't so bad.

Look out for the post after next, which is another funny story about Commander Pants.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The IDF Is Nice To Its Soldiers

In a previous post I talked about the first session of Krav Maga that we did. A good friend of mine, someone who works in politics and is highly aware of the Israeli perception around the world, pointed out to me that some people might misunderstand my post and get the idea that Israel is in fact violent or cruel, even towards her own soldiers. The thought hadn't even crossed my mind until my friend mentioned it, and then it kind of dawned on me - yes, I can see how you would think that from what I said!

For example:

"And then, and I am not lying to you or exaggerating, the special forces commander standing in the corner with the wooden beam came over to me and told me to stick my leg out.

"Put your thigh forward!," he screamed.

He slammed the processed wooden stick against my quad as hard as he could, trying to break it in half. It didn't break, but was split heavily down the center.

"Pity," he lamented.

I can still feel where he hit me, and that was a few weeks ago now."

So, yes, that would seem to be a pretty incriminating incident there, but let me be very clear about something, and I'm going to write another post within two weeks about this, the Israeli army is unbelievably humane. To the Palestinians, and to those of us serving. Let me give you a couple examples.

There is a guy in my unit from Germany, somewhat large set, who speaks Hebrew at a fairly low level. Because of his size, he's not really able to perform at the physical level we have to perform at, or at least not yet. Because of his Hebrew he's usually confused on what's going on. He's got heart though, so he never quits, and that typically makes up for any shortcomings.

But, considering the Hebrew and the new surroundings, he's been a little bit spacey. After we received our guns it was made 150% clear to us that if we don't have them on us at all times, if we forget them in our rooms, for instance, we'll be in trouble. Here's how the commanders usually describe this undetermined level of trouble:

"If you mess up... I don't even know what."

That's a real threat. Trust me. If you forget your gun in your room when you go to the toilet, you're pretty much guaranteed to be punished by having a weekend at home taken away. That's a real punishment. Trust me. And to think they could do worse, which is implied in that warning.

So, The German was in a class on the combat radio, a technical Hebrew lesson, of course, and as you would expect he started to feel a little bit sleepy. After about half an hour of battling eyelids heavier than tanks, a commander noticed him in the corner and yelled for him to go outside. He jumped up, ran out of the room, and the platoon commander had him run around the barracks a few times. That's their way of waking us up.

And then the commanders realized that he left his weapon underneath his chair inside the classroom.


That's all they had to say. That's all they said. He got his weekend taken away just like that. No if, and, or but about it. Later that night when we lined up for a formation with our platoon commander, he called out a few names to step to the side. The German was called out, and it was announced to the group just what each person did and their subsequent punishment.

"The German... Shabbat on base."

"That sucks," I thought. "No way I could make it four straight weeks on base right now."

Last night, however, we had our end of the week discussion with the platoon commander. Basically, we sit in rows around the commanders while they tell us what we did well, what we did poorly, what to expect in general from the upcoming week, and then there is a time for questions. Another bit is a giving out of merits. One guy was given a round of applause for really stepping it up and taking charge of his room, essentially being the go-to guy.

The German was the other guy singled out. The commander told the group that The German had lost 2.3 kilos in one week, and we cheered for him for so long that the commander had to tell us when enough was enough. All of our commanders were smiling.

The final element of the discussion is the handing out of punishments. These can range from a warning, to an hour or two delay in leaving base on Friday morning, to having to stay for the weekend.

All of the guys that received the Shabbat punishment were given a two-hour delay and a warning, a stern warning that such a reversal won't happen again. I know it won't, and they only got off because this is the very beginning of our training. Majorly lucky.

And then, to top it all off, this morning at 5am we had to get up and clean around the barracks in preparation for going home. I went to the morning prayers, but then in the middle a guy from my platoon came in and pulled me out. We had to run back to the barracks, and I had 7 minutes to change into my off-base uniform and bring my bag to the platoon commander, ready to go home.

I didn't request it, but the commander gave me and two other immigrants an early release. Usually you only get this if you play up the "chayal boded" card, a lone soldier (no family in Israel). Who was one of the other guys? The German.

Is the I.D.F. bad to its soldiers? Absolutely not. They give out compliments and encouragements and benefits even to those who messed up earlier. So, if you think the Israeli army is some kind of monster to even its own soldiers, you're sorely mistaken.

Watch for another post this week about how the atmosphere of basic training in the Israeli army differs from that of the American army.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Missing The Guys From Michve Alon

Last Tuesday I left a 3-week army course and entered my real unit.  I'm now with the guys I'm going to be serving with for at least the next eight months.  I'm where I'm going to be.  But as settling as that feels, I'm missing the guys that I became good friends with during the 3-week Michve stay.

Isaac and Fred and Tomar and Ezra and Mahmoush and Steve and Amitai and Jon and on and on and on...  Why is it that every time I get comfortable and relaxed in a setting, that setting gets pulled apart?  I blogged maybe overly emotionally about my friend David leaving the yeshiva I was studying at when I made aliyah in September of 2007 - yet another pulling apart.  Without the late night discussions David and I had about the meaning of life and religion, his support of my decision to move to Israel, assuring me that the first month would be the hardest (and indeed it was), without all that I would absolutely not have made it.  That first month sucked, and David got me through it.

Isaac and the guys, all but one English speaker, got me through the initial jitters and fears of joining the Israeli Army.  Without going in the very first day with Jon, and then randomly seeing some guy named Isaac hug his family goodbye and notice that they were the most stereotypically American Jewish family ever, I would have run from the army meeting spot, caught a bus down to Eilat in the south, crossed the border to Egypt, gotten a bus to Cairo, and then flown back to Virginia on my good ole American passport.

I just couldn't have done it without having some Americans and English speakers around me.  And now they're all gone, dispersed throughout the military.  I suppose it's a good thing that now I'm going to be fully immersed, without the support network of Americans to fall back on - but that transition is hard no matter what.  It may be good for me, and it may even be exactly what I want (and it is), but it is hard no matter what.

My mom constantly reminds me that beginnings are always scary, and that it's never as bad as we think it'll be, and she's right, but there's nothing like going into a beginning with someone just like you to smooth things out.  If anyone out there is reading this and is thinking of joining the Israeli army, plan it with a friend.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Krav Maga Or An Excuse For A Beating?

Krav Maga is a form of close quarter self defense created in the 1930s by Imi Lichtenfeld in order to help Jews in Europe protect themselves from Nazi and anti-Semitic attackers.  From there Lichtenfeld moved to Israel, and in 1948 Krav Maga became the official form of self defense of the Israeli military and police force.  In short, it's a technique based on the assumption that the attacker will give no room for escape, thus requiring either a lethal or near lethal response.

So being in a course that was to prepare us for the real deal army, we did a couple sessions of Krav Maga.  The second session was really Krav Maga, like learning how to use our rifle as a close quarter combat (CQC) weapon.  In the army there is a defined method of using the M16 in CQC.  It's devastating.  Have a look:

That video only shows the second of six specific strikes that are done one after another. You can actually see the six moves in the very beginning of the video. After about 10 minutes of doing each move separately, we finally began the entire attack with a partner. The instructor was screaming at us as we were slamming the rifle like lightning into our partner's sleeping bag, trying desperately to both be aggressive but under control. I can't even begin to tell you how into it I was. I'm generally a very laid back person, not really getting too hot under the collar even in situations where most guys would turn on the animal instincts. But during the second session of Krav Maga, with the M16 feeling like "an extension" of my arms, I felt like a Roman Legionnaire laying waste to a savage Carthaginian.

But that was just the second session. The first session involved Krav Maga only in the way that we had to keep our hands up in the punching position, "putting my dukes up," if you will. I showed up about five minutes late to the paved outdoor basketball court that the session was held on only to find the guys lined up along the length of the court in punching position. I quickly ran to stand next to my friend who was near the far end of the court.

"What are we doing," I asked as I looked down the row to see if my hands were up properly.

"Um, they're killing us I think."

Down at the other end stood a commander with a title that I still cannot remember. Malgash? Malbash? Malshah? Not sure... let's just call him the "Malshash." Earlier in the week he grabbed me by the collar and jerked me out of my seat during a lecture inside a classroom because my sleeves weren't rolled up according to army regulations. "This isn't a kibbutz!," he screamed. The commander took on the role of Krav Maga Instructor, a position I'm sure he relished. He is, not exagerating, insane.

"PUT YOUR HANDS UP! HANDS UP! KEEP THEM UP!" He paced up and down the court, seeing if our hands were truly capable of punching and protecting.

A commander of Moroccan descent, a special forces soldier, who was in charge of the First Company stood in the back corner, watching, while holding a wooden stick.

The Malshash stopped his pacing, standing still for a moment, and then his face contorted and he yelled, "SIX SIX SIX!!!" I had no idea what that meant, but I soon caught on as everyone flew from the baseline of the court to the other end and back.  That counts as two. Three of those equal six. As soon as we finished we jumped back into position on the baseline and put our fists up. I looked down the line to figure out what was happening, but all I could see was the back of the line. One by one a guy took a few steps back. What was going on all the way down there? Why were they falling back one by one?  I took the moment to catch my breath.

Before I knew it the Malshash was four guys down from me. As hard as he could he slammed his fist into Guy #4's chest. Guy #3 got a gut punch. The maniac Malshash pump-faked a punch into Guy #2's chest, and then with his left he nearly broke the poor kid's arm. Guy #1 almost got a punch to the arm, but then the Malshash kicked his thigh as hard as David Beckham would send a corner kick into midfield. It was brutal.

I know you may be thinking along the lines of lawsuits and abuse scandals, but at the time the only thing on my mind was survival. I just had to get through that torture. And in the process of mentally preparing myself for abuse, I finally clicked into animal mode. Primal instincts. Survival. Cave Man.

Bring it on! I tightened my face and kept my eyes on the Malshash, trying to intuit where he would hit me.  All of a sudden there was a crunch in my chest, and when I thought that was it he landed another punch on my upper arm.  

Stinging.  Burning.  Like a miniature train wreck inside my muscles.  But it felt good.  It felt empowering, somehow.  And then without a warning...

"SIX SIX SIX!!!"  And we took off for the baseline three more times again.

Back to the original stance, hands up!  They started to feel a little bit heavy at that point.  I looked down the line, trying to figure out if this was it.  "Is this Krav Maga?," I wondered.  Apparently it was.  

For the sake of brevity I won't recount the rest of the "conditioning" we suffered, like running in the dog position at full speed - on our hands and feet - and crawling like a crab at full speed - hands and feet only, again.  How many times did we do SIX SIX SIX?  I lost count.  It generally was a welcome break after the dog/crab crawls, though.  They may have been the most physically trying event I've ever done in my life.  Honestly.  You want to know how hard they are, or do you think I'm exaggerating?  Get down in these positions right now. 

I'll give you 30 seconds...

Now try to run full speed across a paved court and back multiple times with the threat of having to do it again if you're in the last five people.......  did you do it?  Of course not.  Why?  Because it hurts and sucks and no human should be subjected to such mandatory punishment for no reason.  But this was our "Krav Maga" session, so what could I do but listen?  (I cursed the 'injured' people sitting out).

Now here's the interesting bit:

The Malshash had us back on the baseline, and he was coming in for more punches and kicks.  This was probably the fourth round of it, and my body was already screaming from the crawls and punches.  As the maniac got close I readied myself, and then he was one person away so I figured I'd brace for the crushing blows.  I sucked a half-breath in, tightened my muscles, clenched my jaw...

CRUNCH CRUNCH - two instantaneous fists to the gut.  The Malshash continued to the next guy in line, my buddy Isaac, but then quickly stepped back into my face.  I braced again, thinking he was coming back for more from the tall guy, but then he asked me something in an uncharacteristically normal voice.

"דכגדנ דיצמן ישדראץ יחללף?"

"What," I asked.  My mind wasn't exactly in the foreign language mode.

"Did you גרטהני בכלםר?"

Considering that I had flexed for the hit, I figured he was asking me if I did just that.  At the time it made a lot of sense:  if you flex for the punch or attack because you know it's coming it isn't realistic.  I knew he was going to hit me because that was the exercise we were doing.  Maybe we weren't supposed to flex or brace ourselves.  That made sense.

"Yes," I replied.

"Give me 30 fist pushups," he whispered calmly.  I dropped to the ground and with fists grinding against the pavement I pushed out about 15.

Then he started kicking me, repeatedly, in the ribs.  Over and over, hard, as I pushed out the last 15.  I couldn't feel my knuckles past the throbbing in my side.

"Good," he said quietly and softly, with a sinister smile on his face.  

I got back into the punching position, standing straight and tall, strong, but feeling close to reaching my physical limit.

My buddy Isaac turned his head to me, trying hard to not be noticed by any of the other commanders, and questioned, "Do you know what he asked you?"

"Yeah, he asked if I braced for the punch."

"Uh, no..."


"He asked if you tried to punch him back."

I didn't say anything for a second, just soaking in the obviousness of the situation, because honestly if you didn't brace yourself for the wrecking ball of a punch to the stomach you'd die the painful death of Harry Houdini.  That makes sense.  Finally I replied with the only suitable response.


And then, and I am not lying to you or exaggerating, the special forces commander standing in the corner with the wooden beam came over to me and told me to stick my leg out.

"Put your thigh forward!," he screamed.

He slammed the processed wooden stick against my quad as hard as he could, trying to break it in half.  It didn't break, but was split heavily down the center.

"Pity," he lamented.

I can still feel where he hit me, and that was a few weeks ago now.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Golani Sheli

Last week I informed my loyal readership that I was finally being drafted into my actual unit. For the previous month I had been in an army course for immigrants to acclimate us to the "army mentality," as they put it. I'm pretty sure it's just an excuse for special forces guys to get a month vacation of kicking the crap out of people who speak funny Hebrew. Honestly though, it was a great course, and the physical training has already helped me in my new unit.

So, where am I in the Israeli Army? Where did they place me? Did I get accepted into the unit of my choice?

חטיבת גולני

That's right. I, somehow, got my first choice and got into the Golani Brigade. According to a more than year old article from an Israeli newspaper, Golani is the number one most requested combat unit among new draftees to the Israeli army. In the March of 2007 numbers, 2.7 inductees competed for each available spot in the brigade. I would venture to say based on the buzz around town that those figures have only gone up. It seems that just about everyone who wants to do combat wants to do Golani.

And I got in. Why? Because of my status as an immigrant, in part, but mainly because I volunteered to serve for a longer time. Because of my advanced age (I am a true grandpa for the army) I only had to serve 6 months, but I requested a 1.5 year service. In the interview with the officer who decides your unit he originally tried to place me in a less than desirable brigade, but then I reminded him that I volunteered for more time and could be doing other things.

"If you volunteered for more time, then you'll get Golani," he said with authority and no expression.

That was music to my ears. After being told to wait outside while he checks on some things, and I should give you context and tell you that this was with my entire group from Michve Alon as we waited at the processing base outside of Tel Aviv the night before being shipped to our respective units, he called me back in and looked very serious.

"It's my sorrow to tell you... that you got Golani."

Just one more word about the selection process. Though they really screen people to make sure they are put in the right units, and that the army gets the right person for the right job, it seems they haven't yet perfected the system. I have a friend from Michve Alon who is going to be one hell of a soldier, but he was rejected from Golani. This guy tried out for the paratroopers brigade, a grueling 2-day mental and physical test that I wasn't even about to attempt, and the only reason he failed was because he fell and hurt his knee. He requested Golani, of course, but was told that there were no spots left. It was full, they said.

And yet there is a guy from Michve Alon who was accepted who speaks very little Hebrew and just seems like a nutjob. Let's put it this way: the first week that he got his gun he took the expensive M16 and with two hands lifted it above his head and slammed it down on the pavement, breaking the steel barrel in half; he kicked a pipe in the bathroom repeatedly until it burst, flooding three rooms; he frequently screamed at his commanders, including threatening his female officer that he was going to "f***ing kill you"; he went to jail three times in the course of three months at Michve Alon, a preparation course for the real army; he is currently homeless, literally.

So, the bottom line is not that I am awesome and the army knew it and decided to hook me up, but rather that I got lucky.

Now that all that anxiousness is out of the way I can focus on becoming a real soldier. I know it might be something of a stretch, but getting into this unit has reminded me of getting into a top-tier college. I tried so so so hard for so long to be accepted, and then once I got in I took a step back and thought, "Oh... now I've got a lot of work to do." And again, I've got a lot of work to do.

For now let's sit back and try to imagine this being me:

Sunday, November 23, 2008

More Shooting Drills

We did another day of shooting on the 11th of November. The sky had long darkened, and the moon was covered by clouds. Only Cassiopeia was visible, but it was so dim that it took nearly five minutes for a friend to realize what I was pointing towards. The night was nearly pitch black.

They want us to get used to shooting in the dark, so we did a drill where we shot at a cardboard soldier who happens to be a very dark green. No lights. No illuminated sights or red dot scope or night vision goggles. No nothin'. Just us, a gun, and an enemy.

No one was doing very well. Hell, you couldn't even really see the commander telling us what to do. We had to have sticklights (glowlights) set up so we even knew exactly where the entrance was to the shooting range so those waiting wouldn't wander in. It was the dead of night. I wasn't nervous about a thing, but I still wanted to hit the target at least once.

I got down into the laying position as instructed. I took my time. I squinted as hard as I possibly could, and I felt like I could kind of make out the top of the target. Kind of. The drill wasn't just plain shooting, though. The commander would countdown to zero, and then yell "FIRE!," but he would wait at some points, skip numbers at some points and just yell "fire" anyway, or not even count at all. And, as per the drill, the point was for everyone to shoot together. That simulates the army experience: if your commander has a reason to yell "fire," everyone should fire together.

Another twist in the drill was that the commander was walking the line of those shooting, and if he kicked your boot you had to shoot right away. Remember, everyone has to shoot together. So, he kicked my boot once and I fired automatically, but it took a second for everyone to pull the trigger. For those that haven't really gotten used to shooting a gun yet there's a lot of hesitation. You don't hear "FIRE!" and there's a gun shot? Did someone mess up? Should I actually fire? I understand that.

I figured I did pretty poorly considering I really couldn't see the target. After we finished we ran down the field to the targets and waited for the commander to make his way towards us and individually check for holes with his flashlight. He got to me and I searched with him for the holes.

Five in the face. Two in the chest. One in the stomach.

That's eight out of ten. Don't even ask me how I did it. I just kind of saw the target, shot exactly when the commander said to, and prayed to get one. I like to think that at least one that I missed was when he kicked me and I just shot, but who knows.

What really boosted my morale for the day, which honestly was the lowest that day that it has been during my entire time in the army (nearly a month), was that the commander really complimented me. It's cool to have one of these battle-tested guys be nice to you, but this particular commander is in the special forces reconnaisance unit Palsar 7. He is a total badass. Let's put it this way: I'm thinking about going to the Special Forces Tryout just so I can blog about it. I have absolutely no allusion that I could ever pass that three-day torture marathon where you literally do not sleep. Imagine hell. That's Yom Sayerot.

Hey, if it seems like I'm bragging remember that I'm also telling you that I feel like an idiot half the time because my Hebrew isn't quite good enough. I've gotta hold on to the good parts.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I'm Not The Only Immigrant Israeli Soldier

You think I'm doing some unheard of crazy thing by becoming a citizen of Israel and joining the army here? Think again!

Last week I met a guy in the same course as me who is eerily similar. Here's the breakdown:

He's 24; I'm 24.

He's from Richmond, Virginia; I'm from about 1.5 hours away, and my parents met and spent many many years in Richmond. It's kind of a second home for us.

His name is David; My name is Danny.

He went to a Virginian college; I went to a Virginian college.

He's orthodox; I'm orthodox.

He wants the same brigade as me.

That's all I've got, but I'd say that's pretty close. So, don't think I'm the only crazy one out there! There are an estimated 250,000 Americans living in Israel, so don't worry about me, I'm in good company. And considering I'm from a town of about 2,000 people, I think I meet more Americans here in Israel than I do in America!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Army IS A Game Sometimes

(Picture is an American soldier sleeping before guard duty)

I've been talking to people about what it's like in the army for a couple years now. "Oh, you did that? What was it like? Was it hard?" "What are the boots like?" "What do they feed you?" "Do they yell at you?" "Is it weird for a Westerner?" "Do the uniforms fit well?" "What do you sleep on?" You know, the stupid little stuff.

The response I always hear, and the best advice I ever received about this thing, was that the army is a game. Yes, it is real in that you are doing serious things with real weapons and there are lives at stake, but the day to day b.s. stuff you think of when you think of an army, the yelling and the rules and the demands, all that is a game.

What am I talking about? I'll be more specific.

We have a rule for nighttime called kav mita (קו מיטה), which really just means "bed line." The bed line is the footprint of the bed frame. So, you have a bunk bed, right? The rectangular frame is off the ground, which leaves some room to put stuff underneath the bed. Everything has to be 100% under the bed, with nothing sticking out and violating the kav mita. Basically, everything has to be out of sight, with no gear or anything in the way during the night.

We violated the kav mita a couple times in my room of 10 guys, and the violation was the heel of a shoe that was sticking out an inch, literally. The commander burst into the room unexpectedly about 5 minutes after lights out. Probably half the room was asleep, and I heard three guys actually snoring already. So, what was the punishment? We had to jump out of bed and do matsav shtayim right there.

That's one of those game things. Do you think he really cares if the heel of one shoe is an inch over kav mita? Please. It's a game!

So, I'm writing this post because the other night we had our sichat M"M (שיחת מ"מ), or "platoon commander discussion." Among other things, we had to each individually stand up and tell the commander what 'warnings' we we had received throughout the week. It's kinda embarrassing if you take it seriously, but these events are the times that I just smile. Think about it...

The point of the "discussion" is for 20-year-old commanders to instill discipline in 18-year-old new recruits. I'm 24. Moreover, I received two warnings this week (with subsequent physical punishment, of course) for being 30 seconds late to formation. That's not an exaggeration. So, as you can see, I've learned to just let it slide. I try my best, I am very serious, but when I inevitably don't do everything perfectly I can only sit back and remember these are kids and this is a game.

The sichat M"M wasn't a total waste, however. It's usually good for a laugh, as some of the guys have done some really stupid things. You've got the usual talking back to a commander, being late, and bad attitude warnings. But then you have the really good stuff, the golden moments that make a really tough day much lighter. Not that I like to laugh at the suffering of others, but... ok, yes, I'm human, sometimes I laugh at others.

A really funny guy from France had his turn about 20 minutes after mine (these things take forever), so by the time he stood up with his hands behind his back and at attention I had let my mind drift off. I was pulled back when I heard how serious he sounded.

"Eh, Platoon Commander, I received a warning the other day because I ... I fell asleep during guard duty." Dead serious.

I was looking over my shoulder at him, not really thinking about anything in particular but just listening to him. When he said that he fell asleep during guard duty I lost it. I let a laugh out that was only suppressed in that my head was turned in a way that my neck was constrained so it wasn't a full-throated laugh. Otherwise, it would have been disastrous. I laughed very quickly once, my heart dropped instantly, and then I hastily tried to cover it up with fake coughs. I figured I was busted. I thought I was going to have another warning, which would mean I would have to wait an hour after everyone else leaves for the weekend before I got my chance. I figured I was done for.

I turned back around and looked at the tiled floor for a few seconds, and then I lifted just my eyes to see who was glaring at me. Six commanders sat up front in a row, so I was sure at least one was waiting to see what I had to say for myself.

"What, is this funny?," is the common question when someone laughs at the stupidity of another.

Luckily not even one commander was looking at me. I had a hard time controlling myself after that, though. You know the feeling when you're in a place where you're not supposed to laugh but someone else is laughing with you about something stupid and you get in trouble and you and the other person are trying SO SO SO hard not to laugh but then you look at each other or think about it or smile and then you uncontrollably laugh together and feed off each other's laughter and you're so totally unable to stop? Well, that was what I feared. That was how I felt. If one other person would have made eye contact with me and smiled or if I heard someone laugh even a little, well... I'd have been a goner.

I really lucked out. After the feeling passed I realized just how exhausted I am. It was funny, and yes it was a "you had to have been there" moment, but it wasn't that funny.

So, if there are any guys out there looking to join the Israeli army and want good advice, just remember this: It's all a game in order to instill discipline! Sometimes you have to laugh, just don't do it when it'll get you in trouble.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Final And Actual Induction

Today I am being inducted into my actual unit. I have been in a 3-week pre-unit course for immigrants. Everyone here is fluent in Hebrew (except me, really), so it's really a course to get mentally and physically prepared. It's been great for me because my Hebrew comprehension has really gone up, at least in understanding what the hell is being said. I still seem to not know the language when I am being told to do something. But anyway, the course is over and today I am joining my real unit, with real Israelis, and real consequences.

I have hesitated in saying which unit I've been gunning for for a couple of reasons:

1) Everyone wants this unit.
2) It's a really prestigious unit at the moment (see #1).
3) It's an intense combat unit.
4) Who says they'll want me?

So, as you read this I am either very happy or very unhappy. My heart's been set on this particular unit for so long I can't even imagine being anywhere else. What makes it worse is that a buddy of mine did the exact same thing as me, the pre-course at Micvhe Alon for 3 weeks, and then the army for 2 years. He signed up for 2 years and said "give me this unit because I moved to Israel just to serve there" just like I did, and he got a guarantee for it right away. I did not get that guarantee on the spot, though the CO's eyes were saying "don't worry."

I really just don't know what else I would do. I know everything will work out, but man, I already went through this with trying to get into certain colleges! I'll let you know what happens.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Army Boots

When I first stepped into the Brill army boots I was pretty happy. I thought they were very comfortable. The padding was fairly thick, the shoe grips your foot, and it just feels like a solid shoe. After a couple weeks, however, I realized that my obscenely flat feet were not going to be happy. I couldn't figure it out at first, but my right shoe was falling apart. The inside was covered in some strange blue gunk, a sticky foam material that was all over my socks.

After a couple days when I finally got home and had time to look at it more closely I realized that it was the actual pad that fell apart. It was just the right shoe. So I put on the other pair of boots, hoping that it was a defective pad. Unfortunately for me, that is not the case. The pads are just being ripped apart by my flat feet, which makes no sense to me because I naturally step downwards instead of an arched person's foot rolling and pulling the inside of the pad, but that's the way it is.

So, I had a moment of genius on Shabbat. Like an epiphany it dawned on me that I could just put the pad from my very comfortable running shoes into the boot, right overtop the original pad, which I had taped up. Genius.

It's amazing how terribly your mind works when you get up at or before 5am every morning. Oh, and people are still asking me what size shoe I wear. My commander has taken about 5 pictures of my boots, including one of his foot next to mine. Here's my shoe next to a regular sized paper towel roll so you can get some feel for just how large my foot is (15 in America).

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Shooting Drills

Being from Virginia, and rural Shenandoah Valley at that, I grew up around guns. Forests surround my parents' house, so we have some property and a safe area on which to shoot. We have a respectable number of firearms, and I myself own a couple. I remember being a very small kid, sitting on my dad's lap, and shooting his .22 with him. That may sound like a very strange thing, and to some of you it may even sound scary and terrible, but the culture in rural and small town America embraces the Second Amendment. We aren't bad people. We aren't militant. We aren't hicks.

We just enjoy the challenge and thrill of trying to hit a tiny black dot from a few hundred yards away with a piece of metal the size of an elongated pea. Have you ever been in a bar and seen a dartboard? Yes, probably. And what was your reaction when you and your friends saw that no one was playing darts? You got excited and went over there and tried to get bull's-eye, didn't you? Shooting is darts on steroids.

So, anyway, I have a familiarity with guns that is generally unheard of among Jews. Knowing that fact and not wanting to appear strange, and also not wanting to be that know-it-all guy, I didn't tell anyone in my platoon about that part of my past. I just wanted to go to the shooting drills like everyone else: nervous.

And I was. We got our guns on Monday the 27th. We carried the long, cumbersome M16A1 around for an entire week with no ammunition, just the gun. Eating with it on our lap. Sleeping with it under our head. Standing in formation with it pointing forward, five fingers on the pistol grip. It never left our side, but we had never even loaded a single round into it. The suspense was almost unbearable.

On Monday the 3rd, exactly one week after getting the assault rifle, they put us on a bus headed for some other base. The night before in misdar samal (the pre-sleep lineup) our officer informed us that we would be taking a little trip to another base's shooting range. "There will be a lot of girls there," he said, "so you can look, but don't touch. Remember, they are in the same army as you." Nice.

I sat on the left side of the bus, which happened to be the east side. It was nearly noon, and by that time I had been awake for seven hours or more. Easily. I fell asleep quickly, but then woke in a sweat. The sun was beating down on me, and I was hardly able to breathe under the heavy cotton of my ill-fitting temporary uniform. I couldn't fall back asleep, and I began to daydream about the coming experience.

Considering that I am the worst Hebrew speaker in my group I was anxious to get to the shooting part and leave the talking bit behind. Would I know the commands they were going to give? Would I understand when they say 'STOP SHOOTING,' or 'WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!'

Before long we were at the base and unloading the bus. We had our combat vests, helmets, and of course our M16s. After a quick lunch of army rations we were instructed to take three 30-round magazines and put five rounds only into just one. I was feeling better once we had gotten closer to actually shooting, finally getting my hands on some ammunition and making the familiar psychological connection between the M16 (AR-15) and 5.56 ammunition. Associations, I guess. But then I looked around me...

Children! No, not 5 year olds, but 18-year-old boys who had never even held a gun before! No offense to anyone out there that has never held a gun, but it's just humorous to me to see someone so obviously out of their range of experiences. Dropped mags, unnecessary pulling of the charging handle (loader), inappropriately pulled triggers. You know, funny and safe.

The first group to shoot in the massive square concrete indoor range was lined up in two straight lines opposite the entrance. The commander of the platoon brought them inside, and after about five minutes the first hesitant shots rung out. BANG!----BANG!--------BANG! And then all hell broke loose. There were only 12 guys in there, each with just five rounds, but it sounded like some of them had accidentally packed their mags up. It was pretty awesome, and at the same time I felt an eerie pride. Though they know nothing and would fail miserably in a war situation, these are Jewish soldiers in the making.

Finally, my commander called out my squad, and we lined up at the door with our helmets and vests on. Would I understand what they were saying to me? I stood in line with the jitters, not because of the fully automatic rifle at my side, but rather from the prospect of being instructed in Hebrew to do something with the gun that I wouldn't understand. When I don't have a killing device in my hands I don't feel so bad if I don't understand. The stakes were higher.

The platoon commander threw open the dented metal door, his hearing protection headphones stretched across his waist, and violently waved us in.

"Come! Stand in a chet," the standard U-formation. "Hurry up!"

I ran into place and stood straight, tall, and still, but my eyes were searching to see what an Israeli military shooting range is like. Predictably, it's the same thing as an American civilian shooting range, and I suspect it's probably the same thing in China, Peru, New Zealand, Nigeria, and Vanuatu. We were standing on a raised concrete floor, which dropped off onto a dirt and sand ground about a foot down. The walls were concrete where we stood, but then it quickly turned into wood paneling for sound insulation about 10 yards down range. In fact, that is the most wood I've ever seen in Israel in one place. Honestly.

The ceiling was concrete slabs that were at 45 degree angles to the ground, with 5 foot gaps of open-sky in-between. A sand wall was built up against the end of the range 55 meters away. The Mediterranean sun slipped in through the gaps and tossed light across the targets 25 meters down range. Full-body cardboard men stood with guns raised ready to kill, and we stood in attention, some of us more nervous than others.

"Do you have any clue what you're holding? Do you realize that you can kill a man with that thing? I will tell you what to do, and you will do exactly what I tell you. Clear?"

"Yes, Platoon Commander!"

"Ok, here's how this is going to work. Does everyone have five rounds in one magazine?"

"Yes, Platoon Commander!"

"Good. Does everyone know the commands and protocol that we went over?"

"Yes, Platoon Commander!," with me shouting less intensely than others.

"Good. There are 12 soldiers here? Yes. Ok, you will line up directly across from a target. You will only, and I say only, shoot at your own target directly across from you. You will load your gun when I tell you to, and you will enter the prone or laying position when I tell you. While you are lowering yourself into the prone position you will be careful to keep your rifle pointed down field to your target - directly across from you. Clear?"

"Yes, Platoon Commander!"

"Good. Now, what else... Any questions?"

"Platoon Commander, what-"

"Listen, you will shoot your five rounds when I tell you to begin, and if your rifle jams in one of the three positions we discussed you will raise your foot, understood?"

"Yes, Platoon Commander!"

"You will not look backwards, you will not look to your side. When you finish you will cross your legs. If you have a problem, if the gun jams, if the gun does not fire, you will raise your foot and we will see you. We discussed the three jammed positions in detail, do you know them?"

"Yes, Platoon Commander!"

"Good. Line up directly across from a target."

We hustled to the free spots with our M16 in one hand and the nearly empty mag in the other. I found myself nearly in the corner in the far left end with my friend Isaac next to me. I lined up directly across from the menacing cardboard soldier, who by the way was totally a white man and not Arab, in case you were wondering, and looked down the line to see if I was messing anything up. So far, so good.

The Platoon Commander made his way down the line, pointing at the target we each were to shoot. After he finished his round he stepped back to the middle, put on his headphones, and began the final preparations.

"Repeat after me! Ear plugs on!"

"Ear plugs on!," we yelled.

"Gun at sixty degrees!"

"Gun at sixty degrees!," raising my gun to sixty degrees with the butt of the rifle firmly planted in my shoulder, but the words stumbling indistinctly out of my mouth.

"ארלצ עשקםפך בגע כאדס safety הבקיון!!!"

Damnit. That was going to happen eventually, but at least I caught the most important word. I checked to make sure the gun was in safe.

"נבדגכ דליל שדגכ זסבה enter the magazine דגכמהתצל לחי אט!!!"

Crap. I looked down the line to make sure everything was as I understood it, but all I saw was a line of 11 other guys who looked like they were just instructed to destroy an original Picasso. Did he say that? Am I actually going to put the bullets into the gun? Yeah, he said that, right? Ok...

And so I shoved the mag into the rifle, giving the bottom a good slap to make sure it clicked into place. Old memories. Old associations. Good.

"Pull the loading handle!"

"Pull the loading handle!" Here we go. Locked and loaded.

"דגר הכעיט עמידה נארקיחך גרא!"

Bad. What did he say? I didn't catch a word. Without breaking the rule of looking sideways, I nearly popped my eyeball out of socket trying to look to the right to see what everyone else was doing. Apparently we were entering the laying position. We had practiced how to enter the position 100 times, so I gripped the gun in my right hand and put my left palm on the concrete floor. Kicking my legs out into a pushup position I quickly lowered myself with the single hand, gun pointed directly across from the target.

"On my command you will shoot your entire clip, aiming for the sheet of paper that is taped on the helmet of the enemy. Try to hit the black half-circle in the middle. Ok... FIRE FIRE FIRE!!!"

I looked down the line, blatantly breaking the no looking rule. Did he say that? Fire? I mean, I know what he said, but do I actually do it?


Ok. That's a good enough clue. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, loosened my grip on the handle, and then exhaled. I opened my eyes. Deep breath. Exhale. Virginia.

I'm back in Virginia. I am alone with my own M16 (AR-15) at my parents' house in the woods, a line of Miller High Life cans are lined up 100 yards down the line in the clearing of the forest. A crow screams in the distance. Leaves fall next to me and rest on the waving grass. An ant climbs onto my hand. I can see the lady on the moon on the can, and I aim just below her. Quiet. BANG!

Breathe. Exhale. BANG!

Breathe. Exhale. BANG! BANG! BANG!

I cross my legs, drop the clip, and look down the line. Only a few guys have crossed their legs, and most of them awkwardly try to hold their weight on their elbows as the position demands and aim the large weapon. The commander is constantly helping guys with their guns.

I wait. I look at my friend next to me. He is just staring down the line at the advancing soldier. I wonder how he did.

"Is there anyone who hasn't finished their clip?," the commander shouts.

"Is there anyone who hasn't finished their clip?," we repeat.

"Is there anyone like this?"

"Is there anyone like this?"

A guy on the furthest end of the range raises his foot, and the commander gives him permission to finish his clip. BANG!----BANG!---------BANG!

Finally we were ready to stand, and we went through the post-shooting safety check. Everything was ok.

"Run down to your target and find where you hit!," the commander barked.

I warily approached the cardboard soldier and the targeting paper taped across his European face. Five little holes in a less than one inch square. Very very good. As good as it gets. Looking at the guys next to me with holes all across the paper, and by no means five holes on the paper at all, I didn't feel so bad about not understanding all the commands. I got the important part right.

The commander made his way down the line, checking with each soldier to see where he shot, and then writing on his hand the numbers for another commander to use to adjust the sights for the gun. He reached me, second to last, and just kind of stood there looking at the tight grouping.

After a few seconds he asked, "Where did you learn to shoot?"

"I'm from Virginia," I replied. "All we do is shoot."

We shot a couple more times that day, including a drill with 9 rounds where we shot in the standing position, crouched position, and laying position all as fast as we could shoot. The commander went through the pre-shooting drill, we loaded the weapons, and then out of nowhere he shouted...


We all just kind of looked around at each other, looked at him, and then looked down field. Does that mean shoot?

I was the first one to pull the trigger, demolishing the terrorist's face, then his belly from the crouching position, and then I threw myself on the ground and took out his legs. Again a perfect grouping on each segment of his body.

Damn, we are so green though. Even I, with all my experience with this very gun, am too timid to really pull the trigger when I know I should. I think that's mostly a hesitation in my Hebrew, and not a hesitation in recognizing when to defend myself. That, I hope, is instinctual for even those with no experience. Then again, we've been in the army for less than a month.