Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pictures From Yom Tarbut - Culture Day

As promised here are some pictures from our final day of tironut in Jerusalem. We had a ceremony, some touring, and the torture for me of knowing that I live 10 minutes away. "JUST LET ME GO HOME!," I screamed inside. Anyway, enjoy:

Russian tourists taking our pictures.

Just a cool place in the Old City

And a cool Jewish cave in the middle of the Muslim Quarter

It was more of Yom Golani in Jerusalem than Yom Tarbut

At the Great Synagogue. I just thought this looked cool, all of
us surrounding these old Torah scrolls

At the Western Wall after the ceremony. "One Brigade, One Family.
Golani #1"

Your fearless blogger

Saturday, February 21, 2009

End Of Tironut - Basic Training

This past Thursday I finished tironut, which is basic training. It lasts for three months, and in actuality it’s about half of my training. After basic you have advanced training, and after that you have what’s called “kav,” literally meaning line. As far as I can tell, it means line of combat, as in training on the line. On-site training, if you will. By then you’re a real soldier, though, and you’re just getting some experience under your belt.

Either way, basic is about half of your training as far as my opinion goes. In kav you’re putting into practice what you learned in basic and advanced, so when people ask, I now say that I am “halfway done with training.” Maybe that’s speaking too soon, but if you went through all the discipline and belittlement of an army’s basic training program, you too would say anything to put all that behind you.

On Thursday we had a day of activities in Jerusalem, culminating in a ceremony at the Western Wall where our commanders took off our blue basic training identification tags from our shoulder epaulettes (see above pic – had to blank out Commander Sweetheart’s face). Finally finally finally we don't have those markers on our shoulders, screaming “HE’S A NOBODY!” I’m still a nobody in the army, but the most noticeable symbol of that is now gone. When I’m out in public with my uniform, I’m no longer the lowest of the low on the totem pole. I’m in advanced training...

Still, that’s worth very little. I’m just happy to be done with all the stupid stuff you have to do in basic that I never felt like putting in this blog. Stupid stuff like what it means to stand in attention. For example, your platoon is given ten seconds to get into a formation and receive the commanders.

“Nobody move, nobody move!” calls out the soldier standing out of formation in order to receive the commander. “OK... For the reception of the staff sergeant, the platoon, stretch to attention, 2, 3...”

“ATTENTION,” we yell.

Commander Crazy Eyes would stand in front of us and just look for an excuse to put us into the pushup position. “Peretz, did you move?”

“I shifted my weight from my left foot to my right...”

“Did you move?”

“Yes,” he would answer sheepishly.

“Three seconds, pushup position,” Crazy Eyes would call out.

And then if someone was slow in dropping down, he would punish the group as a whole. “Thanks to Elkias, diamond position with your hands,” he would demand. Do you know how hard it is to do diamond pushups with a combat vest on?

That’s just one example, a stupid little thing, of all the stupid little things you have to endure as a soldier in basic training. I know for a fact that it is much worse in the American army, and I’m not complaining, but still for a 24-year-old to be bossed around by 19 year olds, it’s just obnoxious sometimes. But I endured.

To buckle down to the matter at hand, the point of this post is something of an expression of regret. Though I’ve written many posts since I was drafted back in November into Golani, so many things have not been written. I mentioned before how I wished that I was a better comedy writer, and I say that because basic training was just so hilarious. I wrote a couple funny stories, like the one about the chocolate wafer bar incident, or the cardboard girlfriend incident, but honestly every single day something hilarious happened. Every single day I was laughing, we all were joking around about this or that, or the commanders had someone do something ridiculous that was done solely for the purpose of their entertainment.

How about the joker of the group who they constantly pick on? Could anyone help but crack up when they make him pretend to be a fencer with a wooden twig? He does it so seriously! Or how about when a commander once took off sprinting to the dining hall with us, but then his Golani beret fell on the ground, which is forbidden for us to touch since we haven’t earned ours yet, and so we all dropped down in the middle of the training base in our defense 360 degree combat maneuver in defense of the “fallen beret”? We laid on the ground and started yelling “FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE” while moving as a unit into the necessary position for protecting an injured soldier. I just can’t write that the way it happened. I just can’t convey how comical it was, and how many bystanders were dying with laughter.

And that is just touching on the funny stuff. What about all the serious stuff? What about how something very serious happened during the Gaza campaign involving someone’s relative? I can’t even say more than that. What about the guy that did something very serious to himself by accident and then had a disciplinary interview with the freaking battalion commander? I can’t even say more than that. I wouldn’t even write that stuff if I chose to write a book after the army, even though I’d have no fear of repercussions like I have with this blog.

I am expressing a degree of regret in that I am not able to fully convey all the amazing and wonderful and funny and terrible things I’ve experienced in only four months of the army. More than that, there are so many topics I just didn’t have the energy to touch on. Lately my energy level for being able to write has dropped severely, and just cranking out these words is difficult. As our training gets more intense, my dedication to this blog drops. That is regrettable, since I get so much out of writing.

What I’m trying to say is that I am so proud of myself for getting through basic training, both in terms of the training and in terms of keeping this blog. But, I also want to warn the audience that there may be a decrease in the frequency of posts in the near future. I don’t plan on it, but I just don’t know what will happen. We’re about to go live in the field for the majority of the next three months, another topic I haven’t discussed at all but that is so important to our training. All you do there is secretive stuff, like how to move in combat as a group, and obviously that can’t be included. I’m trying my best here, you know.

In conclusion, do you have any idea how relieved I am to be done with the high-level discipline crap? Finally I’m back to being a human being. Finally I’m going to be just doing soldiering stuff, a little bit of discipline, but mostly learning without all the “five minutes, switch into your work uniform... or else” kind of treatment. The training is about to become physically torturous, but at least you’re a human being.

I’m one step closer to my brown Golani Brigade beret, the culmination of the training done on base (basic-advanced). Three more months. Halfway.

Did I mention that I received the “shining example of the platoon” award? I can’t show you the certificate because it is ‘secret,’ considering it has certain names on it. But man... I’m doing it. That’s what I say. I’m doing it. I just hope I can write some of it.

-Stay tuned for some pics from our final day of tironut, which we spent in Jerusalem.
-(As of this publishing, I'm finished with a much needed 10 day break and made my way back to base tonight.)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Watch Cover - Slowly Slowly Slowly A Soldier

Due to a solid amount of procrastination, combined with the false assumption that I had already written this post, I'm about to talk about something a little bit dated. Nevertheless, it is still relevant and highly meaningful to me. Bear with me.

What you're looking at is a simple little piece of stretchable fabric, but stitched on in green and red is my brigade symbol, battalion symbol, and finally, my induction class date. This fabric is a watch cover. Its purpose is to hide any glinting from the sun while in the field, while in any type of situation necessitating secrecy. You put it around the band, and then when needed you pull it over the watch face. Very simple. Nothing to it.

But, what you can't even begin to understand unless you've gone through this stuff, is that finally I've received something to be worn at all times that declares that I am a member of Golani. Though I didn't write about it, I received the Golani shoulder tag a couple months ago (I can't believe that I never wrote about something so important to me). Even though the shoulder tag is the second most important part of the dress uniform, maybe the most important, the watch cover is the only thing you wear even in civilian clothes that shows your units.

Golani is known for a few things: disobedience, a Sephardi makeup, a lack of discipline, and most importantly, esprit de corps. So when you work for two months, as we did, with nothing to show for it, you start aching for some recognition.

You see, all the combat units, and probably many non-combat units, are decked out with their symbols. From watch covers to dogtag covers, to gun straps and t-shirts and sweatshirts, an IDF soldier is typically the proudest representative of any battalion and brigade known to man. Even if you're in artillery, an integral part of the army, it doesn't matter that everyone laughs at and disparages that branch of the service. You're still flying your colors for all to see.

And if you're in Golani... well, there just isn't any other unit in the army if you're in Golani. That's it. Here's the army to a Golanchik:

1) Golani
2) Your battalion within Golani (but really 12-Lightning is the best, the other two are defective)
3) Your company
4) Your platoon
5) Your squad
6) Whatever the fighter jet unit in the air force is called

That's what's important in the army, if you ask one of us. It doesn't matter if we've just been drafted four months previously, seen no combat, or even have the beret for the brigade (end of advanced training). Our elitist perception isn't even dependent on whether or not we have a single piece of our uniform proving that we're in Golani! The exclusive esprit de corps of my brigade begins on draft day, because if you're lucky enough to be selected (3 out of 4 guys going into infantry request Golani), you are granted instant pride. The very first day it is drilled into us over and over again that there is nothing but Golani. It's like being in Harvard, only important.

Everyone else is just holding us back. Can you see why it's so crucial, so meaningful to us when we finally earn something from our commanders, decided by the company commander himself? Despite all the ignobility of basic training, despite them telling us how we haven't done anything yet, how we aren't worthy, after all of that, they have deemed us worthy of displaying the symbols of our brigade. During basic they have to say things that aren't so pleasant. They can't really go around complimenting us.

But the biggest compliment they could ever possibly give, through words or actions, is to allow us to wear these parts of the uniform. After all, they too are in the same brigade and battalion, so when we are finally given a simple watch cover, it's as if we are being accepted into their family. Our family. And the most important part of the watch cover, or the dogtag cover, or whatever bit it happens to be, is your induction date. November '08, it says. "We've Made It," we read.

If you think I'm exaggerating or being overly dramatic, just go ahead and ask another Golanchik what he thinks. Pick any combat Golanchik off the street and say this to him: "The Paratroopers are better than Golani."

I hope you have your teeth afterwards!

(I'm honestly interested to know what's it like in the American military. Do they have things like this?)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Not Quite A Baseball...

Two weeks ago our platoon commander gathered us together and had us suit up in our vests and helmets. We lined up at the staff sergeant’s storage room and he called to two of the guys to grab a brown ammunition box. Also, we had flak jackets and goggles, a stretcher, radios, and even the water pack. In short, we were fully geared up.

As usual, they were telling us nothing. We didn’t know what was in the box, why we had flak jackets, and definitely not where we were going. We just started walking behind the commander, who was up front talking on the radio quietly, barely audible.

“Yeah, we’re heading there now,” he whispered to whoever was on the other end.

I learned a long time ago to just kind of go with the flow. Who was I to ask questions? Some of the guys tried to get some information from the staff sergeant, but he just shrugged them off. Finally we made it to the entrance to the base, which leads to a set of shooting ranges reserved for advanced training.

Instead, we left the base and went in the opposite direction. At the edge of a parking lot, bordering the hilly, grassy, rock cratered buffer between an Arab village and our base, the platoon commander told us to drop our gear. After unloading we stood in formation, fully confused on what the hell was going on.

“You’re currently classified a Rifleman 03. You’ve done some shooting, learned about various weapons, successfully performed field battle movements, and so on and so on. Today, however, you’re going to become an 05, the last classification before your final 07. This is mandatory, so if anyone is too scared to do it properly, you might as well request a transfer right now.”

By this point even my curiosity was through the roof. Within minutes, however, we all found out that the time had come to throw a live grenade. The previous week we learned all about the various hand grenades used by the army, from smoke grenades to frags, flashbangs to sonic blasters. We knew it was coming, and I’m not sure if there was one unexcited face in the crowd.

Our smiles were soon displaced with seriousness as the company commander, a demigod of sorts to us privates, marched up to our formation, radio in hand. The unknown receiver on the other end of the radio being revealed, and the gravity of the situation well established, we listened raptly as he informed us that this was not something we were doing for fun, but rather as a part of our new professions.

“You’re professional soldiers now, and professional soldiers throw grenades. You mess up, you’re dead. Remember that. Good luck.”

“Yes, Company Commander!,” we shouted. I think we actually meant it this time around.

A long story made short, the way the day went was actually pretty great for us. We had to wait for literally hours as one by one a guy ran out to the throwing range when instructed, after the guy before him finished. BOOM BOOM BOOM we heard all day, the smoke rising quickly from inside a blown-out hole in the ground. At first the explosions, a deep thud that resonates for a greater distance than you’d imagine, had us yelling in excitement. After a while, however... well, it was just old-hat. How strange is a normalized irregularity.

Eventually the squad commander told me to put on my helmet and grab a flak vest and head out to the sergeant. After getting there, the sergeant told me the way it was going to work. I was to wait until the guy before me threw his grenade, and after hearing the explosion I was to run to the throwing area.

At this point he opened the brown ammunition box we carried from his storage room and took out a single green hand grenade, just like what you see in the movies. The grenades sit in a Styrofoam crate just like eggs, circular and all. They look so peaceful all lined up and insulated, unmoving, unthreatening.

“Grab,” he said as he carelessly thrusted the grenade into my hand.

My heart probably skipped more than one beat, to be honest. To be clear, I wasn’t scared. It’s just kind of one of those situations you want to do perfectly, you know? I didn’t have much time to think about it all, however. Before I knew it, BOOM! The guy before me had thrown his, and it was my turn. Time to run! Real grenade in hand, gripped tightly as possibly! Is this safe?

“Hurry,” the sergeant instructed, and I ran the couple hundred meters to the concrete barrier where our platoon commander was standing.

“Daniel,” the platoon commander called out to me as I drew near, grenade in hand. “Are you nervous?”

Without even hesitating, or trying to be the typical tough-guy you have to be in an army, I responded naturally and honestly. “Hell yes!” I said. He only smiled. I took that as him actually saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be cool.’

Before the live throw you have to practice with a dummy device. Standing inside a concrete barrier the shape of a T, you pretend to throw a silver replica of the real thing. Simple enough. One strange drill you do, however, is what to do if a live grenade falls into the barrier. As you can expect, you run out of the barrier as fast as you can and jump on the ground. The platoon commander, a commissioned officer and your major authority on a day-to-day basis, then proceeds to jump on top of you. More than a few of the guys actually had bleeding cuts from how hard he fell on us. How strange it was for him to touch me. He’s just so detached from us physically...

Anyway, after only a simple practice of each scenario, he told me to grab the real thing and enter the barrier with the grenade positioned outside the concrete walls. “Already?,” I thought to myself, but of course I did as I was told. I was ready, but I just felt like something else was supposed to happen. It was all so surreal, if you can’t tell from my lackluster explanation.

I’m no Hemingway, and I feel more frustration than you know over this, but I just don’t have it in me to properly describe what it feels like to throw a grenade, to hold your life so tangibly in your hand. You pick up a live hand grenade, a simple tiny little thing no bigger than a baseball, and you just know what it can do to you. I looked down at the grenade and couldn’t help but see the terrible possibilities. Think about it like this:

We drive our cars every day, real devices of destruction, with reckless abandon and no thought of its dangers. Most people don’t get behind the wheel of a car and feel trepidation over putting the key in the ignition. How many ‘close calls’ have you had in your car and shrugged off after a minute? Now imagine having a ‘close call’ with a freaking hand grenade.

But just as quickly as I found myself entering the barricade and being instructed to pull the pin and throw the explosive, I found myself ducking down behind the barricade with the platoon commander huddled overtop me. In the Israeli army, commanders put their safety last.

And just like that, a bone-shattering thud rocked the concrete barrier. We waited a second, and then the commander pulled me to my feet.

“Let’s see...” he began, but was cut short by an acrid smoke that blew thickly in our faces. I couldn’t see a thing, and my throat, nose, and eyes burned from the deep orange-yellow smoke. Though I wanted to move out of the way, like a tough-guy I stood still, not making a sound.

“Very good. Run back to the sergeant.”

It was all just too bizarre, and they don’t give you even half a second to process any of this. It’s a run-throw-run kind of thing. But as I ran back I was still gripping the safety pin from the grenade, the ring that you have to pull in order to activate it, wondering where I was going to put it.

As you can see above, it found it’s long-term home on my keychain. What a normal place for something so not normal.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Squad/Platoon Role Assignments

I hope that picture doesn't scare anyone, or give the impression that I'm some fanatical gun loving freak. What you're looking at is my Tavor-21 rifle with a nice little addition to it. Instead of the standard (amazingly) red-dot scope with laser, the sights that everyone gets on their duty rifle, I now have a Trijicon ACOG scope. In short, I've got a better sighting system on my gun so I can see farther (further?).

What does all this gunspeak mean, you are asking. What's the big deal? Why is this a post? Well, a few weeks ago now we had our "shavua klia," or shooting week. All we did from sunup to sundown was shoot. We shot from all different distances and in different positions. After a full week of this we had a test to see who was the best of the group. Those that scored the highest on the test were to be selected as the platoon sharpshooters. In fact, the platoon and each squad has role assignments, like the grenade launcher, light machine gun, heavy machine gun, and so on, but the sharpshooter assignment is the only one that is selected through a test.

Because of the selectivity, being a sharpshooter is probably, maybe definitely, the most desired role. I, like everyone else, was aching to be selected, just wishing for the Trijicon zoomed scope. When the time for the test came I stood waiting for the word to begin, breathing deeply and slowly to steady myself. I relaxed my arms and hands, hoping to ease any shaking from adrenaline. Like a trained athlete I visualized the bullet flying from my barrel in a straight line into the center of the target. I was ready...

As you can see above, I succeeded. Maybe it's not fair, but I wrote back in November about my shooting experience. Go ahead and give this a read if you haven't before, at least if you want to catch up with my story. Anyway, I was so relieved when the commander called out our role assignments and I wasn't given the light machine gun, the Negev.

Honestly, and don't tell my commanders this, but half the reason I wanted to be a sharpshooter was because I didn't want something really heavy or cumbersome like the Negev or the M203 grenade launcher:

As sweet as the grenade launcher is, it just ruins the compact size of the Tavor. How can you take a sharp corner inside a house with that thing? How do you crawl on the ground with it sticking way out there ahead of you? No thanks. Secondly, being a sharpshooter has the obvious advantage that you can see further distances. Though it's still a few months off, when I was preparing for the sharpshooter test I told myself that when I'm in a combat situation I'm really going to want to be able to see what's happening 300 meters away, or whatever the distance may be. I have a feeling that when you're standing in an elevated guard tower, it's nice to just raise your gun and zero in on something suspicious far away.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. It's just exciting to have a bipod and special sights on my gun, special ammo, and the best role assignment. Oh, did I mention the $30,000 night vision scope we slap on there when the sun goes down?

I'm not saying yes or no, for obvious reasons, but maybe I happen
to have the same night vision scope they put on the greatest sniper
rifle known to man, the Barrett .50 cal

Monday, February 9, 2009

Death Knells Of Basic Training Discipline

Being that we have three days left in basic training, literally, I have noticed a vast increase in the amount of silliness coming from the commanders recently. During just about every non-serious thing we do it seems that they are messing with us somehow, making us do ridiculous things, and generally taking advantage of their position of unmitigated power and unquestionable demands. I'm not saying they are abusing us. In fact, it's entirely the opposite.

For example, after a day starting at 5am and lasting until 10pm of working in the kitchen cleaning innumerable dishes, trays, floors, and preparing food for hundreds of hungry soldiers, we had to stand in formation while the commanders talked to us. After announcing our sergeant's presence and calling for attention (think "commander on deck!"), he began to open a brown cardboard box that was sitting on the table next to him.

"I know it sucked working in the kitchen all day," the sergeant commiserated uncharacteristically, "but you all worked hard. I'm not giving you a compliment. Just know that we noticed." After finishing, he began pulling out handfuls of chocolate wafer candy bars. Score.

The group sighed with relief, knowing that even after a full day with no breaks the commanders could easily make us go exercise. The last thing you want to do after mopping the same floor for 14 hours is go running at a pace you can barely, if at all, keep up with. We'll take candy bars over sprints any day.

Commander Yonni, a tiny guy with crazy eyes who despite his size you would never mess with, was standing off to the side. Sergeant Slaughter was readying to hand out the candy bars when Commander Yonni stepped in and grabbed them. His crazy eyes were particularly bulging with excitement.

"You think you worked hard? Huh?..." He paused to let it sink in that we might not be done just yet. "Huh?"

"Yes, Commander!," shouted a lanky guy up front.

"Maybe," Commander Yonni replied quietly. The sergeant smiled out of the side of his mouth as the commander began passing out the candy bars. "Listen closely. Everyone take one, ONE, and take it fully out of the wrapper. Put the wrapper in your pocket."

As we received the bars we followed the directions, taking the bar out and putting the wrapper away. The chocolate was quickly smearing our fingers, but all we wanted to do was wolf down the rare treat. I, however, couldn't help but wonder what he could possibly be scheming.

"Now," he said after everyone was ready, "take one end of the bar and put it in your mouth. One end between your front teeth, the rest of the bar sticking out. If anyone eats even one crumb... I don't even know what."

We did as we were told, everyone laughing nervously as much as possible with a candy bar hanging from our teeth.

"PUSH-UP POSITION!," tiny Commander Yonni shouted.

I dropped to the floor instantly, chocolate bar in place. We all were looking around at each other, giggling like little girls.

"LISTEN UP," the commander properly shouting now, "each up and each down is a mouse bite! What does that mean, you ask? Every time I tell you to go down, you go to the lower push-up position and take a tiny, A TINY BITE! UNDERSTOOD?!"

"Yephss, Cophamnder!," we shouted, or rather garbled loudly.









Fifteen push-ups later I had finished nearly half the bar, hardly able to continue because of the intense laughter none of us could hold back. The sergeant stood up from his seat and walked in front of us, still on the floor with candy in our mouths.

"Enjoying your treat for hard work?," he asked.

"Aphbsoluthly, Szerghent!"

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Memorable Moments In The IDF

Israelis have a very strange relationship with the Holocaust and all that German stuff. As I've written about before, you see survivors around every once in a while. A huge proportion of the population fled from Europe to settle here. Strangely enough, despite or maybe because of all this, Israelis make Holocaust jokes or say things in reference to the Holocaust when they aren't satisfied. For example, we got a real tiny breakfast consisting of two slices of bread and a tomato, and a guy said, "What, am I in Auschwitz or something?"

Anyway, that's not the quote I wanted to post. Maybe you had to be there, but we were on kitchen duty last month when Avichai (not his real name), a rather sloppy guy, was stopped by a rather strange commander.

"Avichai!," the commander yelled.

Avichai stopped dead in his tracks and turned around, replying timidly, "Yes, Commander..."

"Tuck in your shirt and straighten your uniform like an officer in the German army," he barked.

"...Yes, Commander."

Monday, February 2, 2009

Gift Bags For Lone Soldiers

Sorry for the silly video, but I got kinda bored and wanted to change up the blog a bit.

Lots of people like to hook up soldiers in the IDF with gifts, from donating money for pizza (thanks Laird's mom!), to buying cold weather clothes and other necessities. Sometimes these gifts are for combat soldiers in scary places, like current drives for the guys in Gaza. And sometimes they are directed to us lone soldiers, guys that don't get presents from their parents and relatives.

I recently got a gift bag for Chanukkah, and this is the video of what I received. I can't even tell you how awesome it is to get stuff like this.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

February Isn't Half Bad

If you'll forgive me I think I'll try out my new impulse purchase, a preposterously expensive Nokia E71 smartphone. I can do everything with it, from email to YouTube, and as we have here, even a little live blogging from the base.

February has come, and I can't even begin to tell you how excited I am. My 3 month long 'basic' training draws to a close in 2 weeks. Here's what my schedule looks like: Last week we were in the field, this Shabbat we were on base, we have a week of guard duty around base (easy), and then we go home for the weekend. Sunday we come back to base and then head back out to the field for a short week of intense combat maneuver training, which we've done many times before. Somewhere in there there is a grueling hike to signify our transition. And finally, we have a 'yom tarboot' (culture day) in Jerusalem, museums and talks, and then they'll release us out into the civilian world to do as we please for...gasp...10 days.

That's right, a 10 day vacation! Do you have any idea? I literally can't think of anything else right now.

Oh, and we throw grenades for the first time this week. I'm sure that'll be a post to come. February is looking up!