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.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Scrapes And Bruises From Training

We were out in the "shetach" a few days ago, which essentially means we were crawling on the ground and doing crazy physical stuff on rocky Israeli soil. You get injured like that. I don't even have to say anything here. I think the pictures speak for themselves. By the way, none of these body parts are mine - I gave blood that day so I only had to crawl once, and my scrapes and bruises were minimal (though I've got some good ones!).

There are tons more of bruises and cuts, especially on the back of everyone's hands and sliced up knees, but I just didn't have time to snap them all. Either way, I think everyone with this kind of injury feels damn good right now. You're supposed to get those things in the army!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Vietnam In Israel

We received our guns a few Mondays ago. I know it sounds all cool and what not, and every new soldier wants to get his gun and get on with soldiering, but I can tell you from just a short experience that having a big M16 to carry with you at all times is more of a bane than anything. And mind you, I've owned and shot guns my entire life, including the M16 (AR-15), which I've owned since I was 17. There's a big difference between army life and a civilian sportsman hobby.

So, we received our guns on the 27th, which had been a very rainy week. We had to sign a sheet or two, acknowledging our responsibility over the weapon, and then we were taken to learn how to perform a safety check. To be honest, I don't trust half the guys here with their guns, so I was just trying to stay out of everyone's way. Thankfully they hadn't trusted ammunition to us yet.

After the safety check we were sent to our dorm to get our combat vests, jackets, and sleeping blankets. Under the sparking clouds we ran to the rooms, struggled to throw on the awkward backpack/vests from the mid 90's, vests that were once used in real combat in scary places but now relegated to training courses, and finally ran out to our formation. Guns banging painfully against backs, hips, any sensitive area really - the guys just didn't know how to hold the things.

We set out on a hike to the shooting range, a drizzle coating our puffy olive jackets. The company was divided into two lines on either side of the road, commanders in front, back, and walking along the space between the two rows. The clouds grew thicker and thicker, the lightening and thunder rocked the sky, and the rain came harder and harder with each step.

I looked round to see our commander talk to his superior, who was on the phone with presumably his superior, and then we were ordered to stop. The commanders disappeared. The rain was coming in buckets by now. I looked round and saw the fresh recruits pulling their collars up, heads hunched down, guns resting awkwardly around their necks. We were hunkering down to a miserable day.

The commanders reappeared from the back of the line, looking not quite sure of the day's plans anymore, but nonetheless we continued. The dirt road soon turned to mud, chunky red clay that splashed against the inside of our legs and matted against the bottom of our boots and made wings of dirt on the sides. But we trudged on.

Our two single file lines continued. My head was lowered to guard against the penetrating rain and wind. I looked up to investigate my surroundings, and at that point the strangest and most preposterous feeling of deja vu engulfed me. The rain was coming in big, fat beads. It beat against our army greens. It plopped off our bucket hats. It came from the side. It came from the ground. It came from all directions.

Our long M16s bounced against our chests and stomachs. We were on patrol, two single file lines on opposite sides of a road. Walking in silence. Walking through a forest. Cows and farmland to our left. Trees and mountains to our right. The radio man up ahead with the commander, following close by.

We were in Vietnam. We were trudging through the soaking fat rain to attack a Viet Cong outpost deep in the Mekong Delta. We were tracking Charlie.

Though I smiled at the silly Vietnam deja vu, I was not a happy camper in the rain. I felt like a real soldier, though we got rained out and were not able to shoot our guns. Only half the group got to, and of course mine did not. So, there we sat in a miserable hut, miserably soaking wet, wind whipping against our shivering bodies. I felt tough, I felt really cool walking in the rain like a real man, but in all honesty I knew how green I was. I hadn't even shot my gun yet. I had an empty magazine. And when would we finally shoot the thing?

The quote of the day? "I just need some gummy worms." It's funny what people think of when they're miserably soaking wet from head to toe with a useless piece of metal weighing them down.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Army Beret - Shaving The Kumta

The easiest way to spot a greenhorn is an army green beret (kumta). You receive your first beret when you are inducted, and then you're sent to your actual unit, and then later on from the unit you receive that division's specific color beret. So, the paratroopers have red berets. Tanks have black berets. Golani, the unit I want, gets a brown beret. But, as I said, before you get the specific beret for your brigade (חטיבה), you are stuck at the bottom of the totem pole with the stock green Israeli Army beret.

The second way to spot a new soldier by their beret is whether or not it is shaved. Yes, you read that correctly. You actually shave your kumta. The unshaven kumta is, as you can see in the above picture, large, inflexible, and puffy. It sits on your shoulder like a dead cat, as they say in Hebrew (חתול מת). The dead cat is a dead giveaway that you have absolutely no standing in the army. It's only slightly more embarrassing than not having any pins or unit identification or anything on your uniform.

Some people put Ax Body Spray on the kumta and light it on fire very briefly to burn some fluff off. I put it in a cup in the freezer over night to get the leather band that fits around your head to be more flexible.

It's really pretty comical to me. Ah, the joys of being a green soldier. Here's the fluff that I shaved off, and I could have shaved even more.

And the finished product - not quite as 'green' as before:

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Free Time In The Israeli Army? - ת''ש

Since I've had this past Shabbat off, and I'm back in Jerusalem around my friends, everyone has asked me what the most difficult part of the army has been. Is it the running? Is it the pushups? Is it the Hebrew? Is it the punishment? Is it being treated like property, less than human, less than your own man? Is it the yelling? Is it the fear of combat, the threat of what an army entails? What sucks the most about being a soldier in the Israeli Army?

I don't know how it is in other armies, and I suspect during basic training/boot camp it is very similar worldwide, but for me, an independent, mature (kind of), self-motivated young man, the by and far hardest bit is the lack of free time. You have just about zero time to do what you want, and quite literally zero time to yourself.

I guess you could say that your free time is when you're in the toilet, but that would be a stretch considering there are 50 guys using 2 of them. Literally. I mean, even in the shower you are not alone, and moreover there is always a line waiting for you to finish. Nothing is ever at your own pace. You are never physically alone, except from when you lock the door to the toilet - and of course that's no bubble either, nor is it a place to wile away the hours.

No, there is almost no free time in the army. But, we do get what is called TASH (ת''ש), which is yet another acronym. The full Hebrew is תנאי שרות, meaning "conditions of service." These conditions are that they have to give you some time at the end of the night before you go to bed to take care of various niceties. You shave, shower, brush your boots, organize your bag, clean your room, et cetera.

That is a lot to handle in about an hour, an hour and a half at most. Remember, you're not just doing these things in the confines and efficient space of your house. You are doing this in a tiny room with 10 other guys, waiting on 5 shower stalls, 2 toilets, and 5 sinks along with 50 other guys doing the same thing. Add to that the massive amount of gear we each have, keeping our gun with us at all times, and the need to keep everything compartmentalized and organized so we can avoid the "FIVE MINUTES OUT FRONT IN UNIFORM, SHAVED, BOOTS POLISHED, OR YOU'RE RUNNING ALL NIGHT" threat, well, there never seems to be enough time.

Can you imagine what the bathroom floor must be like? Well, here is an idea - and this is relatively clean.

Needless to say, there isn't much time to use your phone or write notes for this blog. Honestly, there isn't much time to be a human.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

My 24th Birthday in the Israeli Army

My birthday was the 26th of October, and I was inducted into the Israeli Army on the 22nd. That was one hell of a birthday present. I've always wanted to be a soldier, especially for the only army in the world that I think is 100% imperative for the existence of the state it serves. So, ideologically I didn't need cake or toys or songs.

On the other hand, it was really tough spending your birthday getting yelled at.

On the 27th, a day after my birthday, my mem"mem (the commander of half the group of 100 soldiers in my course) pulled me aside and asked me why I didn't tell anyone that it was my birthday.

"Uh, I didn't want to get singled out..."

"Good idea," he said.

They did give me a break, however, and didn't put me on guard duty (shmira) during the middle of the night. On the upper left it says "mazaal tov to Daniel." On the right notice the times you have to do guard duty. The second night I had guard duty at 4:20 am.

The best present in the army is sleep, and I got exactly what I wanted this year!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

What Unit Am I Actually In Right Now?

I realized that I forgot to actually say what I'm doing - I think.  Just a quick blurb here.  I am in a 3-week course for immigrants before we join our actual units.  I think we will be requesting our choices for units this week, but that's here-say.  So, the course is for immigrants, but everyone is fluent in Hebrew (except me, of course).  It's the army, it's boot camp-ish, but it's before your actual assignment.  Any questions, feel free to comment below.