(I'm really putting myself out there on this one, in terms of one of the pictures. And I've had a hard time writing, so I'm gonna be experimental. So, you better enjoy it.)
PART I: INTRODUCTION
Nearly a year ago, in the beginning of advanced training, I had a conversation with one of our new commanders about what it's like to have finished the first year in the army. We were pulling guard duty together in the middle of the night, at the front gate of the training base. I was super-green in the army, only about four months in, and he was a brand new commander. I wondered who this guy was, and what he could tell me about earning the coveted Warrior's Pin.
In the Israeli Army, you have what is called a maslul. That's your training path, and "path" is the literal translation of that word. Every unit differs in their training cycle. For some jobnikim, they only have basic training for a month or so, and then a month and a half course, and that's it. Within a few months, they're "full soldiers." Short and sweet.
For us combat soldiers, however, we have to suffer a little longer. The infantry maslul is about a year. For the brigade-level special forces guys, it's just a few more months, and the elite SF have much longer. It all depends on the unit. But whether or not you're suffering for a year, like us, or two years, like Sayeret Matkal (Delta Force/SAS), you're suffering all the same. In terms of the niceties of life, a soldier in "training" will soon forget that they even exist. Breaks for free time are rare. When you eat, and who you eat with, is strictly dictated to you before each meal. Privileges are hard to come by, and easily retracted. Essentially, the comfort level is minimal, as you can imagine.
That's your first year. Or it's supposed to be. My platoon, because we were sent to a special company and are qualified for a unique and complicated weapon, got to basically skip the final four months of our maslul because that weapon comes with a long training course. We call that "Danny-Luck" where I come from. But either way, when you're a rookie, you're a rookie, and that's been the essence of this introduction.
PART II: THE POINT
I was standing in the middle of the night with that fresh out of commanders' course kid, just a 19-year-old, and wondering out loud what it's like to finish the training cycle. Having just started advanced training, and knowing that it was going to be the hardest, most physically and emotionally demanding months of my life, not a small amount of worry and stress drove me to explore his reality. I asked him what it "felt like" to finish the cycle.
"Wow. You don't know yet, but advanced training is BAD. Lots of guys aren't going to make it. You've never ran so much or carried so much heavy gear in your life. It's almost impossible. And then the four months after that, when you leave the training base but are still "in training," you're just itching to finish. It's amazing. And you know what? When I go home after a hard few weeks, and listen, we were in the commanders' course for 35 days or so when Operation Cast Lead broke out, so we were going a little crazy... I go home after a couple weeks on base, missing mommy and girlfriend, and take off my dress uniform. I hang my shirt up, and just admire the pin. It takes a while for it to set in and seem real, but that pin..."
He trailed off mid-sentence as the late February winds whistled mist off the walls of our stucco guard shack. I couldn't help but stare at this kid and marvel at his innocence. On the one hand, as far as I knew, he had suffered through a nearly unbearable advanced training course, and that was commendable. At the time, I was amazed at anyone who had finished what I had heard was hell. But really, on the other hand, the right hand, the hand of my own experiences in life, I knew that he had only really lasted for a year in a strictly-controlled environment. A year, to me, is nothing. It's a wink of the eye. A year in the army is slightly different, but time passes no matter where you find yourself.
And so, while I kept his positive perspective and motivation in the back of my head during the worst hours of the War/Hell Weeks, I also remembered how I felt standing next to him. He was no more important than anyone in the army, certainly no more experienced, and he had simply survived for a year longer than me. For what? A pin? Trust me, I wanted that pin just as badly as anyone: To walk through the Tel Aviv train station on a Friday morning with an "I Am A Real Golanchik" sign on your chest... You can sense that desire in this post from January 2009. But still, at the time I was too far away from getting that pin to really feel some sort of yearning. It was just too far.
Father Time had only just flipped his hourglass.
PART III: THE CEREMONY & THE PIN
By October of 2009, however, our turn had come to become Israel's newest full-Golani infantrymen. I, like that new commander I had months before, had survived the first year. There were no fireworks in my heart, and no great wave of emotion swept over me. I lasted. We had our Pin and End of Maslul Ceremony, where my roommate and two good friends were present, and went home. I hung up my dress shirt, and stared at my newest, and final accruement to my uniform. It just was.
Don't get me wrong. When my commander stuck those sharp pins into my skin, as is customary for most combat units, I was ecstatic. I'm not sure that I was so happy for the pin, as much as I was for the ability to strut like a peacock in public. It all seems so silly, and I know I'm way too old for it, but you can't help showing off when you've worked your butt off for a little piece of metal on your chest. This form of motivation lends itself to vanity.
PART IV: FINAL ANALYSIS
I almost forgot where I was going with this! Ah, what a difference Time makes! That fact of life seems to be a constant theme of mine, like Doestoyevsky's redemptive suffering, or Thoreau's solitude and nature. I've grown so much in the army, from an inexperienced foreigner to a front line 'warrior.' Just look at this picture taken the first week of the army:
And now, after exposing a picture that I promised myself would stay locked and hidden away from any eyes besides mine, feast your eyes on what a real soldier looks like. This one was taken right around October, when I received my pin:
Those two snapshots in time, one taken for novelty, the other taken for prosperity, reveal pure and raw growth. When I had that first picture taken, I thought it would turn out like the latter. I was sadly mistaken, and quickly realized that once viewing it on the full computer screen. The second, however, was taken by a friend after a foot patrol that left us all feeling like dogs, totally exhausted, but alert for our next mission. It was not planned or choreographed. It simply was.
And so, Time, that demon in the night, the passage between then, here, and another then, unravels itself before us at the most unexpected moments. We have to grasp it, the moment, and hold it however long we can. Like a man clutching a loved one hanging from a cliff for dear life, we have no option but to last as long as possible, to not let go, to savor this exact point in time.
"Defer no time, delays have dangerous ends." As true as Shakespeare says, there is no more important heartbeat than the one that beats now. I look at these photos, and I look at my pin fastened onto my dress shirt, and know that I have captured a moment to the best of my ability. I shy away from giving imperatives, but I know this now to a degree that I never expected from simply being a soldier, just a number, another helmet:
If you wait, and if you do not chase the present with an eye to the future, you'll never move forward.