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.