Thursday, May 28, 2009

R&R For Israeli Infantry Units

"You're going home for the weekend to rest. Go out and have fun.
Drink a beer or two with your friends. Share stories. Eat too
much food. Look for girls. You should feel like kings."

Everyone seems to always ask me how much time I get off from the army. I really wanted to quote what my loquacious company commander once said before letting us go for a weekend, so I figured I'd just explain this part of an infantryman's service for some context.

First of all, your typical IDF soldier gets to go home a lot. Jobnikim, non-combat soldiers, who are a vast majority of the army, can have any manner of schedule allowing them to go home often. Here are some of the schedules that typify why combat soldiers sometimes hate jobnikim:

-Shavua Shavua ("Week week") - Someone that has shavua shavua is on base for a week, and then home for a week. That's their service. Week on, week off. Week on, week off. And so on.

-Chamshushim - I don't think there's a translation for this word, but it comes from Thursday in Hebrew. Essentially, you're on every week, no whole weeks off, but you get off just about every Thursday. So, you'd be on Sunday through Wednesday, and leave early-ish on Thursday.

-Yom Yomot - You go home every day like a nine to five job. And according to one of my friends that had this, he went home well before five many, many times. Often, even. Jerks.

Those are the basic on-off schedules for jobniks, with many others either putting them on base for much more or much less, depending sometimes on their financial or family/personal circumstances. I fully understand that not everyone can have the schedule of a combat soldier, who literally puts his life into the IDF's hands.

An IDF infantry soldier lives a one-dimensional life, and that dimension is the army. During basic training I got off tons of Shabbatot (weekends, let's say), but still closed plenty on base. Advanced training, which I'm finishing now, has found me on base much more for the weekends. However, at this point we're still getting to go home about half the weekends. You could say I'm on base for two weeks, off for a weekend, on for two weeks, and so on. Generally.

(Side Note: All this depends on your company commander, I think. Another battalion in my induction class closed 21 days, got 1.5 days off, and then came back to close 28. That's brutal. Right now they're closing another 21.)

I've been told that in the battalion, once you're finished with all your training, where I'm heading now, you do 17-4. That's 17 days on base, 4 days off. To know you're doing 17 straight is pretty rough, but 4 off sounds great! That's plenty of time to have a personal life, right? I'm really looking forward to it. I mean, they get their 17 days worth of work out of you, don't think otherwise for a second, but more than our current 1.5 days off constituting a "weekend" isn't anything to sneeze at.

But, you see, nothing is really set and determined in this army. For example, I'm writing this post at home because we were given a fluke weekend off. During Israel's independence day my company go to go home for three days of the week, but my platoon was sent up north to Tzomet Golani (Golani Junction) to do guard duty and perform the ceremonies at the Golani Brigade Museum there. You can imagine that we were jealous. If you think that soldiers value meaningful ceremonies over time off... you weren't a soldier before.

Anyway, we've been talking for the last month about whether or not they were going to let us off as a sort of compensation for closing that week. I had accepted the belief that we just got the short end of the stick, and that was that, but the rest of the guys kept up the hope. Lag B'Omer, a Jewish holiday, came and went, and we stayed on base. I was beginning to forget our inequity.

But then, this past week, we went up north to do advanced urban combat training. Shavuot, another Jewish holiday, was coming up on a Thursday, and then Shabbat comes in right afterwards to make it a nice three-day weekend. All the guys got so excited with the speculation that this would be the perfect payback. So much so that our platoon commander came marching right over, yelled for quiet, and then made it clear that he wasn't happy with all this talk of going home. That's weak, you know.

"If I hear anybody talk about Shavuot, I'm giving them Shabbat on base!"

They continued talking quietly about the matter all week, trying to forget how hot it was with frag jackets and combat vests on in the blazing sun as we ran from house to house, doing drill after drill. Through thorns and randomly placed barbed wire they continued the chatter that I thought was so worthless, never letting the possibility go.

Wednesday came, and by mid-afternoon we had finished our drills. After we had packed all the gear away in the convoy truck, we threw our personal gear onto the bus and took our seats ready for the peaceful two-hour ride back to base. All of a sudden the staff sergeant burst into the front entrance and screamed for everyone to get off the bus, twenty seconds or else!

The platoon commander walked aggressively over to us, standing before our U-shaped formation. "Everyone, matsav shtayim (pushup position). NOW."

We dropped down to the dusty ground for the first time, as I thought at the moment, for probably a month. This is basic training-style punishment. I didn't have a clue what we did.

"Who didn't understand what I said?" I didn't, and thought about asking what the hell he was talking about. "The next person to talk about Shavuot, I said, would get Shabbat. Now, every time I say a word, you go down and up, one pushup. Repeat after me: WE."

"WE!" Down, up.


"WON'T!" Down, up.


"ASK!" Down, up.


"ABOUT!" Down, up.


"SHAVUOT" Down, up.


"BECAUSE!" Down, up.


"TOMORROW!" Down, up, but at this point we all were looking around smiling.

"We're going home for the holiday!"

Everyone jumped from the pushup position to about ten feet in the air with excitement. All the commanders were standing on the side, huge smiles on their faces, and not just because of our happiness. They have girlfriends and families too, you know. The atmosphere was the lightest I'd ever seen in my 7 months of service, all for a three-day break. We still had tons of work to do to get ready to leave, but no one cared. We smiled through it all.

So, to answer the question of how much time an IDF infantryman gets off: not enough!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Almost There

This is just a little short excuse of a post to tell you two things:

A) Sorry for a coming lack of posts in the next two weeks;

B) It's because this is the hardest month in an infantryman's training.

That being the case, I haven't had the time or the energy to write any new posts. Also, I'm getting off much less, so I just don't have the computer time to physically write. I have posts in my head, don't get me wrong, but I am just plain exhausted. This month has consisted and consists of the worst of the worst, a veritable hell-month. Here's the schedule.

1) "Platoon War Week" - A week of non-stop movement, fully geared up, helmet on for 23 hours a day, drill after drill after drill, two hours of sleep here and there, on and on and on. About 80 kilometers of movement in three and a half days. (Finished)

2) "Beret Masa Preparation" - The second to last masa, the last being the one where you earn the coveted brown beret of the Golani Brigade. This preparatory masa was 38 kilometers. At the end of every masa, you take out the stretchers, load them up (at first with people, now with many sand bags), and continue on. We started way back when doing 1k, then 2, on and on until this masa, which was 10k. For the last 4 or 5 of those kilometers, however, we climbed a mountain. It was literally so steep that you had to have two guys up front pulling the arms of the guys under the stretcher, and at least two behind pushing them. It was so hard for me, so awkward, and I was so exhausted pushing and pulling, that I just grabbed one of the heavy sandbags and threw it on my back, trudging up in that manner for a solid couple kilometers. (Finished)

3) "Tarpal" - Company-wide battle movements. This is the culmination of half a year of training in how to move in battle, starting at doing it alone, and ending here. This honestly is the most important thing, besides urban combat, that you learn. It also sucked, physically, considering you're charging mountains. (Finished)

4) Advanced urban combat training. Self explanatory, no? (This week)

5) Company War Week - The hardest thing an infantry soldier will ever do in training. It's like the platoon war week, except that you go about 120 kilometers, and of course it's company-wide, making it all the more complicated. (Next week)

6) "Masa Kumta" - Beret masa. (First week of June)


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Swapping War Stories

(Knowing that I wasn't even going to have a post this week, I typed this up on my phone and am posting it here. I hope it's satisfactory enough. The event itself was extremely impacting.)

Today a former company commander in my battalion came to tell us about the Second Lebanon War. My company commander was a platoon commander of his at the time. He's currently studying in university, and then he's going to return to a prestigious assignment in the army. Officers often do this.

He started talking and was telling a story of his company going to capture a village in south Lebanon. I looked at my comp. commander, who was sitting on the ground with the rest of us. His face was illuminated with no small amount of respect and reverance. Here was his old commander that led him into battle, a very dimunitive guy, and my beefy comp. commander looked mesmerized! It was hard to believe, at least until I heard the story of the battle.

I guess I can't really write any of this, for one because I'm no war journalist, and secondly because you really can only hear it from the guy who lived it.

In short, it was a story of relentless gunfire and confusion. Being pinned down and using countless smoke grenades to move just meters. Numerous RPG attacks from Hizbullah, and combat helicopter strikes on our part. Observations on the unbelievable speed of passing time in combat. And even Fear and the loss of a friend. This last topic was terrible, and he told the story indepth with misty eyes. Can you imagine?

The craziest thing he said? While approaching a house, in crouching position, he heard an airy wsssh over his head and to his right. An RPG went right over his head, and another almost hit the guy's leg next to him. He turned around and watched them explode. Minutes later, an RPG struck in between him and a commander as they were snaking along a house. It hit one meter from him. One meter. No injuries.

I sat there and couldn't help but absorb his knowing words:

"Guys, war is not what you see in movies. It's not like some Bruce Willis killing half the world."

He ended on a positive note, praising our comp. commander, praising what he heard of our hard work, and so on. He straight out talked for a couple minutes about how there aren't any better people than us in the land, because people aren't ready to give of themselves like Golanchikim. We live in a "me society," he claims. Golanchikim are still willing and desirous of the highest service.

I tried not to buy into the propaganda, but when you're faced with the reality of what he described, that reality being the same combat I could find myself in someday, you need some blind feeling of strength. You have to believe in yourself, even if it's of the corny, hyped-up variety.

What'd I take from this speech? War is scary, there is no glory in it, but if it's a necessary one, faith in your comrades, yourself, and your mission can sustain you.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sweating Bullets

It's so hot out right now that they keep giving us 20 minute breaks to cool down. I think I underestimated the Middle Eastern summer in uniform.

How do those guys in the infinitely hotter Iraqi desert do it?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Hanging Out At The Bank

During Pesach (Passover) our unit was sent into the West Bank to guard various Jewish settlements found near Arab towns and cities. I was stationed with a handful of guys on top of a mountain at a highly religious community built by students of the famous Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva. On the hill across from us was Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority.

It was an awesome week. To start off, a large army supply truck made its way up the road to the trailer we were stationed in and dropped off a new refrigerator, two microwaves (milk and meat based, for kosher reasons), and enough food to feed me alone for a couple months. Here's the fridge section, full of cheeses, yogurts, chocolate milk sacks, only a small selection of the fruits and vegetables we got by the crates, eggs, a whole chicken pre-cooked, packaged deli meats and sausages, hummus, and typical Israeli stuff like matbucha.

And here's the fridge, packed with pre-cooked breaded chicken breasts (schnitzelim), hamburger patties, and dozens of hot dogs.

Better than all the food was the lax commander assigned to our group. Upon arrival and after settling in, we had a meeting where he told us the plan for the week, which included running every day, practicing shooting positions and gun jams (which suck and are totally necessary and we do every day and always involve crawling on unhappy surfaces), educational lessons on the area, and of course the point of being there, guarding the village.

Well, we ended up running every day, but his pace was so ridiculously slow that I probably could have walked briskly and been at the front. Our educational lessons lasted about five minutes before we started asking all about his four months of guarding in Nablus, a topic he gets particularly animated about, since it's his lone 'combat' experience. We heard some great stories, so that was fun. And the shooting positions and gun jam practices, and the inevitable crawling? Not even for a second.

The week was full of a blasting iPod in a portable jukebox, jubilant storytelling, delicious food brought by the family of a kid who lives nearby, a day of outdoor grilling, sleeping to your heart's content (a major rarity these days), reading, drinking instant coffee, and of course, guard duty at all hours of the day and night. The guarding was great for me, mainly because this village, as I said, was on the top of a mountain. You could literally see from Gaza, to Tel Aviv and the shimmering sea, all the way up to Mount Carmel of Haifa in the north! All this from the eastern portion of the country.

It really was a breathtaking place, tragically quiet and peaceful and beautiful. The hills were green and gently sloping, the trees spread fully with the end of the rainy season, and the residents, despite their obvious ambivalence towards a group of mainly secular kid-soldiers, were kind enough and smiled if smiled at. I personally had a great time playing with the ineluctable profusion of young children.

And maybe the best part? I thoroughly destroyed the political ideology of my very smart, very well-educated, social elite, politically aspiring guarding buddy in the course of a two hour shift in the middle of the night. I threw around all the fancy theories and scholars I could remember from countless readings I hardly did for classes I begrudgingly attended. To my great surprise and joy, he slumped down with a defeated whimper, declaring that he was now utterly confused. Victory. William & Mary Government Department: 1.

Worst part of the week? See for yourself.

Bottled gefilte fish

But seriously though, this village is absolutely one of those outposts that the international community is condemning for its very existence. I won't make any political comments, but I can say that I felt quite strange feeling so peaceful in such a controversial place. From our village we could see the lay of the land: Arab village on one hill, Jewish village on the next. On one hand it doesn't make sense why this is a problem. These residents live quiet, religious lives inside their self-imposed gates, not interacting at all with neighboring Arab populations. On the other hand, I'm a realist and I know that the tension in the air isn't superficial. There is a history of violence going back nearly a hundred years between some of these very communities.

But when you're there, just enjoying a tranquil day looking out at the orange sun disappearing into the sparkling Mediterranean, all that senseless violence between neighbors seems too remote to consider. It's just not what's on your mind. Why should it be? It doesn't make sense there. There's tons of space, that I can say confidently. Nothing is moving and the only sound you hear is the muezzin five short times a day.

Honestly, I don't know if that community will be there for the long run, but those people are building real lives there. I enjoyed my stay...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

IDF Jackets

What is a simple fleece jacket? You can buy a North Face one for $150. Walk across the street into Old Navy and pick one up for $20. I remember early in high school when fleeces became really popular, and everyone had one, including me. In fact, I had a couple.

But among all the stupid little things you have to earn in the army, among which another couple posts are to be made, probably the most practical is your fleece. Especially prominent among infantry units, the IDF gets their soldiers double layered, green/gray outside, black inside, soft fleeces meant for winter. Typically there is a logo on the front breast of the brigade's symbol, battalion number and name, and the induction class.

For many months I hoped and prayed that our fleeces would be this awesome gray shade that the August 2008 guys from my battalion got. More so than praying for that gray, I silently begged fate to not give us the November 2007 bland dark olive green that some of our commanders had. I would've been happy as a pig in you know what to get anything with a Golani tree slapped on the front, but sometimes beggers find themselves choosing.

Fate, or more likely our RASAP (a combat commander doing logistics), made a compromise that suited me just fine. After our brutal 28k masa, our staff sergeant called us to the center of the barrack's plaza to receive our reward. I watched with open mouth as one by one the guys went in order and took in their hands yet another piece of integration into the IDF and State of Israel. Finally they too had a fleece with a combat unit's insignia on it, rising them just one notch above the dreaded status of young, or green.

Unfortunately, we didn't get the gray I was hoping for, but ours are a much lighter and easier on the eyes shade of green than those Nov '07 guys. Most importantly, our fleeces are thicker, fuller, fluffier, and less scraggly looking. The cuffs are broad and bulky. In short, they're not only prettier, but also warmer. As the guys would say, they've got more wahsach (pimped-out factor).

The downside is that the print on the front doesn't have our induction class month and year on it, as most of these things have. At this point, considering we are very 'young' in the army, it's actually something that many of the guys were happy about, not wanting to shout their undesired status every time they point on the fleece. But in two years when they're still wearing these...

By any account, I'm very happy with it all. And the cherry on the top? My staff sergeant was uncharacteristically nice to me when he handed me mine, assuring me three times that he got me one of the half a dozen or so extra larges available, despite there being other big guys in the company who would be getting larges. He even went so far as to show me the peel-away sticker tag, as if I didn't believe him.

Can't you see my joy in that picture?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Junk Food Helps

Lately I've been getting an inordinate amount of emails from guys in America looking to join the army before, during, or after college. I suppose they search the net to see what it's like in the IDF, find my blog, and want to ask their questions. I can understand that. If I would have found a blog like mine two years ago, I think the author would've had to end up blocking my emails! I would've driven him crazy.

And so, I've been finding myself lately thinking of all the advice I'd like to give to anyone considering the army. Sometimes I think I should tell them to not worry about getting in shape before joining, since you're going to be forced to push yourself past your limits anyway. But to counter that, I then realize that running and pushups and the like might help relieve the stress and anxiety inherent in such an adventure.

I think about advice for the language, the culture, the work ethic. I think about advice on shoe inserts, socks, and even what type of underwear is best for long marches. I mean, the last thing you want is a wedgie for a 25-mile march.

But then I realize that the only real advice I should give is the one bit that I have fully learned to take to heart myself. And here's the gem of wisdom I have to bestow:

On your time off, eat like a pig.

Three weeks ago I was stationed way up north, basically on the Israel-Lebanon border, and for some reason I found myself longing ravenously for all the food in the world except for the battle rations we were eating. For some reason, tuna and corn wasn't cutting it for me. Every second of guard duty was spent dreaming of hamburgers and soda and Red Bull and on and on, ad infinitum. I knew I was going home for the weekend, and I made a shopping list of what to get.

And true to form, I did just that. In a daze I got off the 440 bus from Tel Aviv into Jerusalem, went to my apartment, changed, and then headed straight for the grocery store. I decided to walk the 20 minute route to the supermarket in Talpiyot in order to really build up the anticipation of a great gorge fest. As I started walking I could feel a change come over me. My aches and pains, the stiffness of my legs and back all dissapeared. Slowly my cognizance was retreating. Images of glorious calories and smiling tastebuds crowded my vision. I was now on a mission, a blind mission, like some drunken traveler in need of shelter. I was now a zombie for comfort food.

This zombie plodded down Emek Refaim Street, and without intention or plan he found a Holy Bagel shop. He shoved a piece of paper across the counter and mumbled that he wanted two everything bagels with cream cheese. And then he realized he needed something to drink.

"XXXL ice coffees are only 14 shekels," the bagel guy said.

The bagel guy could just tell the affirmative answer by the drool running down the strange customer's chin and the blank, zombie stare in his bleary eyes. "Give me milkshake coffee," this zombie-soldier intimated. He sat outside and scarfed down the unplanned and unnecessary meal, enjoying the little slice of Americana while it lasted. Two bagels don't last too long around a zombie-soldier after two weeks of urban combat training, you know.

And he was on the move again. Nearing closer to the supermarket, he happened to spot a Burgers Bar. The mid-level chain hamburger joint is a favorite of a meat-deficient zombie, and he has often been known to dream of it at 4am while staring out at silent, green fields, shifting the weight of his combat vest, wondering when he'll be home again to eat such delicacies. Again without intention, the zombie stumbled into the shop and threw his arms on the counter.

"350 grams, burger!" he blurted.

"Ugh," the cute worker mumbled to her manager, "another Golanchik home for Shabbat."

Once the hamburger was ready, the zombie-soldier ambled with his tray to a nearby table. Ketchup squirted from the bottle of Heinz messily across the fries and onion rings ordered on the side. Only minutes later, the last bite was taken, hardly chewed, and swallowed nearly whole. The zombie soldier gazed blankly, saw no more food that he wanted at Burgers Bar, and rose ungracefully from his seat due to a slowly expanding belly. Forward to the SuperSol, he marched.

Not wanting the security guard to slow him down with a routine search for weapons, the zombie flashed his military ID and brushed past the pre-Shabbat line crowding the entrance to the large, fully-stocked grocery store. He hastily made his way past the exiting customers, past the cashiers and rows of shoppers waiting to unload carts. Without warning he stopped dead in his tracks. As if a bright beam of Heavenly light blinded him, he instinctively threw his forearm before his face to block the overwhelming radiance shining forth. The zombie squinted to dampen the inundating luminescence. Struggling to identify this unexpected glow, he screwed up his eyes and peered out through his fingers.

It was the holy grail itself. He stood before all the aisles of food known to man, packaged handsomely and sitting invitingly on neat shelves. It was as if they stretched as far as the eye could see, from floor to ceiling. His gaze fell from aisle to aisle, row to row, vainly trying to spy the end of this unreality. Only hours before he was in the army, longing for this moment like a man stranded on a desert island. And now he stands, a free man for a weekend, a zombie overcome with a desire to dine.

Ambling through the Garden of Eden, he plucked any treat or delicacy from the various trees that caught his eye. Frozen pizza, Doritos, sugary cereal, and sour gummy worms. Corn dogs, Pringles, Coca-Cola, and flavored yogurts. Chocolate chip cookies, pita and hummus, and pre-stuffed raviolis.

And then the loaded zombie, who forgot to grab a shopping cart and was too engaged to return to the front, arms full of his precious goods, chanced upon a beam of light shooting forth from the dairy section. As if divine inspiration had settled upon him, the zombie found the final missing key.

Chocolate milk

Friday, May 8, 2009

I'm Working On It

I apologize for the lack of posts of late. If you thought that tax season, or finals in a tough academic college, or a bad relationship were stressful, you'd never believe what the last month of advanced training is like for an IDF infantry soldier. Proof is in the pudding: I can barely walk at the moment, and I'm not even injured.

At least I have the ideas for what I'm going to write! Let's just hope I can muster the strength.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Crazy Eyes At His Best

I promised myself that I wouldn't talk about basic this long after it, and also that I would let my old commander, Yonni (Crazy Eyes), leave the blog gracefully. But, during guard duty at 3am the other night I was talking with the guy who was posted with me and we got to the topic of that old commander. We shared our favorite stories, commiserated a little, and then he explained to me something that I wondered about a long time ago.

You see, Crazy Eyes and all the other guys tend to do things that just seem ridiculous. Every time it happens, I'm pretty sure there must be a reason and that I'm just missing it. Well, this was one thing that I definitely didn't understand, and there was a reason. I've said a few times that the commanders like to have fun with us, and all the more so when they think they're attacking weakness. Here's the best example I can give:

One normal day at the shooting range a kid named Liav complained about a pain in his knee. The day before, Liav had received a sheet of paper which stated that he had permission to not put too much stress on the knee. So, during a long break in shooting where we had to stand in formation without moving, without talking, Liav raised his hand and said that he needed to sit down.

"Yonni," Liav called out, "I need to sit down. My knee hurts."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah, I have permission from the medic."

Walking over to Liav, Yonni put his hand out and asked for the bettim permission.

Reading out the sheet, Yonni said in a clear, declaratory voice, "Liav has permission to sit for 10 minutes out of every hour." Yonni handed the sheet back to Liav, and turned around with his head down. He walked back inside the shooting range concrete shelter, and we all heard the staff sergeant's gearbox open and close. A few seconds later Yonni walked out with a smile on his face. A sly smile.

A piece of rope was in his hand. He pointed to a rock the size of a volleyball. Liav went over to the rock as instructed, strained to pick it up, and then huddled back to Crazy Eyes with the weight between his legs.

"Liav," Crazy Eyes began. "You'll get your sitting break every hour, but you're going to earn it." He then proceeded to tie the heavy stone to the back of Liav's vest, where he carried it from the rest of the day.

It was pretty much the funniest day ever.