Saturday, March 19, 2011

1 Year in Service

So I'm just about half way through commanders' course and things are going swell. I was hoping to write this blog about a month ago but I've been pretty busy with everything in the course. Last month was my 1-year "anniversary" in the army. In Hebrew it's called a Pazamuledet. Pazam is an abbreviation for Perek Zman, or time in service, and the "uledet" part comes from Yom Huledet or birthday. I thought it would be appropriate to summarize and reflect on my army experiences until now.
I've gone through so much and learned heaps so it's difficult to summarize my service up until now. I came to the Paratroopers knowing virtually nothing about the army other than the bits and pieces of advice family friends had given me and the forums I read online. Before I was drafted I found it extraordinarily frustrating that whenever I would ask former or current soldiers for advice I would get broad and non-specific scraps of information that I couldn't grasp and would not help me in the slightest. I can now understand why they answered so vaguely...although it is still not excusable. Let me begin.
Most of the army is shit -- it's pain, it's suffering, it's not fair, and it doesn't take personal sob stories into consideration. This is where most soldiers become bitter and are therefore less willing to talk about their service. You can think of it as a sort of disillusionment. After dealing with all the difficulties of the army for so long, when someone young and inexperienced asks for advice about how to "go about the army", it's difficult to put into words and sentences the billions of scraps of wisdom that you've acquired. This is why I try to explain everything on this blog -- it's my opportunity to counter the cynicism that is carried like an anvil by most soldiers and causes them to simply shew away silly questions by younger soldiers.
During basic and advanced training, life was easy yet so hard. We were still fresh so we had the energy to run and jump and crawl and get beaten up. Also, our days were structured like an architectural masterpiece so we didn't have to worry about spare time -- there simply was none. Sure it was extraordinarily painful physically and exhausting mentally, but we had all found our own personal band of brothers and we were working through it together and becoming warriors. After training, we moved out to Kav, or border duty, and started the laborious and oftentimes unrewarding tasks that are included in protecting the border. It was a breath of fresh air to suddenly not have such a binding structure choking us every minute of everyday. I remember when we first got to Kav, one of my commanders pulled out a cigarette and lit up and said, "Well guys, it's official. We're on Kav." This is significant because during training the commanders would NEVER smoke any where near us. We were introduced to the older, more experienced soldiers in our battalion and unfortunately a lot of what many of them had to say was disheartening. The attitude in the battalion is that of something like a fraternity. The younger guys have all the hard tasks in addition to many restrictions such as: if an older soldier wants to watch TV, the younger soldier has to get up from the couch, or the younger soldiers are not supposed to ask the vatikim (older soldiers) what date they were drafted, etc. Kav is difficult because you don't get out as often as you did when you were in training. We did what was called 17/4 -- or 17 days on base and 4 at home. I actually liked it because the 4 days at home are heavenly after having showered just 4 times during the 17 and after having endured many sleepless nights. The next stop in my army journey was commanders' course. One of the most difficult aspects of going out to commanders' course is that after living without rigid structure for 3 months, I had to adjust back to the mentality of constant scheduled classes and activities and challenging weeks in the field. Also, and this comment won't be looked upon favorably by soldiers in other brigades, I find that as a whole the population in the paratroopers is can I put this? Agreeable? As a whole, I have found that the guys with me in commanders' course tend to be a step down compared to the general population in my original brigade. This has made me somewhat socially isolated in the course but not because I don't interact with others but rather I choose not to. That might sound snobbish but at this stage in the game, I would rather invest my energy in the course and not in dealing with the bullshit that's thrown at me from the other soldiers.

During the stages of the army that I have just listed, soldiers undergo many changes. Some become quieter while others become more extroverted. Some get restless while others become calmer. In analyzing myself I have realized several things. I have become less attached to what others think. As a result I am quieter, more introspective, more serious, and have gained confidence. As a whole I believe the changes are positive and have made me a much stronger person although people have mentioned the army has made me a bit darker, more withdrawn. Maybe it's just me but I have found that in order to go through the army and truly become the soldier that the IDF attempts to mold you into, you have to turn to stone at times. There are so many disappointments in the army whether it be related to people, poor facilities, lack of food and sleep. In order to overcome these obstacles you have to turn off your emotions and become a robot that doesn't feel. The problem I have seen with some soldiers is that they have turned off their emotions for too long and have forgotten how to turn them back on -- how to feel, how to relate to others, how to empathize. They have forgotten how to empathize in the sense that when a younger soldier, scared out of his wits and not knowing how to tie his shoes, asks them a seemingly sophomoric question they retort with a blunt, sarcastic remark that leaves the new recruit bewildered and disheartened. This treatment of younger soldiers seems cruel but it's actually just a result of the stress of the army on the average 19-year-old Israeli teenager who would rather be intoxicated beyond comprehension at a frat party at Penn State than in dirty army fatigues with a sore lower back and calloused callouses on his feet.
My time in the army has taught me not to blame or hate these soldiers, but at the same time not to excuse their lack of passion and empathy. The army is difficult but I have gained immense knowledge and wisdom from it and have gained tools to help me deal with any obstacle life may throw at me. It's funny how much duality there is in the army. It has damaged me yet made me stronger. It has made me duller in someways and sharp as a blade in others. The most puzzling aspect of the army for me is its almost drug-like affect it has on soldiers. We want to be discharged tomorrow and never have to speak of the military again yet at the same time we need the structure and the challenges that it provides us with. The army is a beast that if you try to hunt it and kill it it will tear you into pieces but if you understand it and abide by its codes and rules, it will take you places.

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