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?
BANG! BANG! BANG!
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.