Saturday, December 24, 2011

Human APC -- Basic and Advanced Training for the second time

An Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) is a large armored vehicle that is used often by the IDF to transport infantry forces in battle. It is incredibly sturdy, like the soldiers it carries, and can hold up to 10 soldiers (8 soldiers, the driver, and the commander). While its durability and capability to endure gunfire are impressive, if the APC flips over the result can be catastrophic. If an APC flips with soldiers inside the soldier is instructed to do nothing but grab on for dear life to the strongest place within reach (preferably close to him). The symbolism of this event is profound.

I have not blogged for a while and much has happened since the last time I've written. I went home in June for a little over 2 weeks and very much enjoyed my time with family and friends. When I came back I went directly into staff preparations for my next job. Being a commander of new recruits turned out to be a much tougher position than I had ever expected and in hindsight I believe it has been the most difficult period of my service for numerous reasons. Being responsible for 15 adolescent, Israeli males acclimating to their new military surrounding is something like being a cross between a prison guard, a teacher, and a babysitter (in other words, a parent). Probably the biggest challenge of the job is the constant pressure being applied from both directions -- from the soldiers below and from the commanding officer above. On the one hand I am in direct contact with soldiers so I must take care of all their needs but on the other hand I have a mission to complete which is making sure that these new recruits become disciplined warriors fit to guarantee the safety of the Jewish State and its citizens. On one side of the balance is my humanity and attending to my soldiers requests and needs and on the other is my commitment to raising the next generation of the IDF's warriors in the proper manner. As a commander in basic training I enjoyed the pleasantries of between 3-4.5 hours of sleep on average, virtually 0 free time due to constant meetings and supervision of my soldiers, and the obligation to make sure that I sound and look professional at all times (leading by personal example is an important value of the Israeli Army). The difficulties of the job were a given and although stressful I managed. What really started to push me into trouble was the fact that I was not using my rights as a lone-soldier to take days off, get off early in order to get home before the supermarket closes, and many other things that are imperative for lone soldiers to do in order to stay sane. I talked with my family about once every 2 weeks and basically severed all my ties with friends from back home (as well as here). When I say there is no time, I mean to the point where if I had the choice of calling home or sleeping in an arm chair in the commanders' quarters for 10 minutes before I had to go out to the soldiers again, sleep won out every time due to over-exhaustion and stress. When I got home on weekends I would mostly sleep or go out to the pub to get drunk beyond what was necessary. Something I have not shared on this blog because of its taboo nature is that about a year-and-a-half ago (around the time of my advanced training) I started smoking cigarettes on a regular basis. At the beginning of this job, as a result of the overwhelming pressure, my nicotine intake skyrocketed to nearly a half-a-pack a day. I said in the beginning of this blog that I would be brutally honest about my reality here and so there it is -- honesty. My time off at home was no longer a luxury but rather an extended period of time away from my soldiers and officer that simply made Sundays dreadful. In short, the stress was mounting and I was headed for a breakdown. About a month ago, right before we went down for a difficult week in the wilderness, I got to the point where I smoked a pack in a few hours. I was becoming more depressed by the day and couldn't remember the last time I was happy. I would go days on end without smiling or laughing. My point is -- the APC was starting to tip and with not too many strongholds to reach out to I grabbed for the one place that no matter what has always been stable -- family. My Dad came to Israel for a few days and while I was getting things sorted out with myself after the trip, the following week I hit rock bottom. We had a tough week in the wilderness and I was nearly despondent that entire week. I had anticipated that the break would hold me over for a period and that things would get better. That week was one of the worst in my life. I couldn't bring myself to even fake a smile, I wasn't talking with the other commanders, I wanted nothing to do with my unit anymore, and more importantly, I just wanted to get out of this job and into somewhere else. I started to calm down toward the end of the week and since then I have returned to my old self. I've been analyzing what happened that caused this near breakdown and I've come to the conclusion that it's nothing too specific but rather accumulated wear-and-tear and I wasn't taking care of myself like I should have. The soldier is issued solutions to many problems: you have a cold -- take a sick day and these pills, your gun is dirty -- oil it and clean it, your equipment is faulty -- you'll be issued new equipment. The one thing the army does not have a solution for is Shvizut or what can be translated as Broken-Dick Syndrome. The unbearable Sundays when you have to fight hordes of soldiers with elbows and fists just to get on the bus, the incessant and cruel ringing of the alarm clock at 04:45 am that instructs you to get up and shave and polish your shoes even though you set the alarm only 3 hours before at 01:38 am, the soldier that refuses your order and says he hates you and doesn't care about this stupid army anyway, being chewed out by your officer for not remembering to send 2 soldiers to the kitchen for kitchen duty, the missed call from an old friend that you know you don't have time to return. In June 2010 I had the energy to not talk to friends and family all week, to do kitchen duty for 15 hours straight, to walk so many kilometers with 60 pounds on me that my feet would bleed and my shins would quiver and crack, to generally internalize everything no matter how bad it got. My mistake was that I did not recognize that this is not a lifestyle -- it's a method that when used for too long starts to take its toll. Jarhead is an excellent portrayal of the burnout of the average infantry soldier so if you've seen it you'll know what I'm talking about. My soldiers are now in advanced training and I only have another 2 months left until they finish. When they finish, I only have about 4 months left in teh army and what I have planned should not be too challenging. I think a lot about what I want to do after the army but I don't really have any concrete ideas yet. For the most part I'm doing a lot better than I have been for the past several months. Like the old saying goes, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

1 comment:

Zack Steinborn said...

Insightful. I enjoy reading your posts. Good Luck. Stay Safe. Keep blogging.