Friday, January 28, 2011

Lessons from Gaza and Navigations

Since the last time I blogged I returned home for a 3-week furlough, came back to Israel (or more specifically to the Gaza border), and now am finishing up the preparation course for commanders' course. Let's dissect.

The vacation at home was truly wonderful and I valued every second that I had with my family. I especially valued my time sitting in front of the fireplace in our warm living room watching the embers crackle and enjoying the serenity of "Bayit" (home in Hebrew). While I was home I got to fulfill many of the things I'd been dreaming about during frigid 2-hour guard duties at the most ungodly hours of the night such as: watching one-and-a-half seasons of 24 and dozens of movies I'd missed over the last year, eating my Mom's cooking and spending time with everyone during Thanksgiving, seeing a lot of my friends and talking about where life has taken us over the past few years since we last saw each other in high school, and above all simply enjoying the tranquility and predictability of what is life in Potomac, Maryland.

Before I went home I had been doing border duty with the rest of my brigade on the Gaza Border for about a month and a half. When I came back I dove right back into the tiring schedule of protecting this country's borders but not before being welcomed back warmly by all my buddies. Warm embraces, kisses on the cheek and playful ridicule for "leaving them to rot on the border while I was living in the lap of luxury" were abundant when I returned. Everybody was very happy to see the bags of M&Ms and Reese's and other sweets that I unloaded from my duffel as well as the army supplies (army tape, para-cord, and other things) I had managed to squeeze into my suitcases. After only a few hours of being back on my outpost I was already back in the swing of monotonous guard duty, exhausting patrols, and never-ending kitchen duty. While Gaza is not as dangerous and turbulent as it was at the end of 2008 before Operation Cast Lead it is by no means just another quiet Arab village where you can fall asleep on patrols. More often than not we were under some sort of awareness level for mortar shellings, kidnappings, or other pleasantries that the Hamas had in store of us. Once you're in an environment like that for an extended period of time it changes you. It didn't have a profound effect on my core personality but I am different, even if only slightly, as a result of it. Loud sounds coming from the factory next to where I live on my Kibbutz in the North raise my blood pressure and keep me alert while others may just ignore it or not even notice it. Once you have had to wear a ceramic flak jacket while chopping onions or washing dishes in kitchen duty because of a mortar warning followed by the announcement on the loud speaker that there are mortars falling in the area, you seem to be more wary of the staccatos that occur in normal, everyday situations. Another hardship endured on the border is the lack of hygiene. Due to the need for there to be teams on standby to jump to the fence or neighboring Kibbutzes and settlements at all times, soldiers are prevented from taking their shoes off or taking a shower for up to a week at a time. You heard me -- one week without seeing your feet or your belly button. You not only feel the stress border duty brings when you hear someone yelling from a guard post on the radio, "Who's coming to switch me?!?! They're late a half-hour and I haven't slept in 2 days!!" but you also see the physical evidence of the tension. The outpost is riddled with thousands of cigarette butts that have been inhaled down to the last granule of tobacco right before the filter, the long and tired expressions on almost every soldiers' face resulting from not sleeping more than 3 hours at a time in more than 5 days is overwhelming, and the stuffiness of the rooms where 10 soldiers (who, as may be inferred from above, do not smell like roses) inhabit a space of approximately 6 by 5 meters is oppressive and nerve-wrecking. But having stated all of the facts of why border duty is unpleasant I feel obliged to counter with the fact that it is common knowledge throughout my company and most other combat companies and battalions and brigades that if we were not there doing this then the team of terrorists living in Khirbet-Akhzea, right across the border about 2 km from us, that has tried numerous times to plant large bombs next to the fence would surely cross the border and kill dozens of innocent civilians in the area. To paint the picture a little clearer, these civilians would include the ordinary people living on the kibbutz that is located right next to my outpost where we often use their supermarket to buy morale-raisers such as Bamba, or cookies, or tea and coffee. One of the victims would be the elderly Argentinian lady who moved to Israel about 30 years ago but still speaks with an accent who keeps the supermarket open when she sees me coming even though it closed 10 minutes before because she knows that because of us they are safe. Another victim would be the old man with his walker making his way to the Chadar Ochel (dining hall) for lunch who can't hear very well but smiles very warmly as if he were your grandpa every time he sees you. The final victim who is hard to think about would be the little girl of about 7 years of age with short pigtails and olive skin who dawns a devilish yet really cute grin that says in a chipper and slightly embarrassed squeak, "Todah Raba Chayal!" when I pass by on one of my runs.

Border duty can be very mind-numbing and as a result many soldiers feel neglected and broken after too long on the border but remembering what we are guarding and what is at stake, as corny as that might sound, is critical. Getting a grip of yourself and remembering why I am doing this always refocuses the picture and humbles me into continuing my service as best as I can without focusing on the difficulties of doing what I believe in.

The last topic I want to write about is commanders' course. I am now finishing up the preparation course engineered to help us pass the entrance exams into the commanders' course itself. The preparation lasts a month while the overall course (including the preparation) is 4 months. The first week of preparation we had about 13 hours of classes a day in which we went over all the material we learned from basic and advanced training as well as some new material. The second week was navigations, or orienteering. This was one of the most interesting weeks because you start to feel more comfortable with "getting around" in the wilderness although there is still a long way to go. Many people without military experience don't know this but going out into nature and feeling like you have some sort of idea of how the landscape flows is an incredibly empowering and calming experience. I am now finishing up my 1-week vacation and next week we have what's called the "Marathon Week" where we go over all the last minute things to prepare for the course.

I think I was chosen to go out to commanders' course mostly for my work ethic. While my fitness level is respectable it is by no means overpowering or intimidating. I was blessed with a healthy and well-functioning brain but there are definitely other guys in my unit who are naturally smarter than I am. What I have which I think is a quality the army appreciates is that I make the hard decisions based on rationality and what needs to be done rather than what will be easiest and what will hurt the least. This is an important trait in the army because there is no small amount of hardship in day-to-day life but somebody has to bite the bullet and do it. This means that at the end of a hard forced march where everybody is exhausted and you have shooting pains in your muscles in your upper-back, you offer to put the radio and the stretcher back in the storage closet. It also means that when someone has a family event on Shabbat but can't leave the outpost unless somebody else stays, you volunteer to stay even though you also had commitments. In order to be a good soldier I have had to sacrifice a lot and it has been very challenging at times. Some of those sacrifices have been relationships (with girlfriends and just friends in general), free time on weekends, my body (I've sustained numerous injuries that I doubt I will every fully recover from), and many other things. As I said earlier in this post and in several other blogs, my determination and love for Israel have made it all worth it. Every thorn lodged into my thigh and neck, every blister turned green, every freezing night I spent sleeping with my combat vest on me and my gun across my chest in the wilderness -- I wouldn't take any of it back because I know that I'm still doing what I believe in and what I love. I'll end the post with a metaphor from navigations. You have a starting point, an ending point, and several points in between that you must pass through. The trouble hits you between each of these point or even at the points themselves. You lose your orientation and you all of a sudden have no idea where you are. The best things you can do are the following: don't panic, find the north, go to the place where you last knew where you were located, and most importantly maintain a clear idea of where you came from and where you are trying to end up.


Zack Steinborn said...

Wow Ben this is truly amazing to read, it really gives me an incite into what your daily life is like. It is too bad that we couldn't find a time to meet up when I was in Beer Sheva but I hope that we meet again at some point in the future. Stay Safe.


Ruti said...

שבת שלום, בן
תודה על ששלחת לי את מה שכתבת. הרגשתי שאני איתך, טעמתי את החול בפה , הרחתי את הריחות, התקררתי והתחממתי
איתך, חייכתי לעולה מארגנטינה ולזקן הנחמד והכרתי את הילדה הביישנית והחייכנית. התיאורים שלך לקחו אותי בחזרה לימים שיגאל שירת בעזה ועשה את מה שאתה עושה היום. דבר לא השתנה, רק השחקנים וכלי המלחמה.
אני מאחלת לך הצלחה בקורס הקצינים ואני יודעת שאתן תהיה קצין לדוגמא! אתה הוא דמות המנהיג שצ׳יקו קיווה לראות בחניכי ביה״ ס.
שמור על עצמך! גאה בך ואוהבת, רותי